Natasha Mayers, “Oil Wars,” acrylic on canvas, 18″ x 24″. Photos courtesy of Zero Station

Satire is a powerful weapon that can cut like a knife. It deploys ridicule to expose absurdities at the very foundation of our ideas, carrying the potential to slice through delusions and propaganda and awaken awareness. At its most insurgent and catalytic, satire’s potency can galvanize, fomenting opposition, protest and revolt.

This is certainly the sentiment behind the work of Natasha Mayers’ War Chest series of paintings, which make up the bulk of Portland gallery Zero Station’s exhibition “Tell It Slant: Our Military Love Affair” (through May 13). But the show also raises questions for me about what makes satire work and what neuters it, as well as who is in a position to most effectively wield this visual equivalent of a “poison pen” to harness all its searing potency.

Schematically speaking, the show interrogates our glorification of war and conquest, and our fetishization of uniforms and military power. The title comes from Emily Dickinson’s poem “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” which argues that truth must be delivered gently to avoid shocking and overwhelming the recipient into rejecting its incontrovertible verity.

This accurately describes Mayers’ approach to her subject matter. She depicts uniforms, medals and bodies in a cartoonish manner using bright, cheerful colors that are easy to take. Our likely reaction is laughter at the ridiculousness of these stout, boxy, highly decorated get-ups, which are so solemnly donned by any number of petty dictators and little Napoleons. We grasp the emptiness behind these costumes’ purported power, especially because most of them are not filled out by an actual human body, their presence impotently vacant of the animation and life the wearer would bring to them.

Mayers employs a lot of wit – and obvious delight – in designing her own martial paraphernalia. We read these initially only as the usual militaristic sashes, bars, epaulets and chest decorations you’d expect. But the titles (more on these in a minute) send us back in for another look. In “Oil Wars,” for instance, we see that the medals are actually stylized logos of international oil conglomerates. It’s a bit didactic, but nevertheless adds a layer of satire to the work.

However, the didacticism of these titles sometimes gets the better of Mayers in the sense that it can throw water on what could have been a more incendiary statement. For me, their jokiness dilutes the impact of the intended message. “Tidy Whitey” and “Captain Underpants” are two such instances.


Natasha Mayers, “Tidy Whitey,” acrylic on canvas, 18″ x 24″.

If we ignore the title of the first, we perceive an image that is viscerally painful: a torso that looks shot through the neck and in the shoulder. Inside the shoulder wound we discern three figures that represent war victims. A tank, a grenade, a hooded figure (immediately recalling the notoriously iconic Abu Ghraib image) float at the surface of the picture plane. There is also a severed ear, which I took to represent a kind of gruesome war trophy. This assembly of symbols, together with the piercing of flesh, on its own transmits a forceful indictment of war’s depredations. The figure wears only a white T-shirt and briefs, which, had it not been called out in the title, would have perhaps felt like further humiliation to the tortured body. The catchy rhyming term “Tidy Whitey,” however, seems to make light of everything we’ve just perceived.

Natasha Mayers, “Captain Underpants,” acrylic on canvas, 18″ x 24″.

“Captain Underpants” also features a man in briefs (these covered in patriotic stars). The ludicrous title again injects humor that undermines the impact of the painting. Here the body looks almost as though his hands are bound. The medals are squeamishly pinned to his skin – two directly to his nipples – which also appears covered with what could be scars or war paint. Bombs rain down from the sky in the background. Between Mayers’s blocky and cartoonish rendering and a title that invokes a comic book character, we lose an edginess that would make the image more compelling.

It’s clear the artist is making fun of this figure. But with casualties mounting from armed conflicts across the globe – in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sudan – is it enough to just make fun of war? In Mayers’ defense, the War Chest series is not a new body of work. Most were painted between 2019 and 2020. Depressingly, however, there was no shortage of violent, lethal hostilities back then either. The intended sense of urgency that gave birth to the show only occasionally flickers in the work itself.

The curious thing is that Mayers is a well known Maine-based activist who has supervised many projects (from Maine to Nicaragua) that deal with issues of social justice and world peace. That impulse is certainly behind the War Chest – and other – series. Maybe the choice to serve her political statements with a more palatable dose of sugar (color, the cartoonish style) wins more people over. If so, more power to her. How ever the message gets across is important in this day and age. I just wonder if a more confrontational, hard-hitting approach might be more effective.

Brilliant satirists have responded with outrage throughout art history. Honoré Daumier and Georg Grosz come immediately to mind. In Daumier’s 1831 lithograph “Gargantua,” for instance, the artist depicted King Louis Philippe sitting on a portable toilet as the privileged French bourgeoisie ascend a ramp to his gluttonous gaping mouth. At the other end of his digestive track, the king rewards them by defecating a torrent of titles and other honors. The work landed Daumier in jail.

In his “Sunny Land” of 1920, Grosz employed a similar palette to that of Mayers. Yet this watercolor on paper teams with blood and slaughter. The power brokers behind the Weimar Republic’s crushing of a post-World War I Spartacist uprising (where Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered, along with 150-200 other antigovernment protestors) are shown as suited pigs. A dog makes off with someone’s entrails and a mad butcher in a blood-soaked apron wields his still-dripping knife. Grosz, too, was jailed for partaking in the uprising.


The penetrating, corrosive force of all these works lies in their grotesqueness and their unflinching denunciation of government’s corrupt misuse of power. As inventive and well painted as Mayers’ images are, they are mostly free of this barbarism or a humor that is insurrectionist enough to almost feel dangerous. Of course, incarceration is fortunately unlikely in Mayers’ case. But the lack of threat (of legal action or at least scandal) to any protest artist in America already neutralizes a lot of this type of work. Which means to me that it’s incumbent upon the artists to toe a harder line if this art is to rise above benign critique.

Natasha Mayers, “Purple Hearts,” acrylic on canvas, 18″ x 24″.

In 2000, while visiting Cuban artist Esterio Segura Mora in Havana, I learned that he had been forced to remove a work from an exhibition that depicted Castro wearing his typical military green from the waist up, but fishnet stockings below. He was commenting, Mora said, on the subtle homoeroticism of war and uniforms. One work in the Mayers show, “Purple Hearts,” does something similar. It depicts a muscle-bound male torso with a hairy chest and arms. Again, medals are pinned into his skin. He wears fringed epaulets, a sash and, over his crotch, another medal.

This image has some bite. It toys with sadomasochism, the idea of men closely imbedded with men, the gay fascination with body building, and uniformed sexual role-playing that the Village People lampooned so gleefully. The “purple” of “Purple Hearts” also takes on a different context here because lavender symbolizes gay empowerment. This work stings because even though discrimination against LGBTQ servicemen and servicewomen is illegal today, the great majority of LGBTQ military personnel remains reluctant to come out in a culture that is still hypermacho and not gay-friendly.

“Purple Hearts” is funny, of course. But it also hints at a deeper toll. That’s what imbues this and other paintings I mention (sans the silly titles) with their potential to influence minds and pierce our hearts.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: 

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