University art flag exhibit sparks dialogue

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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - The student gallery in the Jot Travis building at UNR is showing the work of seven MFA students. It's an exhibit called "Paradoxical Existence." There are several signs warning of the explicit content and advising viewer discretion. One piece in particular is raising some eyebrows. It's called "Counterintuitive Revolt" and includes an American flag on the ground.

"It's offensive, honestly," said freshman Emily Cowlishaw. "I think it's really disrespectful, but I don't think that's the big problem here; I think it's more of a problem that the school is not responding to it when they've responded to other kinds of things."

Last month several swastikas appeared on a student graffiti wall in the art building.

"They sent out an email apologizing for the offensive nature of it; they painted over it immediately, and I think the same kind of thing should be done here," Cowlishaw said. "If they're going to censor some parts of our freedom of speech - which I totally understand because it is a campus - I think they have to censor all things that general, large groups find offensive."

The artist, Mark Combs, served in the Air Force for 22 years. He says he designed the piece to spark a significant conversation about change, stating, "Let me be clear, I revere our country and I revere our flag. I have personally draped the flag over soldier's caskets, carried their remains, and saluted them in respect and honor as they have been moved from base to base on their way home. This work is not about those experiences, nor is it "about" denigrating the flag; this work uses the symbolism of the flag to pose a question about the state of our country."

The University released a statement saying museum staff has the "utmost respect for all Americans who have worked to build and improve upon the organizing principles of our nation." It continues, "Art is at its best when it moves us – it has the power to pose questions and elicit emotion – it invites us to think and feel."

There's an opening reception November 2, 2017 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and a public critique Friday 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

The complete statements from the University and the artist are as follows:

UNR:

"Our museum staff have the utmost respect for all Americans who have worked to build and improve upon the organizing principles of our nation. We believe that the difficult moments when our sense of decency is challenged and our values are questioned are the moments that have the potential to remind us that our differences are what make us strong. In the context of our mission as educators and inspired by the founding documents of this nation which guide our work, we affirm our commitment to a communal and shared responsibility to forms of expression protected by the law including the creation and exhibition of works of art and to lawful disagreement with the sentiments expressed by works of art.

"Art history reveals centuries of artists dealing with controversial ideas in their work. Yes, this particular artwork utilizes the American flag (for what it symbolically represents), and yes, the content of the artwork is political in nature. Artists make comment, through their work, on the world we live in. Some works are overtly political dealing directly with human rights, social injustice, distribution of class/wealth/power, corruption, etc. Socio-political artwork is almost always controversial, as we do not always find ourselves on the same side of every issue. Art is at its best when it moves us – it has the power to pose questions and elicit emotion – it invites us to think and feel."

Exhibition Statement - Artist Mark Combs:

"This work falls outside of the normal realm of any of my previous or planned work in that it carries a strong political message. It captures the symbolic motion of change through the objects presented. The public often has to be shocked in order to react and though acts of appalling nature are occurring everyday there seems to be a serious lack of appropriate responses from our government and our people. My work is intended to shock and provoke a conversation that should be happening across the country. It questions, "Where is America?"

Biography:

Mark L. Combs served in the United States Air Force from October 7, 1987 to October 31, 2009. His twenty-two years of service included multiple deployments to virtually every combat zone since the first Gulf War and earned him multiple awards and decorations for his actions. In 2016 Mr. Combs received his Bachelors of Fine Arts from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas where he concentrated in sculpture and received a minor in Art History. His work was recognized by the International Sculpture Center when he became one of ten recipients world wide to be presented the Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award. Mr. Combs is a Masters of Fine Arts in Art Graduate Student at the University of Nevada, Reno where he continues to personally and professionally develop his art practice and train as a graduate teaching assistant in order to facilitate and inspire the next generation of artists.

I am writing the following statement in response to the recent social media and media interests regarding my artwork "Counterintuitive Revolt."

"Although this artwork is not about my being a military veteran, it seems relevant at this point to share my personal history; I am a retired twenty-two year, 100% service connected disabled U.S. Air Force Veteran. Let me be clear, I revere our country and I revere our flag. I have personally draped the flag over soldier's caskets, carried their remains, and saluted them in respect and honor as they have been moved from base to base on their way home. This work is not about those experiences, nor is it "about" denigrating the flag; this work uses the symbolism of the flag to pose a question about the state of our country. The flag symbolically represents our rights as Americans and serves as an icon of American freedom. The state of our current social climate and the reputation of our country worldwide cause me great concern. I don't believe the general population of our nation is solely responsible for current perceptions; I believe our leadership is tremendously liable. That is what this sculpture is about. The piece is intended to call into question our damaged image, and even question our tarnished American values.

"The title of this piece is Counterintuitive Revolt; displaying a damaged flag in this manner is not expected practice, but I believe a significant conversation about change is needed. My use of the flag in this manner hopes to raise dialogue. With that being said, I want to add that although altered for this artwork, the flag I worked with has been treated with the upmost respect. When removed from the gallery, it will be properly folded and destroyed in a dignified manner in accordance with Title 4, United States Code, Chapter One, Sections One and Two."