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On Exhibit: Jo Aerne's antiwar messages

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"You're a technician, you don't hear the screams." Chicago artist Jo Aerne took this quote from a Vietnam vet she heard on a radio talk show and had it copied on a stack of black four-by-five-inch stickers in plain white Helvetica lettering. This is just one of about 100 sticker designs she's been handing out this year; she intends her terse messages to turn up in unexpected places. "You're going down the street to buy your diet yogurt, and you see this fact," she says. Like "55,000 died in the Vietnam War--60,000 Vietnam vets have since committed suicide." Or some of the pithy progressive editorials she authored: "Dependent on oil, dependent on war" or "Rearming the Middle East is the fastest way to pay for the war."

Aerne is attuned to the words deployed in the New World Order. One of her stickers reproduces a Pentagon euphemism for the invasion of Panama: "Predawn vertical insertion," which hardly sounds like diplomatic intercourse between consenting countries.

The gulf war inspired this 34-year-old graphic designer (who just received a Fulbright to study in Holland) to create her sticker art. Although the stickers were designed to be displayed on the street, Aerne has now brought them into a gallery as part of an installation titled "Messages" at Gallery 1616.

Yet even inside a gallery Aerne offers her stickers as communication, not as a commodity. "You cannot invest in it--you can have it. You can't buy or sell thoughts," she insists. Her adhesive-backed messages, stacked neatly on white pedestals, are meant to be taken by visitors, who may post them wherever they choose beyond the gallery's confines.

"Messages" also includes other artworks. In one corner a VCR plays a Fourth of July cable special: the Arts and Entertainment channel's Desert Storm--the Mini-Series. A La-Z-Boy recliner is stationed in front of the set, along with warm Coke and cheese twists. A camouflage Desert Storm cap (made in Korea) is parked atop the coatrack. And a selection of illustrated Desert Storm bubble-gum cards sits on a side table: "We Aim at High Things" (the 62nd Air Defense Artillery's motto), "Dropping Behind the Lines," and "Wearing the Gas Mask."

"In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue," reads a ten-year-old schoolgirl on tape, a singsong recital that's part of another work in which an 11-by-14-foot checkerboard of plaques indicts the U.S. for its history of military intervention. Aerne's black-and-white "Intervention Wall" itemizes international and domestic incidents most textbooks omit, including "1893, Hawaii, Independent Kingdom overthrown"; "1901, Oklahoma, Army battles Creek Indian revolt"; "1943, Detroit, Army puts down Black rebellion"; "1967, Detroit, Army battles Blacks, 43 killed."

Aerne also forecasts interventions to come through 1996. The last six plaques on her game board speculate about U.S. military involvements in Iran, North Korea, Peru, Cuba, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

Raised in downstate Granite City, Aerne became aware of U.S. foreign policy in high school when talk over the dinner table about the Vietnam war "got uncomfortable." Later, trips to Europe and Central America taught her how little she grasped our country's agenda abroad. She finally concluded that only an electorate grossly ill served by the media could elect the likes of Reagan and Bush.

Aerne discovered that her art was hitting close to home when she read an entry in the gallery's visitors' book that her sister, a GM executive, made after seeing the exhibit: "From a previously dedicated Republican and Capitalist, now paying a little more attention."

Jo Aerne's "Messages" can be received at Gallery 1616, 1616 N. Damen, through August 30, from 2 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday or by appointment; 486-7942.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.

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