Rest in Peace

Joe Rebholz's controversial digital paintings use photographs of those who have died in Iraq

One day in Iraq, a baby died.

Somebody took the child's photo shortly afterward. In death, the baby's eyes are closed, but the eyebrows are still raised in surprise, as if the baby were still confused why, exactly, an unknown soldier saw fit to end his or her life before it had barely begun.

Tucson artist Joe Rebholz found the child's picture on the Internet and turned it into a memento mori. Using a computer program, Rebholz converted the photo into what he calls a digital painting, and named it "Rest in Peace 13R."

He colored the baby's face a deadly blue. Around the edges, he added lethal-looking ocher; it's like a chemical eating away at the baby's once-chubby cheeks. The face is starting to dissolve, to take on the decay of the grave.

This baby may be mourned by desolate parents--if they're still alive--but he or she is anonymous to the world, an unnamed casualty of the 4-year-old war in Iraq. Estimates of the conflagration's civilian death toll fluctuate wildly, from the thousands to the hundreds of thousands, and may never be known.

But the numbers of American dead are published regularly, with military precision. As of last weekend, 3,748 U.S. soldiers and Marines and sailors had perished in Iraq, but stay tuned. That number could well go up by the time this is published.

Portraits of a tiny fraction of these slaughtered souls are on view in Rebholz's disturbing show at the Shane House Gallery downtown. Most of his pictures are of American service people, grinning under big helmets or stern-faced in formal military portraits. Also gleaned from the Internet, they're the kind of pictures that hometown newspapers publish when one of their own has happened upon an IED on a dusty road in Fallujah, or walked into a sniper's bullet in Baghdad.

These young soldiers and Marines and sailors were still alive when the pictures were taken, of course, but Rebholz manipulates the images to suggest the devastation that lay ahead for them. With his computer, he layers on the colors of war: yellow flames, orange explosions, red blood. Or he tears apart their dewy young faces the way an IED would, or strips away the skin.

America's young soldiers, in their teens and 20s--still closer to babyhood than anyone likes to think--are as poignant as that Iraqi infant in their separate deaths. Only fragments remain of the face of the full-lipped young man in "Rest in Peace 67." There are literally holes in his flesh. Through the gaps, we can see a blue sky and clouds that Rebholz has inserted via computer magic. They could stand in for the merciless heavens of the Middle East summer, or, metaphorically, the heavenly peace one would hope for this slain young man to enjoy. The red-and-white stripes of the American flag wave behind him, a reminder of the American war policy that snatched him from life.

"Rest in Peace 58" is a face ablaze in yellow, against a backdrop of orange. Charred black areas blot out his features, a reminder of how gruesome is a death by fire. "Rest in Peace 45.15" is steely blue and gray, a human stripped of his humanity.

In "Rest in Peace 154.1," Rebholz has left enough of the original portrait intact that we can see a cheerful young black woman with a mile-wide smile. But the other half of her face is pure devastation, a sickly mix of red lines--like exposed veins--orange flares and inhuman blue.

But sometimes, the faces are almost recognizable. "Rest in Peace 161" is a formal military portrait of a young black man in uniform, his dress cap curving into his forehead. He stares forward sternly, while the Stars and Stripes flutter behind him, and his face has been steeped in patriotic red, white and blue. "Rest in Peace 143.2" is a sailor in his jaunty white cap. Almost the only thing Rebholz has done to him is add a series of sharp black arrows, pointing to their target--the guy.

The fact that these faces can be recognized has some critics arguing that Rebholz may be violating a harebrained new Arizona law that forbids anyone to profit by trafficking in the faces or names of the military without permission. The law, shamefully signed by Gov. Janet Napolitano, was aimed at a Flagstaff artist who makes anti-war T-shirts printed with the names of soldiers who died in Iraq.

The law is clearly an unconstitutional abridgement of free speech, and a judge in August ruled that it's so poorly written that it can't even be used against the T-shirt marker.

And it's almost amusing to hear anyone linking the word "profit" to local arts. Rebholz has a price tag of $25 on most of the pictures, and when he subtracts his costs, he says he stands to make about $10 per image.

Rebholz has been working this subject matter for awhile, exhibiting anti-war pieces featuring images of dead soldiers at Dinnerware and Raices Taller in the last few years. Like the earlier work, his Rest in Peace series denounces the war while showing compassion for those who have died fighting it.

"I hope some of the beauty of the life of the person who's gone comes through, and maybe some of the horror and sadness of their deaths," he says. "I want to convey the great cost of this war in human lives.

"Is this war worth all the deaths? My answer is it's not worth it."

Certainly, it wasn't worth it to the young sailor in "143.2," whose father told a local newspaper that his son had joined the Navy simply to learn a trade. And not to the young black man in "Rest in Peace 141.4." That soldier signed on to the military right out of high school, but he was an aspiring singer. Rebholz got his civilian picture from a CD the kid had released.

Rebholz's art honors all the songs that No. 141.4--and the rest of the dead--will never get a chance to sing.

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