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Wrapped in stars and stripes

Steve Hurd was overwhelmed by the images of troops' flag-draped coffins. Then he got busy.

March 07, 2008|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

Historic war paintings, like the sensational "Rape of the Sabine Women" or heroic depictions of Napoleon on the battlefield, "were basically dramatizations," he said -- with war portrayed as a coming-of-age ritual, a glorious saga. Or simply an artistic rendering of the kind of battlefield scene that would now flash instantly on television screens.

To Hurd, the flags "are about culture. That's my country too. I wanted to make paintings about the other side of the flag. The other side of the war. They are about defeat." He said he sees himself, like a Pop artist, or even a visual blogger, as reflecting the times he lives in.

"The photographs are more about the war," Hurd said. "The paintings are about the culture. The photographs are about the event. The painting brings it into the history of art, which is about culture and aesthetics."

Nevertheless, the political content stands out -- even if those who see Hurd's works do not always focus on it.

"The pixilated paintings are so beautiful," Marlo Labon, 21, a UC Irvine senior majoring in international business, said as he stood before a large painting of a peaceful cemetery with white tombstones and purple-blooming jacarandas. "What stands out is the beauty of the images."

One of the paintings uses dripping red letters that, at first, seem to spell out a message about artistic creation: " 'Every great work of art goes through messy phases while it is in transition. A lump of clay can become a sculpture. Blobs of paint become paintings, which inspire.' Major General William Caldwell 11/2/06 Baghdad."

When the show opened, one of Caldwell's staffers contacted the gallery to ask for an image of the painting, apparently unfazed by the artist's opposition to the Iraq conflict.

"Artistic expression is essential in every society," Caldwell, now the commanding general of the Combined Arms Center and Fort Leavenworth, said in an e-mail sent by the assistant. "It is one the freedoms and basic rights that our men and women in uniform fight to protect. We send Mr. Hurd and artists everywhere our thanks and encouragement for their contributions."

Though many works in the show have a playful quality -- a globe in the form of a deflating beach ball, pet cats as teeth-baring gargoyles -- people at the opening stopped longest in front of the draped caskets.

"That's the unseen in America," said Ed Thomas III, 71, a San Francisco foundation director. "We saw that in Vietnam, but we don't see it now, because Vietnam started a protest movement.

"They stopped showing that people do die in war."

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anne-marie.oconnor@latimes.com

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Steve Hurd

Where: Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan, B-4, Santa Monica

When: Through March 29

Contact: (310) 828-8488

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