An Archeology of Memory

by: Kendall Johnson
    I can usually speak fairly eloquently about my artwork but this time its more difficult. It’s been fifty years since I returned from Vietnam and it has never been easy to speak about the experience. I served for six months in and out of the war zone as a deck hand on a destroyer providing artillery support for marine ground action in and around the DMZ, interdiction of coastal vessels, bombardment of enemy positions above the DMZ and participation on Operations Thayer, Market Time and Sea Dragon; enough that our destroyer squadron DESRON 9 earned the only unit commendation given to destroyers for sustained combat since WWII. Some 7 of the 12 ships in the squadron were hit by shore artillery and missiles. I say this without pride or authorship as I can’t remember much of it. Mostly fragments and disconnected scenes.

My memories were like soundless home movies of the 50’s. Pale and partial. Some years later I had an experience which got me thinking. As a therapist in training I was going through a series of deep tissue massage. Called Rolfing, it presumed that psychological tension and holding patterns
were stored in muscle tissue and that release of the tension could help release. I was relaxing as much as one could with a determined massage therapist gouging away deeply into my calf. Suddenly I saw an incident I had remembered many times before; our ship was firing on an overturned
Vietnamese coastal vessel and shredding it. This time, however, I suddenly could hear the overwhelming sound of .50 caliber machine guns, smell the cordite, and feel the nausea rising as I became aware that there were people hiding under the boat. At that point I realized that I had parts of my story missing, at least from my conscious awareness.

These paintings show my attempts at placing those fragments in a fuller and more meaningful perspective. It’s an experiment that continues. The paintings are abstract, as my experience was vague and abstraction cuts through to my own subjective truth. Forms are in determinant as that best
opens the door to memory and interpretation. Shrouding and found objects show hidden, unspoken, suppressed or otherwise inaccessible elements of both my memory and the situation itself. Finally, multiple panels, grids, unjoined sections, discontinuous forms, inconsistent surfaces seem to
reflect loss of narrative memory or continuity, shattered sense of self, or sometimes discrepancy between official doctrine and lived experience.
As I proceeded with the paintings I took counsel of several people who suggested short, several sentence commentaries for each which would assist viewers in understanding the inspiration, memories or significance of each painting. I decided to do them—and myself—one better by including
excerpted passages from various poems, essays and short stories I had written after 9/11. I had worked as a therapist in Lower Manhattan then and the event had brought up Vietnam related stuff. Combined with journal passages written during the process of painting, the combined excerpts
provide counterpoint to the images that sometimes explain, sometimes provide clues, and sometimes add dimension to the pieces.

Using art as part of the healing process isn’t for every veteran or other person seeking to overcome great confusion and pain. But I’m certainly not the first. War hits some of us hard. If all of the Vietnam Veterans who committed suicide after return were added to the Vietnam Memorial Wall in
Washington it would have to be expanded to several times it’s curret size. Sobering thoughts for politicians who would be quick to sound the trumpets and citizens who blindly go along.
Untitled, 2016 | Vietnam Fragments Series, #3 | Mixed Medium
Untitled, 2016 | Vietnam Fragments Series, #26 | Mixed Medium
© 2017 Inland Empire Museum of Art
All Art © by The Artist