Initially, I chalked up the colorful gouges in the hallway plaster near the administrative offices of Grand Central Art Center to some sort of renovation. But on closer examination, I saw they weren't part of a clumsy patch job still requiring a coat of paint, but rather artist-in-residence Trinh Mai's unexpectedly visceral "War Wounds." Caught by surprise, the scarred and suppurating walls she created shoved me headfirst into a host of thoughtful contemporary issues that continue to resonate two weeks later.
Layers of cloth have been plastered into several spots. The materials have been sliced and frayed as though they're the victim of a knife-wielding slasher, with stringy, ripped edges symbolizing torn flesh. Some are tinged with green to suggest infection, with a yellow residue, reminiscent of pus, staining the area below the open lacerations. Looked at another way, the gashes are also tiny mouths, violated vulvas or a literal wailing wall of damaged, weeping eyes.
The scraps of cloth making up the wounds are different colors, many not overtly resembling flesh at all, yet successfully suggesting scar tissue captured at different moments of healing. The fresh reds and pinks reminding of newly damaged meat, and the beiges and yellows and browns of older, scabbed-over skin. The tiny sutures the artist has added to many of the pieces make it even more unsettling, since it's the last thing you would expect to see.
None of this is as grotesque as my words may suggest; Trinh's work is humane, poetic, more suggestive than explicit. That she's able to create this reaction with an inanimate object is much to her credit. The wall feels alive, in pain, driving our compassion to reach out and stroke it with our fingers, hoping to alleviate some of its suffering, but coming up short against its implacable continuity of drywall and necrotic "skin." The artist maintains that wounding is often necessary for change, the pain unwelcome but inevitable if transformation is to happen. The simplicity of her work reminds one of many recent horrors: uprooted refugees, the Mother of All Bombs, crocodile tears over gassed babies, lip service to various freedoms, the poisoned wall of bigotry, divisions within our own country—all real wounds too fresh and bloody for this work of art attempting to heal to be any consolation.
It's important that artist Gosia Herc-Balaszek's installation "Permanent Change of Station, Leave No Traces," which closed at Grand Central this past Sunday, also get a mention because it had much to offer, especially in context with Trinh's work. Herc-Balaszek haunted Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, sweeping in to claim carpeting stripped from the 7,300 family housing units maintained there. As dull as that may sound, the sectioned pieces, uncleaned and showing everything from encrusted food to bleached areas to what looks like possible shit stains, are all fascinating bits of anthropological archaeology. Hung on the walls of the gallery as if room-sized canvases, the carpets demand you get up close and personal with them, in the same way you would with a Rothko.
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There are circles overlapping one other, a bleached-out area, and rectangles (horizontal and vertical) that feel as if they could be abstract expressionist works of art. Evidence of the temporary place the Marines have there is in the impressions left in the carpets by their few sticks of furniture. There isn't much from what I can tell, most resemble the legs of Ikea sofas or cheap entertainment consoles. The vanishing of that furniture and the impressions in the carpet pile they've left behind is evocative, with Herc-Balaszek compounding it with a stack of door-frame pieces leaning against a wall.
Tidbits of information about the people who lived there are scrawled across them: neighbors' memories of pregnant wives, drunken brawls, screaming children, remembered faces but forgotten names. All of this surrounds a standing model of a four-story building that's never identified in the press materials. I'm assuming it's the Base apartments—they resemble a cross between barracks and campus dorms—but the windows and doors are imprinted rather than cut out of the building, preventing entrance or escape, visually a bureaucratic ziggurat, this one built for human sacrifice, not anything in which anyone could actually live.
Touching on the wholesale disposability of war—the young often the easiest victims, as soldiers or as "collateral damage"—Herc-Balaszek and Trinh remind us that those forgotten lives should matter. Until they do, there will only be more tears, unremembered names, wounds (psychic and physical) and more sutures needed to try to keep the damaged pieces together.
"War Wounds" at Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 567-7233; www.grandcentralartcenter.com. Open Tues.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Through May 14. Free.