The medals had sat in a box for 25 years when Julio Nazario, having just earned an MFA at the Mason Gross School of Arts at Rutgers University had the idea of photographing them as a basis for artworks. Nazario, a Vietnam War veteran who had worked, taught, and exhibited his work as a photographer, made large black and white prints of the medals posed formally against a black background and then cut out and overlaid them with transparencies of colored handmade paper in a project that was to occupy him for the next 20 years. A sampling of the works are now on display at the Arts Society of Kingston, through April 27.
The artist described the pieces as “a meditation on the icons of war, acting as reminders of grief and the irony of bestowing medals for ‘good conduct’ to those that excel in battle. These medals are a tribute to soldiers and veterans that lost their sense of humanity as a result of war, but despite everything were able to recover.”
The colored, semi-transparent papers blur and soften the edges of the medal images; splotches of red paint further transmute these official emblems of heroism into spectral memories, which include a Purple Heart, embellished with a silhouette of George Washington, a Distinguished Service medal from the state of New Jersey, and a Sharp Shooter Badge, shaped like a German cross, which Nazario wore on his uniform. A couple of pieces incorporate transparencies of photographs of Nazario as a young soldier, and one of the surfaces is textured in a floral pattern, recalling the jungles of Vietnam. The soft colors and fragile paper ground invest these works with a lyricism that seems at odds with the stoicism and formalism of these military honors. They are freighted with emotion but also reserved, hinting at humid atmospheres, spilled blood—in a few pieces, the medals themselves resemble biomorphic figures or maimed bodies—and the beating pulse of fear, tinged with sadness and regret but veiling the actual narratives. The medals become memorials of the artist’s military service, fever dreams devoid of military pomp.