Images of the wounds of war can be devastating. Whether it’s the iconic 1968 photograph of Marines evacuating an injured service member during the Battle of Hue in Vietnam, or the lesser known 2007 picture of Iraq and Afghanistan War amputees waiting in wheelchairs at Brooke Army Medical Center to meet President Bush, these and other freeze frames of the brutality of conflict have transformed the way people see war.
Photographer Susan Barron says she believes the invisible wounds of war are just as devastating as the ones you can see. As her series, “Depicting the Invisible: A Portrait Series of Veterans Suffering from PTSD,” suggests, the mental and cognitive impact of traumatic experiences like war, genocide and rape can be just as ruinous as a physical wound.
The Hunter Museum of American Art has borrowed the title of Barron’s series for a new exhibit that depicts the lasting psychological effects of wartime trauma. Each work represents a reaction to the life-changing experience that impacted either the artist or the person depicted.
Natalie Mault Mead, the Hunter’s associate curator, gave me a tour of the exhibit, which consists of six pieces. Despite its limited scope, the collection pulls the pin on an emotional grenade and challenges viewers to weather the shrapnel.
Located in a small room on the third floor of the Hunter’s mansion, the exhibit presents two of Barron’s collages from “Depicting the Invisible,” as well as thematically related works from the museum’s collection.
A sign posted on the wall just inside the room warns visitors that the exhibit contains mature themes and language, though this should be evident even before someone steps into the room.
Located on the far wall facing the entrance, a six-foot by six-foot canvas offers a large black and white photograph of Sgt. Renula Trotter, a victim of rape and a medic who was deployed with the soldier who assaulted her while they were stationed at Fort Drum in New York.
Trotter is sitting on a chair in a pair of tattered jeans, her elbows resting on her knees and her hands placed palm to palm and covering her mouth and nose.
Her words, scribbled in white against a black backdrop, surround her. “A star solider raped me. Who’s going to believe me?” she asks in one paragraph.
“I’m sworn to do my duty as a medic,” she continues in another. “But I cannot bear to save this guy who raped me.”
Arrows extend from her words and point toward three hashtags, including #metoo, #ptsd and #MSA (military sexual assault).
While Trotter’s hands hide most of her expression, her eyes seem to reveal a struggle to contain her trauma.
“When this piece was shown in New York, it was the first time Renula came out publicly with what had happened to her,” Mead said, placing a hand next to one of Trotter’s to emphasize the larger-than-life nature of the photograph. “It was the first time anyone close to her knew about her experience.”
When Trotter returned from war, she not only suffered PTSD from serving in a theater of combat but also carried the extra layer of sexual trauma. Barron somehow tells her story with a single photograph.
Keeping Trotter company on the same wall is Specialist Craig McNabb, who stacked body bags at ground zero after the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11 and was then deployed to war.
Like Trotter, Barron depicts Craig against a stark black backdrop and surrounds him with his words. “It was chaos,” begins a passage that cascades along his muscular right arm. An American flag is visible on the sleeve of his T-shirt, which stops short of what appears to be a tattoo of barbed wire on his bicep. “Other buildings are falling all around us. I can still smell the smoke.”
Further along, Craig writes, “I was always flashing back to what I’d seen of death. I’d see all the bodies in my head.”
Guests who take the time to read all of Craig’s story will learn that, even though his experiences still plague his memories, he’s using them to help others.
“Now I’m a peer mentor to other vets with PSTD,” he concludes. “I’m trained to talk them back from suicide. Believe me, I know what they’re going through.”
The exhibit also includes four pieces Mead pulled from the Hunter’s collection. Like “Rena” and “Craig,” these works explore the theme of dealing with wartime trauma.
In one poetically expressive painting titled “Lodz,” artist Miriam Beerman references Talmudic text (the central text of Rabbinic Judaism) and the Nazi-established Lodz Ghetto. Painting with a style that’s both “expressionistic and surrealistic,’’ Beeman communicates the trauma and suffering of the Holocaust.
Although Beerman did not experience the Holocaust firsthand, it clearly had an undeniable effect on her. “There are those who feel they have to bear witness, and I happen to be one of them,” a placard placed next to Beerman’s painting quotes her as saying.
While moving from one piece to another, Mead noted that the Hunter begins preparing its exhibitions about three years in advance. With this in mind, she says, they could not have anticipated “the tragedies this year would bring.’’
But instead of thinking of the exhibit as simply a portrait of suffering, Mead said she hopes it will provide people with a place of release.
“You can look at all the images within this small, intimate space and experience healing,” she added as she looked at Beerman’s haunting portrait.
“Depicting the Invisible” will be on display at the Hunter through Jan. 10.