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Wrapped in stars and stripes

Times Staff Writer

During the Vietnam War, Los Angeles artist Steve Hurd was a little boy with a buzz cut who stood inside the military base at the Presidio in San Francisco and watched thousands of antiwar protesters -- hippies, veterans in wheelchairs, even active-duty soldiers -- shout and wave signs.

Hurd, 52, grew up saturated in the realities of the war, the son of a military doctor who confronted the human cost of combat first-hand. So he had a visceral reaction in 2004 when a website released then-banned images of American troops returning from Iraq in caskets draped with flags. The Pentagon called that glimpse of the returning dead a mistake, saying it violated the privacy of the soldiers’ families -- though critics of the policy viewed it as self-serving, since such images had fueled opposition to the Vietnam War.

Hurd was transfixed.

“The images were so powerful,” he said, standing in front of one of his R.I.P. paintings, a series based on the photos. “They remind you that people die. They’re also about us, about America.”

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Hurd’s works, built around mosaic-like squares of saturated colors, anchor his new show at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica. He sees his images as “honoring the troops, but pointing out the mistakes of the war.”

The draped coffin images took on a life of their own when he began to reproduce the digitized photos, and the computer previewed them in a low-resolution, pixilated form. He was struck by the more mechanical nature of the images, and decided to paint them in that way, a choice that means the emotionally charged subject is apparent only when a viewer stands back.

“I want you to think of them as a painting,” said Hurd, who studied with Chris Burden, Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy at UCLA, “and then you think about these issues. The subject is subservient to the art. I’m not a political activist.”

Lauri Firstenberg, guest curator of the upcoming California Biennial 2008 at the Orange County Museum of Art, said she is discovering a number of works dealing with the war as she scours California art studios for the exhibition -- along with art that reflects a culture preoccupied with elections, immigration and violence.

“There is a resounding urgency,” said Firstenberg, the director of the LAX gallery in Culver City. “There seems to be a great deal of response and concern on the part of artists and in their studios related to the war, the elections, and larger political concerns. . . . The last time I remember seeing this kind of energy and these kind of responses was when I was in New York doing research with artists after 9/11.”

Karen Moss, the curator of the Orange County Museum of Art’s new show, “Disorderly Conduct: Recent Art in Tumultuous Times,” notes that she too has been seeing more socially and politically themed work in recent years.

“But instead of being didactic and dry or moralistic and instructive, it seems that these issues and ideas are integrated more seamlessly . . . it seems to just be part of the DNA.”

Hurd’s paintings seem inseparable from his childhood immersion, from the time of his birth at the Walter Reed military hospital in Washington, in the visceral feelings of pride, pain and rage ignited by the Vietnam War.

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Hurd grew up on bases, watching military parades, flag reveilles and wounded veterans with amputated limbs. When he was 10, after one of the demonstrations outside the Presidio, he collected an awkward armful of discarded signs and placards and began to lug them home, to add to his collection of psychedelic posters from the Fillmore West concert hall. On the way, he waved the signs playfully at some military police, but they just laughed. Then, “some old guy in civilian clothes, probably a veteran, grabbed them from me, and said ‘Shame on you!’ ” Hurd said.

“I was upset,” he said. “I was shocked.”

At home, over the dinner table, his father staunchly supported the war in Vietnam -- though he shared Hurd’s opposition to the war in Iraq by the time he passed away two years ago.

Hurd’s draped caskets reflect his lingering fascination with the American flag and his appreciation for the lush sensuality of Childe Hassam’s paintings of the sea of sensual red American flags hung in the streets of New York City to greet American veterans returning from World War I -- paintings inspired by feelings of deep patriotism. Later, Hurd admired the series of American flag paintings begun by Jasper Johns in the 1950s.

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In his own work, Hurd says, “You’re seeing the flag on the coffin. It’s about the country going down, besides the individual. The flag is on the coffin, and the coffin’s going in the ground. And that’s America. They’re not just burying the soldiers. The pallbearers are burying America.”

As he worked on his R.I.P. series between 2004 and 2006, Hurd reflected on how paintings of war, “before photography and mass media, were the way people got news of faraway wars.”

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.

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“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.”

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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.

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“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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