Eric Garcia says that his family didn’t cross the border from Mexico into the United States. The border crossed them. His ancestors saw their home in New Mexico become a part of the United States during the Mexican-American War of the 1840s.
When I meet Garcia at his solo exhibition Operation Mom’s Couch at the National Veterans Art Museum, he narrates his family story as a way of explaining how the military had shaped his life long before he joined the Air Force. The 38-year-old goateed visual artist is wearing a “Veterans for Peace” T-shirt and seems far removed from his years guarding warplanes, munitions, and bombs.
But for Garcia, the military’s tentacles are long and violence continues to affect him to this day. He says he’s closer to combat now in Chicago, than he ever was serving in the Air Force, and that shootings happen regularly near his Pilsen home. This permeation of war in American society is the theme of his latest exhibit titled Operation Mom’s Couch, a meditation on how a regular Chicano boy who grew up watching The A-Team could become a soldier in the world’s biggest military.
Walking into Operation Mom’s Couch is like stepping into a life-size political cartoon. Armed with a cartoonist’s arsenal of hyperbole and satire, Garcia skewers the military and our violent culture. The four walls of the exhibition are covered in camo-green murals showing a young Garcia playing war as a boy, joining the military, and serving in the Air Force in Italy and Greece. A cardboard television in the corner plays a rotation of theme songs from war-themed TV shows he watched growing up, audio from Army recruitment videos, and the sound of bombs and machine guns going off.
The centerpiece of the exhibit, however, is a 12-foot-wide, 4-foot-tall nest made out of over 250 black, pink, and blue wooden guns. The nest is “a metaphor for the young Americans who are incubated in a militarized society,” Garcia says.
Inside, a young Garcia peeks out from behind a couch wearing a Davey Crockett hat and holding a toy rifle. Surrounding him are the names of 15 conflicts that the United States has participated in since Garcia was born, including domestic actions such as the Columbine massacre and police clashes with protesters in Ferguson. “When I was growing up, I loved playing war and playing with guns,” explains Garcia. “Me and my friends would dig foxholes and play battle.”Above the nest is a baby mobile made out of stealth bombers.
Little about Operation Mom’s Couch is subtle. In one mural, a nervous-looking Garcia sits on top of an M-16 rifle as Uncle Sam shaves off his hair. A fighter plane wrapped in a taco zooms over their heads, a reference to the squadron of F-16s he’d see as a boy growing up near the Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “I have a unique perspective,” says Garcia. “I’m working from within. Having served four and a half years, I think I have a deeper understanding than most people of what our military is about.”
While he’s very critical of the military, Garcia says he doesn’t regret joining. He served in the Air Force for four half a years, during a period of relative peace between the two Gulf Wars, and was able to see some of the greatest art works of the Renaissance while stationed abroad in Europe. That exposure led him to become an artist and eventually earn his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Today, Garcia works as a teaching artist at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen.
Garcia’s grisly depictions of American military might rub some the wrong way, but it’s hard to argue with his thesis. Memorial Day weekend, a time when we’re supposed to be remembering soldiers who died at war, is typically one of the most violent weekends in Chicago—this year, six people died and 63 others were wounded. War surrounds us in the form of shootings and police forces armed with military-grade weapons. Really, we all live in Garcia’s weaponized nest, whether we are part of the military or not.
Operation Mom’s Couch runs through August 20 at the National Veterans Art Museum, 4041 N. Milwaukee Ave. nvam.org