On Sunday a friend and I decided to ride our bikes downtown. Our real objective was to see the new Woody Allen movie, but as we hooked up 19th Street and around Lincoln Avenue, our short jaunt became more than just a movie outing: In one of those expansive parking lots left over from Denver in the 1980s stood a jaw-dropping billboard. It wasn’t that the billboard was large or imposing–actually, it was on the small side and somewhat lost in a sea of parking spots. Rather, it was the image on the billboard that made us stop, mid-hill, and stare: The face of a man, tilted on its side, as if he were sleeping, blue eyes glazed over. Printed in large white letters above the face was the word SOLDIER.
My first reaction was to assume this was a dead man. A soldier from Iraq, caught in his last moments, and posted now during the Democratic National Convention to remind voters that conversations about the Iraq war needed to be a part of the presidential race. But a quick post-bike ride investigation into the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver-sponsored billboard made it clear that I had oversimplified. Indeed, this was a real soldier, but he was far from dead. New York-based photographer Suzanne Opton–who has shown her work at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in Paris and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston–took this photo of Soldier Claxton in 2004/2005 after the young military man had served 120 days in Afghanistan. The shoot was a part of her Soldier Billboard Project, a photo series documenting the young men and women who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Opton wanted the U.S. to intimately see the faces of our citizens who had experienced the horror. In posting Opton’s project during the DNC, MCA Denver is undeniably asking viewers to consider war in light of the presidential race–and her way of doing so is forceful. So forceful, in fact, that Minneapolis, which agreed to show the work during the Republican National Convention, has rescinded on the agreement, and rumor has it that the same has happened in Atlanta and Houston have, which were to host billboards between the conventions and the election. Only Denver is guaranteed to experience this frighteningly thoughtful art. Visit the Soldier Billboard Project at 1950 Lincoln Avenue through September 21.