The grenade had to go. It was October 2005, and Jesse Albrecht, an MFA student at the University of Iowa and a recent Iraq War veteran, had just finished installing his final art show at a gallery space on campus. A few hours later, he was teaching a class in ceramics when a school administrator phoned him and told him the show would be shut down. The problem was not the fifty-caliber rounds he had arranged in the shape of a giant grinning skull on the floor, nor was it the looming sculptural forms whose hooded silhouettes evoked the prisoners of Abu Ghraib. It was a glittery object that looked very much like a combat-issue grenade. Albrecht tried to explain that it was a plastic dummy, doctored with duct tape, Bondo, and a coat of gunmetal-gray paint. He was told that didn’t matter. In a time when fears of terrorism ran high, he had to lose the grenade or he would lose the show.
Albrecht found the ultimatum difficult to swallow. In his eyes, the war and his art were inseparable. He had been in his second year at grad school, studying art, in September 2001, when the planes crashed into the towers. Eighteen months later, he was on his way to Mosul with the Iowa National Guard. Part of a unit attached to the 101st Airborne Division, he served as a combat medic, treating wounded soldiers, running security convoys, and bringing doctors and medical supplies to hospitals around the city in one of the soft-shell Humvees that would become emblematic of just how unprepared the US military was for the kind of war it found in Iraq. He found creative ways to cope. After reinforcing the Humvee with sandbags and soldered metal doors, Albrecht and one of his buddies fixed a long metal spike to its roof and christened it with a new name, which they wrote on the windshield in marker: War Pig. Meanwhile, his sketchbook became a repository for things he saw in the field: abundant graffiti, crumbling ruins, and the ghostly presence of Saddam Hussein, whose face appeared in tattered posters and on the faces of junk-shop watches.
When the insurgency picked up, and his aid station saw more action, Albrecht turned his uniform into a canvas, sketching dice and clovers along the inside of his cap and across the flaps of his medical kit. Every morning before heading out, he’d sit on his bunk with his cap in his hand and say the Lord’s Prayer. Keeping his thumbs and eyes on the clovers and dice, he’d pray not to have his arms and legs blown off. He’d petition for a quiet day at the station, for nobody to get hurt.
In September of the following year, Albrecht returned to art school, where Iraq would remain both his specter and his muse. He was twenty-six by then, with auburn hair, chiseled features, and a growing collection of tattoos. He had a crocodile plated in scales on his forearm, and a pinup girl reclining into a martini glass on his shoulder. On his chest he had inked a pair of eagles—the one that took him to war and the one that brought him back home. On campus he walked the hallways with the same kind of revved-up awareness that had helped him survive in Mosul, while his work became increasingly kinetic. In an illustration class, he transfigured his old Humvee into the character of a sinister-looking hog. “Thanks for the Memories, War Pig!” read the caption. Using charcoal, oil sticks, and a Bic four-color pen, he sketched scoffing, cartoony portraits of Saddam Hussein, half naked on a bed, glancing coyly over his shoulder, and others of himself holding a gun to his temple. In sculpture class, he confronted the memories of an attack that occurred in early November of 2004 and left two young soldiers mutilated. Albrecht had treated them both in his tent. Using Bondo and duct tape he made a grenade in honor of them, in memory of a day that Albrecht recalled as the “moment that ripped through everything.”
Meanwhile, many of Albrecht’s peers at art school had never seen a war. They watched them on TV. As he saw it, the closure of his show was one more example of the insulated American public. “They thought a fake grenade was scary? Try having mortars dropping down on you and the trailers where you sleep fifteen to twenty times day. Try sitting around waiting for people to die or get hurt,” Albrecht fumed.
He decided to stage a performance that would simulate his experiences in Iraq as closely as possible. “I wanted to remove the spin from the combat experience,” Albrecht explained. “I began to feel like I had to do something crazy to myself—to my actual body—in order to make them listen.” He began by forming an ad-hoc coalition called the Artists Against Expression, and recruited two of his closest friends—Dan Cox, a ceramics student who worked in the studio next door, and Adam Krueger, from the sculpture department—to join him as members. Together, the three of them hatched a plan to enact a series of frightening, unpredictable actions on campus over the course of three days. In effect, they planned to lay siege to the school, beginning with the “kidnapping” of Albrecht himself.
Two days later, Cox and Krueger pulled on ski masks and burst into a classroom where Albrecht was teaching. Students gaped and cowered as they watched the masked men tackle their teacher, bag his head, and drag him away. Later, in the dingy basement of Cox’s home, Albrecht made a statement on video while his friends stood behind him holding Glocks and rifles slung across their chests. Albrecht looked into the camera. His voice was careening and raw: “How many Iowans are in Iraq right now? You wanna see what’s going on in Iraq? I guess I didn’t get the handbook on how to make art. You can’t have anything be too real.”
Albrecht wanted the performance to echo the live terrorist executions that were streaming over the news. This effect would strike a nerve two days later when Cox, Krueger, and a growing group of masked recruits marched Albrecht back into the gallery, where they had installed the video among his other work. There, in front of a crowd of eighty to one hundred people, Cox forced Albrecht to his knees, punched him in the face numerous times, and pretended to slit his throat while bursting open a squid pack full of fake blood. The crowd fell silent as Albrecht slumped to the floor in a widening pool of corn syrup. Only a specter of the grenade remained: hours earlier, Albrecht had snuck into the space and scrawled a message across the wall in its place. It read, “When I close my eyes it doesn’t go away.”
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be watched on television and through social media in a way that no war had ever been—instantaneously and on perpetual repeat. By October 2005, the month in which Albrecht staged his performance, a war that was supposed to be over had taken several turns for the worse: the images of Abu Ghraib had shamed a nation, the Sunni insurgency had ripped through Mosul, and Bush had admitted that his prewar intelligence had been false. At home, the situation for veterans was becoming increasingly dire: a study released in 2005 found that of 168,528 Iraq veterans, 20 percent were diagnosed with psychological disorders. Those numbers would only get worse. By 2012, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, and suicides would become the signature wounds of the wars, and as many as 336,000 veterans would be affected by combat-related psychological trauma. Another generation of veterans was falling through the cracks.
The Very Public Murder of Jesse Albrecht, as the performance came to be known among his friends, was Albrecht’s cri de coeur. It was also in keeping with one of the central tenents of performance art: to collapse the distinction between art and life by radically upending the terms of public engagement with the art. Spurred by the horrors of the First World War, early performance art emerged as a way for artists to challenge the status quo—be it material, institutional, social, or political. As the early avant-gardist Filippo Marinetti argued in the Manifesto of Futurism in 1909: “Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry… Except in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece.”
Albrecht was particularly inspired by artists such as Nayland Blake, whose anarchic, sexually loaded performances throughout the 1990s simultaneously explored and challenged ideas about race and sexual identity. “Performance can be fueled by rage in a way that painting and sculpture can’t,” noted Judy Chicago, a visual and performance artist in the 1970s, and founder of the CalArts Feminist Art Program. Albrecht said his work was not explicitly anti-war, but like that of many artists before him, including Carolee Schneemann and Hermann Nitsch, it was a critique of social, economic, and political circumstances.
“Jesse was caught in a very powerful story when he came back,” David Dunlap, associate professor of painting and drawing at Iowa, said. To this day Dunlap shakes his head at the administration’s decision. “For the school to be so tone-deaf, one, as American citizens, and two, as an arts institution—it remains outrageous. You’d think [a performance like Jesse’s] would be a flagship for an institution. In many ways it was profoundly typical of the challenges many veterans were having, as if nobody wanted to know about the war.”
Albrecht grew up in Amherst, a railroading town of one thousand people in Central Wisconsin. It was the kind of place where Friday-night fish fries, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and the Packers formed a kind of holy trinity. His mother, Margaret, was a substitute elementary-school teacher. His father, Wenzel, worked as an art teacher but later became an engineer on the Soo Line. The family owned an antiques store with a workshop in the back. Crammed with wrenches and saws and Wenzel’s constant works in progress, the space was a tinkerer’s dreamland, artfully littered with half-finished paintings, collectible knickknacks, and furniture he had built through the years for his sons. When Jesse and his older brother, Adrian, were boys, they were obsessed with playing war—their grandfather had served in the First World War, and their uncles had served in World War Two—and Wenzel carved them grenades made of oak on his lathe. “They looked like little wooden pineapples,” Wenzel said. He remembered that Jesse had become interested in art in high school, and came home one day with a project he had made in class—a plaster cast of his face. “Jesse had cut a hole in the thing with a saw. I’ve got more of classical sensibility, so I was kind of shocked. But it was part of his sense of humor, part of his way of expressing himself.”
Albrecht carried this sensibility with him to art school in Iowa. By that time, he had already been in the guard for five years. He knew he would probably be deployed, and his friends recall him approaching his work with warrior-like intensity. “It was like his destiny to go to war and be in the military. He had this very romantic view of it and he brought that intensity to class,” said Jamie Doling, a friend and fellow student. The artist Dan Attoe, another Iowa alum, said he’d never forget the way Albrecht threw his body into a drawing. “It was kind of like watching this primal dance. We had a professor who encouraged us to play roles while we worked, and sometimes Jesse would tear off his shirt,” Attoe said, laughing. “It was like watching a caveman carving into a wall.”
In 2004, Albrecht began making sculptures that dealt with the scandal at Abu Ghraib. The forms stood anywhere from knee-high to five feet tall. With their hooded, nodding silhouettes, they resembled the images of the prisoners that had splashed across the news, the ones of shrouded men with outstretched arms and electrical wires hanging like strings from their fingers. Using his palms, Albrecht had given the clay a dimpled and battered quality, like an old stucco wall. He’d fired them once, applied slips of color—usually eggshell and chocolate—and then, while the clay was still soft, he’d dug in his chisel, carved out skulls and spades and hearts with smeared and dripping edges, or maybe a horseshoe, for luck. On one piece, a guard dog lunges and bares its teeth alongside a message: “Thinking of you.” Sometimes he had overlaid these images with a spray of graffiti, like “I Chose to Live, Nov 14, 03,” or Arabic lettering—“Praise be to Allah.” When he was finished applying these images, he had fired the objects one last time at temperatures so searing the clay often cracked in the fire. The objects would emerge from the kiln looking blasted and smashed, like ancient headstones or pieces of rock pried loose from the desert.
It would be hard to call these works beautiful. Better: savage. At the time Albrecht made them, he was suffering from nightmares so intense he’d wake up screaming. He was paranoid and hyperalert. While working in his studio, he often barricaded his door. If he heard a bump in the hall, the hackles on his neck would rise, a response he called “the muscle memory of war.” In his frantic state, he worked the clay differently than he ever had before—with violent, unthinking speed. “I wasn’t working off any aesthetic plan” in those days, he recalled. “I’d just have to work really quickly and get out of there.”
Like so many veterans before him, Albrecht had brought the war home. If, in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans found themselves in a new kind of war, their experience of it may call for a new kind of war art—art that can serve not only as therapy or release but also as self-critique. Art that is neither agitprop nor quietist but seeks to stir both its public and its creators out of complacency. A disruptive kind of art—art that explodes in the air and sometimes in the hands of its makers. Jesse Albrecht stands apart, but not alone, among veterans enlisted in making the art of this era.
In December 2012, I went to Berkeley to see Ehren Tool, a potter who is also a veteran of the Gulf War. Tool served in the Marine Corps during Desert Storm in the 1990s and later as a Marine guard in Rome. Now he lives with his wife, son, and mother-in-law, Marcia Donahue, a celebrated ceramicist and gardener, in a brown-shingled Victorian house that Donahue owns.
Tool makes ceramic cups, which his wife calls “war awareness art.” The day I met him, he appeared in the doorway of his home in a T-shirt, jeans, and a pair of suspenders. At six foot two, 320 pounds, with a buzz cut, he looked sort of like a handsome cousin of Shrek. His house, concealed behind a thicket of palms and bamboo, is a testament to Donahue’s style—a meticulous clutter of parasols, glittering tiles, and tall, exotic vessels.
In the kitchen, where a giant painting of the Buddha smiles down from the ceiling, we sat around a table crowded with plants and the elegant ceramic bulbs and garden sculptures that Donahue makes. Tool, who received his MFA in ceramics in 2005 from UC Berkeley, now teaches there, and he likes to call himself “the kiln fairy.” He pushed one of his cups across the table and I picked it up. It was the size of a coffee mug, sturdy and irregular, glazed an ethereal gray. Tool throws each of his cups on a “hump,” embosses the clay with a jolting mix of images, such as military insignias, pop-culture graphics, and porn. Then, along the bottom edge, he imprints a ribbon of texture that resembles a wall of sandbags, or the cross-hatching on a grenade. This tactile three-dimensionality enhances the play of Tool’s message: turn one of his cups in your hands and you’re likely to see a naked, gun-slinging woman on one side juxtaposed with George Bush’s face on the other, plus a fragment of text that might read something like “War in the end is always about betrayal.”
Tool said the cups are catalysts for exchanges and conversations that might not otherwise happen on their own. “Somebody picks one up and is like, ‘Whoa! Where’d you get this cup? That’s my Marine Corps insignia!’ And then maybe they start telling some story to their sister that they’ve never told before. The connection that people make with the work makes it more than just a cup.”
After Tool came home from the war, in 1994, he enrolled in art classes at Pasadena City College. He said he started making the cups as his “own weirdo little thing.” He sank back in his chair and explained: “What are you going to do with your life after you’ve been willing to kill and die for an idea?”
Later, under the tutelage of painter Ben Sakoguchi, whose canvases tackle socio-political issues (he reimagines, for instance, Monet at Giverny alongside a boy who is pushing a wheelbarrow and wearing what looks like a cap in the colors of the Mexican flag), Tool began to see his cups as something more than just containers. “[Sakoguchi] grew up in a Japanese internment camp,” he said. “He’s the one who told me, ‘All art is political. If your paintings fit comfortably in the lobby of JPMorgan Chase bank, overtly or not, they’re putting their tag on you, too.’”
This explains why Tool won’t sell his cups. He gives them to veterans and their families. He gives them to the homeless, and he gives them away at galleries. His work started gaining attention shortly after 9/11, at one of his earliest shows at a now-defunct gallery in Los Angeles. “People were like, ‘Wow! Your work is so timely!’ And I was like, ‘Well, it’s about the Gulf War, but whatever.”’ He sold one of the seven pieces he had for sale, and gave away the rest—about seven hundred and fifty.
When it became clear that America was going to war with Iraq again, he started the Letter Project, in which he sent a cup along with a letter to politicians, diplomats, and CEOs around the world.
September 11, 2003. Dear Mr. Riley Bechtel. I served in the Marines for five years. One day the marines will look back on what they did, and the value of their sacrifice. If your organization and other American corporations fail to help the Iraqi people in real ways, I am afraid it will be more difficult for the Marines to see the sacrifices they made as being of value. Please accept this cup I made as a gift. It is food safe.
Sincerely, W. A. Ehren Tool.
“I’m just kind of just lobbing them into the ocean,” Tool said. “So the cups are just floating through the world how they will, moving from hand to hand.”
At this point, Tool estimates he’s given away nearly fourteen thousand cups. His obdurate refusal to profit from his work has given him some pause; he worries about his son’s financial security, not to mention his own future. Call it naïveté or idealism, Tool’s mode of not-doing-business caught the attention of Judith Leemann and Shannon Stratton, a pair of Chicago-based curators who began exploring a question that unsettles many people: what is the value of working inefficiently in the world?
In 2008, at a conference in Dallas, Leemann and Stratton staged Gestures of Resistance, a show that focused on craft as an act of performance. Instead of showing finished objects, as most museums and galleries do, the curators showed artists at work. Artists kneaded clay, cut fiber, and knitted textiles for extended periods of time, performing what Leemann and Stratton described as “craft actions” that emphasized slow forms of labor. To work slowly, Stratton said, is to push against “scripted ways of working. It’s like putting a drag on something, carrying rocks in your pocket, or brakes on a cart you’re pushing.”
Similar to that of performance art, the history of craft in the twentieth century is one of resistance. Handcrafting objects was seen as a way of putting a spoke in the wheel of mass industrialization and its homogenizing effects on society and visual culture. This extended from the turn of the twentieth century through the postwar period, when, according to Jeannine Falino, in her book Crafting Modernism: Midcentury American Art and Design, “self-help literature counseled men and women to take up craft in the hope of finding their true personalities.”
In this way, craft also became equated with personal agency. By carving wood and weaving textiles, one could reconnect with the world. After the Second World War, the GI Bill was responsible for the craft educations of hundreds of thousands of veterans, who applied those skills toward jobs.
In 2010, Leemann and Stratton curated a second iteration of Gestures at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, in Portland, Oregon, where they invited Tool and six other artists to participate in sequential, three-week-long residencies inside a gallery. In his performance, Tool “exhausted” a supply of clay by making cups (he can throw a couple hundred cups a day, surely a testament to a certain kind of efficiency) while chatting with visitors about his work. He threw one cup after another and used them to build a barricade around the bench where he worked. Then, in his fashion, he gave the cups away. As Tool repeated this process over the course of the show—firing cups and giving them away—he remade the barricade’s boundaries as they rose and fell around him.
These boundaries could be seen as a symbol of the “collusion and collision” of military and civilian cultures, which is, in a way, what got him making cups in the first place. For a man who finds himself frustrated by the media’s representation of veterans and suspicious of politicians who use their plight for political gain, it was also a chance to design his story. “War is so totally removed, totally separated, but then you have these things like first-person shooter games, or movies like Hurt Locker, so that people think they know—Oh, man, that’s what it’s like,” he said. Of course, Tool will tell you that it is not what war is like, and by creating places where vets can pick up objects and use them as starting points to talk to their friends and families about what they’ve done and seen, he is trying to get a little closer to the truth.
Not that he’s overly optimistic. Tool recognizes that making cups may seem like a “pretty impotent thing to do in the face of war.” Leeman, however, would probably disagree. Speaking of craft, she has said, “It may not have the capacity to create or change policy in immediate ways. But it does have a ripple effect.”
To keep those ripples going, Tool staged another show called Production or Destruction at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles in the summer of 2012. He installed himself again, throwing cups off his wheel and giving them away to visitors. This time he brought one thousand cups with him. Glazed a glossy black, they looked like a cadre of miniature bombs, and Tool arranged them into formations of squads and platoons throughout the space. According to the director of exhibitions, Sasha Ali, Tool told her in advance of the opening that if anyone wanted to buy a cup, he or she would have to buy an entire platoon or squad—as many as five hundred cups—and that he would give that money away. Tool interspersed these formations with shards of shattered cups, which he’d shot with a pellet gun—a symbol of all the war dead. He captured the cup-shootings on camera and hung the photos along the gallery’s walls. In image after image a pellet collided with ceramic, unleashing a tiny explosion of dust.
Tool led me down to the basement, where we squeezed through stacks of boxes and cups, making our way toward the workspace he shares with Donahue. He picked up a scrap of paper and dipped it in water. Then he laid it gently along the surface of a cup, where it adhered like a membrane. “It works best when the water is warm,” he said. He pulled the paper away, leaving behind an image of a bomber plane. “So the cups are immediate, right? You push your thumb into it and you do your little thing, and it’s right now, you know, but then it goes through that fire and it lasts for five hundred thousand to a million years,” he went on. “You do that little five-pound trigger pull and that little piece of lead flies through the air and that person’s dead forever. And all the war dead, they don’t come back. All that potential is gone.”
Tool’s work has been called didactic, but that critique ignores its subversive poetry. He won’t call himself an antiwar activist, because he feels it would disrespect his fellow veterans and their families. Yet the meditative, ritualized, and idealistic quality of his installations hearkens back to the sit-ins, be-ins, and teach-ins that rippled through Berkeley during the 1960s and ᾽70s, not far from the shingled brown Victorian where Tool works today. Tool’s performances may not be as loud as the infamous staged bloodbath performed by the Guerrilla Art Action Group in the lobby of MoMA in New York in 1969, but they aren’t exactly quiet. In fact, they seem finely attuned to the present. Like Krzysztof Wodiczko, who transformed the Abraham Lincoln memorial in New York’s Union Square by projecting images of veterans onto it, and Drew Cameron, cofounder of Combat Paper, who pulverizes military uniforms and presses them into paper, Tool resists the totalizing image of the brave, heroic soldier. It doesn’t speak to his experience, nor does he think it does a struggling veteran any favors. Like the artists and craftsmen before him, Tool is throwing a spoke into the wheel of the media, and into the wheel of a culture obsessed with dominance and progress.
“What he’s doing, to give his art away, is a cry against the whole system, which is consumerism, capitalism, which creates the thing to go take people’s shit,” said Albrecht, who is a friend of and collaborator with Tool. When I asked Tool what makes his performances different from those of his predecessors, he shrugged, and looked at the cup in his hand. “I’m a big guy. If I raise my voice, the police are called. Nobody hears what I say when I yell. If I made big paintings with the same images I put on cups, it would be too much, but on a cup it’s less threatening,” he said. “People aren’t afraid of cups.”
This sly approach speaks to a current discomfort among critics with activist art, or with art that grapples directly with war. Tool’s curriculum vitae is rich: he has shown his works at the Berkeley Art Museum; a spate of community-minded galleries, like Southern Exposure, in San Francisco; and the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, in New York City; as well as in collaboration with a number of veteran-arts organizations that he’s involved with. He has been the recipient of multiple grants from organizations such as the United States Artists and the Open Circle Foundation. Still, it’s worth noting that the only art institution that has shown Tool’s work under a rubric other than war or “veteran art” has been the Halle Saint Pierre, a museum in Paris founded by publisher and art collector Max Fourny and dedicated to art brut, or outsider art. The museum’s collection comprises five hundred paintings and eighty sculptures, and in 2011, Tool’s cups were included in an exhibit titled Hey! Modern Art and Pop Culture, which looked at works considered naive, primitive, insane, or low, through the prism of pop. When I asked Laurence Maidenbaum, longtime museum employee and manager of its bookshop, why she considered Tool an outsider artist, she said, “He’s a folk artist, an artist of the people. He’s part of all that culture that is not in sight in society or institutions. He’s someone who’s working in the shadows.”
Tool has an MFA and studied under the likes of Ken Price, whose sculptures—nuclear-looking blobs in bold electric colors—reshaped what ceramics could be and helped inspire a movement in Berkeley called Funk. Price’s work was recently celebrated in a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The term “outsider art” implies a kind of flat-footed earnestness, a presumption that the work is not highbrow or cool, and that it belongs only in certain types of spaces, for certain kinds of markets. In the same way that calling a work “black” or “queer” marginalizes the work, the label “veteran art” suggests that it might speak of and to only a limited audience.
While reams of writing exist about women artists and black artists, no theoretical treatise exists on veteran artists, at least none that I could find. If institutions don’t always know how to place the art made by veterans, neither do veterans themselves. When I emailed Tool to ask if he sees himself as working in Price’s footsteps, he wrote back, “I’ve never heard anyone describe themselves as a Funk artist. I certainly would not call myself that. I get uncomfortable trying to describe my work or what I do. I just make cups.” When I asked Tool in person if his work was cathartic, he tossed his head and growled good-naturedly, “With the sincerity stuff—art and healing, you know, ah, fuck you. No, this isn’t cathartic. No, this isn’t therapy.”
Albrecht made what is perhaps his most jarring and elliptical piece of work in 2006, while working as studio assistant for Don Reitz, a venerable abstract-expressionist potter who had been impressed by Albrecht’s portfolio from art school. Reitz was living in an isolated compound in Sycamore Canyon, just outside of Clarkdale, Arizona: the jagged red landscape, rife with coyotes and rattlers, is an ideal working place for artists who see themselves as aesthetic outliers. In between throwing vessels for Reitz, Albrecht began to experiment with other materials. The remoteness of the place seemed to grant him permission to push into new, unexplored mediums. He’d come to another kind of breakthrough, as well, by starting to see a social worker, at a local clinic in the nearby city of Cottonwood, about his nightmares and drinking. It was the first time he had spoken to anyone about his experiences since coming back from Iraq, although it didn’t last for long. He quit after just three sessions. “She was a nice lady but she didn’t understand what I was going through.”
Here, in this new landscape, he began mixing performance, multimedia, and found materials in a way that became its own unique statement, equal parts battle cry and testimony. That statement began with a rattler.
Albrecht was driving Reitz’s truck when he whizzed by the thing on the road. He stopped and backed up. He rolled down the window. The snake was green and black, coiled on the concrete, warming itself in the sun. Albrecht drove back to the studio and came back later with Reitz, who brought a loaded .38. The snake hadn’t moved from its spot, but it tightened as the men approached, gathering up like a knot. Albrecht looked at the snake—glassy eyes, darting tongue. It lifted its head and rattled its tail. Reitz raised his gun.
Later, driving home, he thought of the snake. Why had they killed it? It was what it was, a creature adapted to survive in a brutal, desolate place—a soldier in the desert.
That evening, he skinned and tanned the hide, as he’d been taught to do by his father, hoping the ritual might make him feel better about what seemed like a senseless action. Still, the killing bothered him. Why had they done it? What was the reason? In Mosul, he had often delivered supplies to a children’s hospital. The kids always smiled and waved, but the parents did not. At best, they ignored him. At worst, their eyes were filled with murder. He had hated those parents then, but now he understood: “I’d been the snake in their field.”
A couple of weeks later, a friend, who had seen the skin hanging in his trailer, called him up. She had found a rattler in her garden, and chopped its head off with a spade. She wondered if he might want the body. Albrecht said he did, picked it up, and kept it in his freezer while he thought about what he should do with it. He decided not to tan it. Instead, one afternoon he worked its body into an alphabet of letters on the pavement. First, A, then B, then C, and so on. He was working by instinct and feel, gathering up an idea. By evening the sun had baked the snake’s blood into the concrete and he knew what he wanted to say. It was something he wanted the healers and cynics to hear. It was something he wanted to say about a culture that told him to keep quiet, that his struggles were unbrave.
Using the body of the snake, he spelled out a message. F. He snapped a picture. U. He snapped another. C. He snapped a third. K. He worked the snake’s body into the letters. Y. Click. O. Click. U. Click. R. The only other person there was the friend who had given him the snake, and later he would remember how she giggled with discomfort as she watched him manipulate its corpse. When he was done, he straightened his back and flipped through the images on his camera. The flash made the snake’s body look bright, so that each letter glowed against the blackness of the road He read the message spelled out by its body: fuck. your. feelings.
I watched the video on my iPhone. A handheld camera captured Jesse Albrecht’s performance at the Cottonwood Club, a DIY arts gallery in Bozeman, Montana, in the fall of 2011. In the wavering frame, Albrecht stands on a stage wearing nothing but an American-flag Speedo. You cannot see the crowd that has gathered to see him but you can hear their murmuring voices and occasional catcalls. Slowly the camera begins to circle his body. The space is underground, with crumbling walls and dim, uneven light that casts a shadowy glow on his skin, where the tattoos have thickened into a burlesque, chaotic tapestry. An image of a gorilla occupies the space between his hip and his heart; it opens its mouth and roars across his rib cage. A coral snake winds up his back, from the base of his spine to the nape of his neck. On his chest a pair of hands are clasped in prayer, and above these an image of a dagger runs straight through his neck, from shoulder to shoulder—a metaphor, he says, for “the way the war went right through me.” He chatters into the mic, something about blowing gunpowder up his nose, while the man holding the camera eggs him on amid twinkles of flashing phones.
“The moment those ladies in the ski suits started taking my picture was the moment I knew I had them,” Albrecht said sardonically, as I put my phone away. We were standing in his father’s workshop, in Amherst, Wisconsin, where I went to meet Albrecht and talk about his work. He was guiding a long piece of wood through a lathe. The machine made a low humming sound. These newest pieces he was making were a series of billy clubs, inspired by his experiences in crowd-control training with the guard. He planned to show the clubs in three weeks’ time in a show about memory, at the Emerson Center for the Arts and Culture, in Bozeman.
Albrecht moved to Bozeman in the summer of 2012. By then, his diagnosis was three years old. On June 24, 2009, he was teaching ceramics at a community college in Cedar Rapids, where he was crashing with a friend but technically homeless, when the papers arrived in the mail. They made it official: he had PTSD, depressive disorder, and anxiety disorder at an assigned percentage of 50 percent, which entitled him to $810 per month. He began to cycle through medications—Paxil, Clonazapam, Citalopram, Cialis, Viagra—then he cycled through cities and jobs. He left Cedar Rapids and returned to Iowa City, where he worked part-time as a janitor at a local VA hospital. He stayed another year, and in the summer of 2012, drawn by friends and the promise of a cheap place to live in the mountains, he moved out
Located just a hundred miles south of the venerable Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, and the birthplace of abstract-expressionist potter Peter Voulkos, Bozeman is a town that appeals to artists who are seeking to live off the grid. Albrecht got a job teaching a drawing class at Montana State University and started hanging out at the Cottonwood Club, which was founded by an artist named Dalton C. Brink, a former navy engineer who calls the market’s obsession with formalism “a luxury of the bourgeoisie” and who admires Albrecht’s work for the story it has to tell. Brink is the one who filmed Albrecht’s performance onstage.
In that performance, Albrecht rides uncomfortably close to the edge of exploiting himself, of allowing his image—which owes a debt to the crazy, addled vet made famous by films like The Deer Hunter—to be endlessly shared and consumed. The form itself is a little loose, with Albrecht slipping in and out of character; the masculine hero is a little bit cracked. That’s where the work gains poignancy. Speaking generally about Albrecht’s work, Bill Donovan, another of his friends from art school, and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, told me, “It’s like the fringe of a plastic carpet, where it’s partly woven and partly unwoven, where the American story and the personal story comes together and goes apart, comes together and goes apart.”
In 2008, the MIT journal October posed a question to professors, artists, and graduate students: what can art offer in the current situation of war? Of the many responses they received, that of David Joselit, a professor of art history at Yale, was particularly trenchant: “The fact remains, however, that the Iraq War has not produced the same focused activism that the Vietnam War, or more recently, the war against AIDS, did, and this, I think, results from the absence of a class—or a group—identity that can be radicalized.” He goes on to say that the middle-class “spectator-citizen” of war is possible only because “so many middle class consumer citizens are not acquainted with a single soldier fighting in Iraq.” A photograph of Albrecht’s performance has made its way back to Tool, who recently worked it onto the side of one of his cups, alongside an embossment of a weapons of mass destruction hazard symbol. In the image, Albrecht wears a ski mask and his Speedo and his arms are raised in the air. He’s flipping a double bird.
Albrecht took the club off the lathe. He ran his palm along it, and then held it up to examine its shape. “Here,” he said, and gave me the club. It was heavier than I expected. I raised it up like a bat, and he laughed. “That’s it,” he said. “Raise it up.”
Three weeks later, the night before the show was meant to open at the Emerson Center, Albrecht received a phone call. It was the curator of the gallery, Ellen Ornitz. She told him that the executive board of the Emerson had decided the billy club wasn’t safe to show in a public space and needed to be removed, even though it is a legal weapon in the state of Montana. Albrecht offered to nail it to the wall. She told him she was sorry. It was an issue of liability.
Iowa, it seemed, had come back to haunt him. This time, Albrecht texted and called nearly everyone he knew, including Tool. He claimed Ornitz said the work needed to be replaced with something less “incendiary,” although the director of the gallery, Susan Denson-Guy, claimed that word was never used and that she deeply regretted the incident. The community rallied around him. A local magazine called the Bozeman Magpie ran a story on Albrecht’s work, and the 406 Brewing Company invited him to show the club in their space. His vindication was fleeting. Seven years passed, and little had changed. Albrecht checked his phone and found a text from Tool, whose message, as ever, was gentle and droll: “That’s why I make cups. No one’s afraid of a cup.”