The Vietnam War and Modern Memory: Matthew Provoast’s “Dear Grandpaw” at the Argus Museum


Matthew Provoast's Right in the Middle of All the Smoke

Matthew Provoast, Right in the Middle of All the Smoke, encaustic photo collage.

Matthew Provoast’s Dear Grandpaw at the Argus Museum is part family history, part archival photojournalism -- and all viscerally imaginative ground-level art about of one of the most traumatic events in America’s 20th century.

The Grand Rapids photographer's exhibit, wrapped around the Argus Museum, consists of three groups of differing sized encaustic photo collage set in a salon style. These works’ colorful articulation lend themselves to a near-phantasmagoric re-creation of the war-era photographs taken by his maternal grandfather, Thomas Zimmer of Mount Clemens, during the mid-1960s in Southeast Asia.

As Argus curator Cheryl Chidester’s exhibit statement tells us, “Provoast explores his grandfather’s rites of passage and first-hand experience of the Vietnam War … telling the story of war on a personal level. Through his work, Provoast began to know and understand his grandfather in a different light -- as a young man thrown into traumatic situations -- and how those experiences changed his life.” 

There is a subtle dimension to the work in that Provoast is quite candid about the factual gaps incorporating his grandfather’s photos, letters, and journals found after his death. It amounts to what Provoast in a recent interview described (mirroring Chidester’s gallery statement) as a matter of “archiving memory, as well as the artistic reflection of history, through close family ties.”

For what Provoast only knows for sure is that his grandfather stashed a trove of photos and archives during his tour of duty.  These are the materials that inspired Provoast to craft his series of evocative encaustic photo collage. The works were originally crafted for a thesis exhibit at the Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (for which he earned a 2016 Award of Excellence).

In our interview, Provoast allowed that these collages were a process of grieving following his grandfather’s death in 2012:

Grandpaw didn’t share his Vietnam experience with us, but he left behind a meticulous organization of photographs and letters. I looked for ties between the images and the journals. He was an amateur photographer before he was drafted in the military and he’d grown up in a rural setting where his knowledge of war was quite limited. As such, my experience was to interpret his experience of this era. As a younger boy, he had put a camera in my hand, and I had to balance his reluctance to share these images with me with the gift he gave me. These collage are therefore more than a homage. I found myself working through his emotions as I was grappling with the emotions of his passing away.

It’s these crucial ambiguities -- not knowing where his grandfather was posted, when he was posted, not even his official rank or capacity in his detachment -- that ultimately makes Dear Grandpaw so powerful a visual commentary. For essentially, the background snatches of journal entry upon which the photo images are superimposed universalizes the circumstance of their meaning as they have no crucial context. We as viewers are as confusedly thrown into the maelstrom as was seemingly Provoast’s grandfather.

Matthew Provoast's The Were the Best Rides Flying East

Matthew Provoast, These Were the Best Rides Flying East, encaustic photo collage.

Yet this lack of context alone doesn’t give Provoast his due in this endeavor. For each of these artworks is a remarkably spirited confluence of visual and written image structured in such a manner to heighten the art’s cumulative emotional heft. And it’s this aesthetic uncertainty that elevates the whole into fully accomplished works of art rather than ordinary photo-montage.

Provoast said in his interview that encaustic painting allowed him “to get messy -- with the resulting work not pretty or precise. I instead found this medium to be ideal for working through anger and frustration. It took me two, maybe three months at a time, to building these work’s visual textures: Scraping, removing, and even strategically burning to illustrate the ideas of discord and discovery that run through the images -- as well as the dramatic, raw emotions the photographs can evoke.”

They certainly do evoke drama and raw emotions. For example, Provoast’s 26 by 36 inch Right in the Middle of All the Smoke builds an extraordinary tension between a serviceman casually holding his rifle on his shoulder strategically set next to a scrap of journal entry using the phrase taken for the work’s title set next to the faint background outline of a ruined building.

The composition’s seemingly offhanded mingling of these different visual scales creates an internal tautness that’s heightened by the encaustic’s roughened wax texture. Controlled chaos by any definition. Provoast has wrestled with his elements until we as his viewer are equally lost in the middle of the smoke.

By contrast, Provoast feels just as comfortable abstracting his aesthetic to its breaking point.  The red-tinged helicopter of These Were the Best Rides Flying East -- a 31 by 31-inch masterwork of incendiary proportions -- is a central motif that Provoast uses in different sized paintings of this exhibit. In this largest format, Provoast uses a page of his grandfather’s diaries as the background of the composition while the helicopter grounds the heart of the artwork. Yet it’s his nightmarish abstracted scrub of red, black, and green pigments that gives the painting its astonishing power.

“These works were a process of image transferring,” said Provoast of his artworks. “A kind of graphic distortion through rough articulation where the context of the image is just as striking as its conceptual appropriation.”

This is, admittedly, a stunningly insightful observation that speaks volumes of Provoast’s commitment to his project. We can be pretty sure his grandfather would recognize these artworks for what they are -- and acknowledge that this was indeed the way it was.

John Carlos Cantú has written on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.

“Dear Grandpaw” runs through August 9 at the Washtenaw County Historical Society Argus Museum, 5425 W. William St. Exhibit hours are Monday-Friday from 9 am to 5 pm. For information, call 734-769-0770.