Falling somewhere between historical painting and photojournalism, Steve Mumford’s paintings depict warzones with American involvement through a mix of mostly fact and a slight hint of fiction. Recent Paintings, his ongoing solo show at Postmasters, consists mostly of works the artist made in the past year, although they are inspired by a series of past visits Mumford made to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo between 2003 and 2013.
Mumford’s paintings, some larger than life and others much more modest in size, show an emotionally introspective depiction of war, through desolate Middle Eastern landscapes, contemplative soldiers on the few breaks permitted by war, and an American soldier kneeling in prayer in a barren desert. These are neither paintings of the overbearing cruelties of war, nor do they glorify any particular aspect of it. These are paintings that humanize everyone and everything involved, both person and landscape alike. These are paintings of unsure and anxious soldiers, confused locals, and landscapes that bleed just like we all do.
Travelling to warzones on multiple occasions is not something most artists are keen on. Yet Mumford finds these turbulent environments as sources of emotionally complex inspiration: “I’m fascinated by the nature of life in a warzone: the fear, the bonding between members of a platoon, the intimacy brought about by a life-and-death situation. I’m also interested in the culture shock of Americans, young and often naïve or ignorant of local culture, trying to navigate its complexities,” Mumford explains to The Creators Project. “And of course, the Iraqis or Afghans trying to figure out the Americans. The sadness of loss, the loss of friends, the loss of innocence after the experience of war; these are themes art is capable of addressing.”
While on these trips, Mumford makes drawings of what is happening around him and uses these in combination with what he sees with his own eyes to create his paintings. But the artist doesn’t feel an obligation to depict everything exactly as it was: “In some cases I take liberties…For example I stayed at a small FOB in Samarra in late 2003, where a platoon of Army MPs were barracked. They were men and women all living together in a tiny former Iraqi police station, sleeping side by side, constantly getting hit with mortars and RPGs,” Mumford tells The Creators Project. “I found the closeness of the unit very moving, including the fact that, like any bunch of college-age kids thrown together, there was plenty of drama. The painting Female Barracks is loosely based on that, although I’ve made all the soldiers female… But the idea was still to depict the closeness, the familial yet also informally glamorous atmosphere of this group of kids.”
Although most of the show’s work depicts literal warzone scenes, the painting Text breaks up this trend. An all green canvas has the words “WHEN I ASKED YOU HOW MUCH SADNESS YOU HAVE” stenciled in white onto it. The work is more than your standard, declarative text art; it’s part of a larger series of paintings based on graffiti that Mumford saw on US bases. His first tag-turned-text painting, not included in the show, is a particularly potent and poetic portrayal of soldier life: “I wish I was Where I was When I was Wishing I was here.”