With so much of contemporary art shying away from tough social and political issues, Alice Leora Brigg’s “La Linea” and Rigoberto A. Gonzalez’s “Baroque on the Border (Barroco en la Frontera)” deliver a powerful one-two punch to apathy about the drug cartel-fueled violence on the United States-Mexico border.
Neither has seen FX’s new El Paso-set police procedural The Bridge, but both artists have spent enough time in Juárez and other border towns to realize the breakdown of a reasonably safe society in Mexico is not going to be stopped by political barriers. As recent cases of drug cartel money laundering in Austin and San Antonio have shown, Texas is not immune to what happens south of the border.
Briggs says she crosses the Santa Fe Street Bridge in El Paso, featured in the FX series, when she visits an asylum in Juárez, which inspired her large-scale polished aluminum installation, Near Impunity. Made from flattened aluminum cans, it could be a stage set for a surreal production of Marat/Sade with strange props, such as a giant sundial, and various levels, gates and windows. Inscribed with cryptic phrases, “This is not a meth lab” and “Leave me alone,” it’s decorated with Briggs’ sgraffito drawings, which employ a double-layer technique of scratching away plaster, ceramics or paint from the top layer to create drawings with the bottom. It dates back to the Middle Ages and was particularly popular during the Italian Renaissance.
One of the patients is depicted in La Ventana curled up in a fetal position on a straw-covered floor in what looks like an abandoned factory. The centerpiece is a drawing inspired by Mantegna’s Dead Christ with the corpse morphing into machine parts. Despite the asylum’s primitive conditions, Briggs says she has seen some improvement in the residents, ranging from drug addicts to the seriously mentally ill, perhaps because the asylum’s bucolic setting could be a peaceful refuge compared to the street violence of recent years.
President Obama makes a cameo appearance in Altar Parsioneros, based on Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Socrates. Tugging at the arm of the doomed philosopher, the President plays Crito, who begged Socrates to escape his execution, while Socrates chose the rule of law, upholding the social contract of government.
In her Abecedario de Juárez, Briggs uses the letters of the alphabet to detail the daily reality of the border with images of dead bodies, a gangster with sunglasses, a mutilated torso and a soldier grabbing a man in a headlock. Drawing upon neoclassical sources, Briggs shows that while Mexico may yearn for the rule of law, barbarity reigns.
Gonzalez applies the lessons of Michelangelo and Caravaggio to depicting border violence in his large-scale baroque figurative paintings that have epic sweep and a haunting, operatic grandeur. Filling an entire wall, On the 17th of February of 2009 in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico makes you feel like you’re standing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, but this crowded contemporary street scene centers on a dead man and a woman crying over him. She is being held back by friends, a crowd has clustered around to see what has happened and heavily armed military men keep watch. On one side, a mariachi band appears poised to sing a new narcocorrido.
Although the Mexican folk ballads tend to romanticize the drug outlaws, Gonzalez says his paintings are intended to have the same popular appeal, but by using the techniques of the Old Masters to capture the eye while forcing viewers to directly confront the drug violence and harsh conditions along the border.
The Kidnapping could be a scene from The Bridge. While his girlfriend screams, a man struggles against his captors, who no doubt want to shove him in a car trunk, never to be seen alive again. La Guia (The Guide) shows a teenage girl leading a group of migrant workers crossing the Rio Grande by moonlight. Despite the tense drama, the guide’s muddy feet and determination are what make an impression.
The faces on severed heads in a series called So That They Learn to Be Respectful appear serene and composed. However, based on his observations of severed heads, Gonzalez says the challenge is not to make them appear like props in a bad 1970s horror film. He bases his interpretations on the numerous paintings by Old Masters of the head of John the Baptist.
Both Briggs and Gonzalez are steeped in art history and skillfully employ these old world approaches in an effort to infuse contemporary art with a much needed focus on current events. While we agonize over the terror in Syria, the terror in Mexico has become background noise that’s easily ignored.
Using techniques gleaned from the Old Masters, Briggs and Gonzalez force viewers to deal with the border violence by making it hard to look away.