“Tour of Duty”

“Sculptures by former Army officer turn out to be anything but uniform.”

Boston Globe Staff, Christine Temin, July 27, 2001.


At one time or another, almost everybody suffers from sore feet. The near-universality of that pain is one thing that makes Ken Hruby’s sculpture – which is ostensibly about war – accessible to people who have never been anywhere near a battlefield.

Hruby’s own feet danced and marched at West Point, where he’d have a tango lesson and bayonet practice on the same afternoon as part of the making of an officer and a gentleman, then in Korea and Vietnam.

Until now, Hruby, an Army officer turned artist, has mostly shown discrete bodies of work, with biennial outings in Boston Sculptors at Chapel Gallery in Newton. His new exhibition at the Cape Ann Historical Museum marks the only time his 15-year oeuvre has been gathered together. ”Tour of Duty” reveals Hruby as a major American sculptor, an original whose art is rigorous and refined in both thought and execution. His work is profound, poignant, at times witty, even slapstick. But it will make you weep more often than smile.

He is anything but prolific. The Cape Ann show – which occupies one huge room, a small one, and a foyer – represents 90 percent of what he’s produced so far. But his art is so layered that it’s a lot to digest. I spent three hours in the exhibition, losing myself in the work. This is an important show, one that should travel before the sculptures go back into hibernation.

After Hruby traded a 21-year career as an Army officer for one in art, feet became fodder for his work. But not right away. He’d come back from Vietnam at a time when the United States was in denial over the war. Studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in the early 1980s, he didn’t talk about Vietnam, nor did he use it as source material.

”Maybe art represented a purer, higher calling,” writes Carl Belz in the catalog accompanying Hruby’s show, ”and maybe that’s why he initially practiced it by making welded and abstract steel sculptures.”

The exhibition opens with its chronological end: a section of Hruby’s most recent installation, the 1999 ”Free Fall.” Made for the Chapel Gallery, the work originally featured 10 parachutes whose cargo of video monitors showed, among other things, Hruby jumping out of planes and floating in midair. To a soundtrack of soothing melodies by Satie, Mozart, and Beethoven, the parachutes rose slowly toward the ceiling. Then, one by one, they crashed, stopping just shy of the floor. You felt as if you’d awakened from the loveliest of dreams, and that life had literally let you down the same way it did Icarus, who plummeted to earth after flying too close to the sun.

The quartet of parachutes in the Cape Ann show don’t rise – the ceiling is too low – yet the piece is just as potent, a succinct and sophisticated summation of war and its aftermath. There’s Hruby floating on one monitor, suspended between heaven and earth. On a second monitor, there’s you, captured in real time, implicated in Hruby’s saga. Hanging from a third parachute is a pair of battered army boots that speak of the sheer toil of war. Hanging from the fourth is a prosthetic leg.

Prostheses are a staple of Hruby’s vocabulary. In most figurative sculpture, the bronze, marble, or wood is effectively transparent: You read the piece as a foot, not a bronze foot. Hruby makes you hyper-conscious that his legs are wooden. There’s a yearning quality to these limbs, as if they, like the puppet Pinocchio, desperately wanted to be real flesh.

Hruby has liberated himself from his initial medium – steel – and now uses video, kinetic elements, sound, and whatever else gets his complex messages across. With hindsight, though, it’s possible to see the future in his early steel pieces. They’re rhythmic; he’s the most musical of sculptors. They suggest the figure without spelling it out. They’re gangly, like a newborn colt finding its legs, and they look eager to move. They also come with provocative titles. Several of them are plays on Shakespeare’s line ”Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” ”Uneasy Chair” is a metal whirl with one leg a ribbony loop that finally collapses on the floor, exhausted from the effort of all that twirling.

Also among the early works are helmets that would cover almost all of a warrior’s head, protecting him but also preventing anyone from identifying him, like the hood an executioner dons to become an anonymous instrument of death. The theme of hiding recurs in helmets painted in camouflage, sprouting real greenery. Hruby ridicules military headgear by turning it into planters.

”Migration Eastward” is based on his return to the United States after he became gravely ill at the end of his Vietnam tour. In the work, lead is draped over a series of distorted wooden stretchers in undulating horizontals that suggest movement over water. Lead is one of his favorite materials, one that suggests weight and impenetrability.

Male aggression is an important theme that Hruby explores through rifles, pistols that stand in for limp penises, sports equipment, and military gear scaled down to toy size to suggest that belligerence begins in the sandbox. In ”Goldpost,” he heaps football helmets, tennis balls, and hockey and lacrosse sticks into a totem, one of his signature forms; bathes them in gold paint; and gives them a four-pronged base that includes a crutch and a lumpy bandage. The shape suggests a missile, a metaphor for athletic competition gone ballistic.

Most of Hruby’s sculpture is exceedingly quiet. But in a walled-off section of the main gallery there’s visual cacophony in sculptures made of horns, bullets, and convoluted plumbing equipment, all in knotted, tortured forms. Music converts to mayhem. But the transition, both physical and psychological, is tough. In ”Instrument for War and Peace (NEA meets NRA),” he goes beyond his love of punning titles and incorporates a punning material: Purple Heart, the wood, not the military honor.

Civilians won’t understand the source of ”Army Regulation 670-1 (Grooming).” It’s a rule that sideburns can’t be longer than the horizontal level of a pencil stuck in the middle of the soldier’s ear. But there’s room for interpretation in the row of extremely convincing latex ears studded with pencils and the chain of ”trophy” ears beneath, each the proof of having killed an enemy. ”Army Regulation” is oddly ethereal, and putting its label and wall text around the corner is a brilliant stroke. Any text near the work would have crowded and cluttered it.

Three large installations – ”Fix Bayonets, Let’s Dance” and ”Juggernaut,” both from 1995, and the 1997 ”Minefields of Memory” – anchor the show. In ”Fix Bayonets,” Hruby muses on the irony of having dance lessons and bayonet practice on the same afternoon. Footprints marking intricate choreography, bleached into squares of parquet flooring, eventually give way to boot prints in what looks like thick mud.

In ”Minefields,” crutches engage in a macabre dance over fields of shifting sands and magnets. The crutches have individual personae: One ends in a high-heeled shoe, another is winged, a third takes the form of a harp. They angle every which way. In the catalog, Belz compares them to the spikes and lances that dominate Paulo Uccello’s 15th-century painting ”Battle of San Romano.” Hruby’s crutches are the sequel of the battle, though, which makes their formal similarity to weapons particularly creepy.

”Juggernaut” is an immense wheel outlined with boots, poised to roll down a ramp. I’d seen ”Juggernaut” in more spacious settings, where you had the sense you could move out of its path. In Gloucester, it’s in more claustrophobic quarters, and it seems inescapable.

Like artists such as Robert Gober and Kiki Smith, Hruby is obsessed with lifelike body parts. He also shares the late 20th-century tendency to uncover painful or shameful political realities and transform them into art. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission resulted in rafts of art addressing apartheid’s legacy. In redesigning Berlin’s Reichstag, architect Norman Foster ripped out walls to expose nasty graffiti scrawled by Russian soldiers, as if airing it would rid it of its stench.

Hruby emphatically does not fit into the ”war art” category, work that is generally either gory or cathartic or mawkish.

”Tour of Duty” comes with a useful video made by Hruby, who takes his work more seriously than he takes himself. At the end of one segment, the words ”This video has only lasted four minutes and 40 seconds. Can you believe it?” flash onto the screen. The show also has fine wall texts, some written by the artist, whose eloquence extends from lead and steel to language.

Hruby, 62, intentionally did not label his show a retrospective, a term that suggests looking back. He’s on a forward track; his work has only gotten better and broader. Like such giants as Matisse and Titian, he looks likely to become one of those artists who keep evolving into great old age.

“Contradictions of war surface in `Tour of Duty’”

Boston Herald, Mary Sherman, August 19, 2001.


For more than a decade, Ken Hruby has been delving into the dark recesses of America’s guilt – the guilt ofsending young men to an undeclared war and the guilt of treating them like pariahs afterward. Ever since the Vietnam War, some Americans are uncomfortable with the military. They feel shame over the military’s ignoble loss and its involvement in a war that many didn’t believe was America’s to fight. But what about those who fought? Those whose lottery numbers came up? Those who bravely felt it was theright thing to do?

Ken Hruby is one of them. In “Tour of Duty: Sculpture by Ken Hruby,” a 15-year survey of Hruby’s art at theCape Ann Historical Museum, the artist displays an ability to create work that is as insightful as it is disturbing, as humorous as it is beautiful and as contradictory as war itself. Hruby makes sculptures and installations that force us to confront the realities of war.

Using prostheses, he creates disturbing hybrid pieces and gives them such titles as “Uneasy Crown” and “Uneasy Urn.” “Juggernaut” consists of a multitude of Army boots that Hruby nailed to a large wheel, to suggest a blind and bodyless army of men crushing all that’s in front of them. Similarly, “Reminiscences” gathers stacks of shoes and insoles, topped with a pair of boots without laces. “Minefields of Memory” comprises old crutches, strung like marionettes and set to a jerky motor, to poignantly mimic the gait of their owners.

A former Army brat and West Point graduate with 21 years of military service, including tours of duty in Korea and Vietnam, Hruby knows his material intimately. However, the work is never so personal as to alienate its audiences. Combat and war are artistic images as old as the first marks found on the Caves of Lascaux. Hruby updates them with the use of welded steel and technology, including video and motion sensors. What makes his work so powerful, though, is its portrayal of humanity; specifically, humanity’s ability to dance at one moment – as suggested by the dance steps on the floor in “Fix Bayonets, Let’s Dance” – and to go off to battle the next. “Free Fall,” with its use of such romantic music as Satie’s, exposes the realization that a parachute drop can be as mesmerizingly beautiful as it can be deadly. Still, the camaraderie of the men is what helps to make it all tolerable; this is conveyed not only in the large-scale black and white pictures interspersed throughout the show, but also, more indirectly, through Hruby’s artistic homage to his fellow soldiers.

“Critical Mass: Mining War for Art”

Arts Media Magazine, Beth Surdut, September 15 – October 15, 2001

A friend of mine, a Vietnam veteran, enlisted when he was seventeen. That’s right, a kid. You should have seen the pictures he took: the pretty local girl who was his drug dealer, a close up of an opium poppy dripping with thick sap. My favorite photo was the one a friend had taken of him parachuting with three other airborne boys aloft in quiet blueness. “Minutes after I took the picture of this rice paddy we were attacked,” he said, showing an idyllic scene that looked like a shot out of a tourist brochure. He extended his tour because, he said, he couldn’t deal with playing soldier in the National Guard when he came back to the states.

I met him in 1971. For the first two years I knew him, not a day went by without a reference to war. A walk in the woods was a learning experience of good places for booby traps and a car’s backfire sent my friend diving for cover. He carried a P-38 (a can opener issued by the military) on his key chain.

The gentlest of men, he warned me that I should never touch him to wake him up, because he might kill me. He said he worried sometimes that some night in a bar some asshole would push him too far, that then he’d kill someone.

I have more stories of other indelible but not necessarily visible scars from veterans, but so does artist Ken Hruby, who tells his stories so well. Hruby demands our attention, as should anyone who has gone into war and managed to come out the other side. Interaction is the key, which is why it is necessary to haul your sorry ass out of the chair and into the fray. The ballsy smirk of “Short Arm Inspection” and the crushing power of the “Juggernaut” wheel of combat boots live in the same world as Hruby’s images of learning to dance (with male classmates) while becoming a soldier at West Point. The main room sings an eerie lullaby from the “Minefields of Memory” installation triggered by a motion detector. Creaking moaning crutches spasmodically swing and clack over beds of rice grains and compasses. Some of the crutches end in feet; others have entrails sliding down the gray wood. The effect is mesmerizing.

Hruby sometimes blatantly rips open your heart with a P-38 (as with the collection of ears that can cause instant distancing for protective purposes) or more subtly curls back a protective helmet to show what lies beneath. His written stories are the most effective, not the accompanying comments of curators, and with the case of the pseudo musical instruments, the story is more powerful then the physical construction.

“I never told anyone about the Vietnamese regimental surgeon, the flute and J. S. Bach. It seemed too insignificant. There were some real war stories to tell, after all, ” Hruby tells us. The stories are walking around with us in the minds of veterans, and Hruby prods us to acknowledge that war is not contained in a measured place or time period.

How can anyone be expected to live a “normal” life after participating in war, this most inhumane of human rituals? As a society we try to forget the wars and in the process negate the people who fought in them. Hruby’s ability to connect us, to help us understand, is his gift to us.

Sculpture Magazine, Marty Carlock, April 2002.

Except for his earliest work, the art of Ken Hruby cannot be analyzed solely in formal terms. Its in-your-face political message obliterates other considerations. In the unlikely event you don’t get it, Hruby’s highly literate labels are there to clue you in. Make no mistake, his messages are a valid one, deeply felt and generated by his own life. For 21 years he was an Army officer, a West Pointer who served in Vietnam and Korea. The message is about war, its costs and its ironies.

Levity and wit lighten the weight of this sculptor’s agenda. Even at his darkest, Hruby cannot resist certain playfulness. His installation, Minefields of Memory, is composed of a mass of crutches and prosthetic feet, hung from the ceiling. No two crutches are alike. Some end in wooden feet, some of which are shaped like a woman’s spike-heeled shoes. One crutch is topped by a winged form, as if its user might somehow fly. Implying the unwittingly passive sole of their user/victims, the crutches hang from cross pieces like those used by puppeteers. Every two minutes a machine sets the assemblage shaking and clattering in a dance macabre.

The retrospective “Tour of Duty” covers Hruby’s entire career, beginning with his studies at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in the mid-80Õs. Except for the amateurish student exercise Hyperbole (included perhaps to show how far Hruby has come), even the 1986 work is muscular and masculine. Cut from thick, dark steel that looks like bomb casings and weapons parts, the “Uneasy” series succeeds as abstraction, incorporating appropriate detail and already displaying Hruby’s talent for whimsical titles. Another work from the same period Chain Male is a helmet that resembles the butt end of a medieval cannon with an eye slit cut into it; steel springs hang from the back, something like hair and something like chain mail armor. Hints of a new direction – and of Hruby’s propensity for puns and verbosity – appear in “Goalpost”, a satirical totem built of gold-sprayed football helmets and pads, hockey and lacrosse sticks supported by a crutch, a cricket bat , and a lumpy bandaged baseball bat. His label speaks of our cultures fascination with the broken, sacrificial body of the athlete.

By the 1990’s the emerging artist was ready to acknowledge and exploit his former identity. An amusing series of musical instruments, subtly employing military imagery, began the process – a bamboo trombone and a fixed bayonet, a trumpet with bullets for its three valves, and a rifle with a stock of Purple Heart wood and a bell at the end of its barrel. Juggernaut brought critical notice in 1995. Simplicity in action, a mammoth wooden wheel is fitted with perhaps 100 infantry boots, all pointed in the same direction. Poised at the top of a ramp, the wheel threatens to roll down in a path of destruction. Juggernaut adds additional meaning to this intrinsic tension: the momentum of politico-military zeal, the number of invisible, faceless human beings locked into senseless goals determined by some absent authority, and the endless cycles of history and life, repeating the same mistakes of violence and domination.

More black humor emerges in three modified helmets. Mounted on Organic Camouflage are half a dozen tiny flowerpots containing living chives, parsley, and basil. In “Defoliant Camouflage” dead plants are stuck into the pots. Insight peels back strips of another helmet, giving glimpses of what may be on the wearer’s mind: wiring diagrams, fragments of quotations, stories, musical scores, and a bit of red lace. Even military men are said to cringe at Army Regulation 670-1 (Grooming) a row of ears, strung on a beaded chain line dog-tags, reference one way that the front lines tallied body counts. Above, more ears are pinned to the wall by pencils through their centers, parodying the regulation that soldiers’ side-burns may not be longer than that marker.

Much as we like to look at art without verbal explanations, Hruby’s labels are not only useful but also elegant and sometimes poetic. He writes, like mines, these memories are not always where I laid them…They shift and migrate in the bramble of my hippocampus. From these brambles, Hruby has dug out art or originality, power and impact.