Tuesday, Sep. 30, 2008

1. National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum

After you've hit the Museum of Contemporary Art, or MCA, and the Art Institute of Chicago, keep heading south to see one of Chicago's most compelling yet under-viewed collections. The money-strapped National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum — the only art museum in the U.S. dedicated to exhibiting work by Vietnam vets and, most recently, Iraq War vets — has an almost appropriate vacancy about it. As you step into the main gallery, you're met by a graceful found-metal sculpture that mimics a soldier about to "step off to dance with death," portraying the romantic notion of war; one of the feet is molded using a tricycle part. On the second floor, get close to the softly clinking dog tags that make up Above & Beyond — there's a tag for each of the more than 58,000 service men and women who died in the Vietnam War. Take the back stairs or the elevator to the third floor to see the photos and installations of the Iraq War exhibits.

The museum is kept afloat by a handful of dedicated artist vets who regularly ship pieces out for exhibition, and also restore pieces — like a sculpture utilizing the POW bracelets of pilot (and Sen. John McCain colleague) John Borling, as well as the cup he used while imprisoned at the Hanoi Hilton. Many of the pieces easily stand on their own. But within the context of the museum, they are quite overpowering.

On your way out, stop by the front desk and ask to see the hardcover rendition of the museum — Vietnam: Reflexes and Reflections, which was released in 1996, the year the museum opened. The book offers a colorful and extended review of the larger collection, as well as artist reflections, and is worth a perusal.