BATTLEFIELD, VETERANS REMEMBERED, SIGNAL CORPS PHONES and THE WATERHOUSES AT WAR
through Aug. 10 | Art and History Museums – Maitland, 231 W. Packwood Ave., Maitland | 407-539-2181 | artandhistory.org | $3
Maitland’s sense of place lurks away from the godawful 17-92 strip, back there behind the railroad tracks, the dead Winn-Dixie and the cheesy mock-historical city hall. The Maitland Art Center is where it’s at, baby, and it’s been so for the last 77 years. Down by Lake Sybelia you find the Art and History Association’s cultural complex, including the Waterhouse Residence Museum, the Carpentry Shop Museum, the Research Studio (the Art Center’s original and more authentic name), the tiny Maitland Historical Museum and the even tinier Telephone Museum. This suite of spaces hosts exhibits this summer that personalize war, showing who fought and how.
The Telephone Museum, a shed behind the Historical Museum, gets the prize for quirkiest and most hidden of Central Florida’s cultural spaces. Full of antique telephone equipment, it has a small display called Signal Corps Telephones that portrays communications technology of the early 1940s in all of its steampunk glory. As I read the detailed “Instructions for Operation,” I wondered how one could possibly calculate transmission loss or conduct a loop test with enemy shells exploding overhead, but contextual explanation is not offered.
In the front of the Historical Museum, Veterans Remembered personalizes and localizes several wars, going back to the Civil War. After this conflict, explains curator of history Christine Madrid French, “many of the opponents gathered together in Maitland, reconciled their differences, and went about business and social life together.” William H. Waterhouse, who was stripped of his medal and taken prisoner by Confederates, had the medal returned to him 50 years later when he was retired and living in Maitland. War can be a dehumanizing force, but it seems the bureaucracy of war can give back some dignity over time.
The Historical Museum’s small foyer is densely packed with uniforms, photographs and compelling stories of bravery. Fact reigns supreme in this space, in contrast to the larger gallery at the Art Center, which magnifies and intensifies the war with artistic interpretations of the battlefront.
André Smith, founder of the Research Studio, was an Army combat artist in World War I, in a unit of the Army Corps of Engineers formed before cameras were ubiquitous. A group of drawings, watercolors and exquisite little etchings depict Europe’s battle-scarred towns and people in Smith’s unmistakable hand. Smith’s work is presented alongside more contemporary (and, to varying degrees, more conceptual) takes on war by three other artists.
Kevin Haran’s cardboard sculptures accurately model warships, fighters and tanks out of colorful cereal boxes, candy wrappers and other wastage from our peaceful and joyously consumerist lifestyle, symbolically disarming our terrible weapons by way of visual irony. Haran’s compulsion to make the tanks and aircraft cute (“Butter” and “Honey” logos displayed on a battleship, for example) neutralizes their power.
Steven S. Gregory’s wall-mounted sculptures are similarly playful, made of actual toys, but they have a different message. His sculptures are compositions depicting the chaos of war using tiny toys all coated in a burnished gold finish, and even though they’re recognizable as toys, they take on an ominous appearance. “The Puppet Master,” a male figure, stands over a chaotic scene of soldiers, guns and Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots. Yet they are not comical: The piece resembles a bas-relief lifted from an ancient Cambodian temple.
Complementing these are Ellen Susan’s portraits of individual soldiers. These are the dogface infantry of today’s Army. Susan laminates wet-plate collodion images onto wood panels for a sense of permanency; her process archives the otherness of war, the soldiers’ faces floating in gloom in a manner reminiscent of Civil War photography. “SPC Melvin Moore,” his dark face and eyes piercing the viewer, demands attention. “2LT Justin Roman” stares blankly as well, his war locked inside his own skull. These faces tell of the wars fought far away and deliberately kept out of our awareness. Susan’s ability to capture war through nothing but the faces of its fighters will remain with you. Superior field medicine brings soldiers back physically whole, but mentally, they are in a whole different world.
The opening of all four shows, fittingly, fell on the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Maitland’s exhibits give us a glimpse of that world to remind us of the men and machines of battle.