Brian Maguire is an artist with a gentle manner and a fierce spirit. He spends his time in various war zones and trouble spots talking to all sides involved, in the local prisons giving art lessons and to victim’s families listening to their stories. He then paints often enormous canvases based on his experiences. Maguire came to Juarez over a period of years during the narco wars, and included in his show Scenes of Absence on view at both the Rubin Center at UTEP in El Paso and at the Museo de Arte de Ciudad Juárez (MACJ) are portraits of some of the many women murdered during that time. One family member told him that these women were at the very margins of society and nobody cared about them, but now, through his art, they are in the very center of the city.
All of this is to say that Maguire does some very good things. He doesn’t just dash in like a photojournalist on a deadline, but takes his time to explore wherever he is.
His paintings show an extremely good artist in command of his medium. His work is realistic in a late 20th century sort of way, looser than the more highly detailed paintings of the 18th century painters such as Gericault and Goya both of whom he names as influences. His paintings here are large, in the case of those in the Rubín Center, almost floor to ceiling, featuring mostly somber urban landscapes or individual bodies painted in dark colors often overlayed with dripped paint.
At heart though the work is political and any purely aesthetic discussion is somewhat beside the point.
The question, and it pains me to write this, is what exactly is the point. I find his work somewhat problematic. Perhaps his idea is to illustrate the depressing similarity of the effects of war. Whether they are fought in the name of religion, as in Northern Ireland, which he covered, or in the name of politics, as in Syria, or in the name of business, as in the drug wars here in Juarez, the result on the ground often presents a depressingly similar effect, but a little bit of that goes a long way. . The scenes he has painted in Syria could just as easily have been found in Juarez and vice versa. There is a lack of specificity to them. Even more than Géricault, Maguire is a huge fan of Goya. I suspect he is thinking especially of Goya’s Disasters of War works which also show the horrors of warfare painted during the Napoleonic wars. But those referenced a specific time period and place and formed only a part of Goya’s work. For someone who has spent so much time in individual locations talking to people, he seems to be going for only the most obvious and failing to record the complexities unique to each location.
I’ve lived in Juarez since the beginning of the worst of the drug war years, when journalists descended on the city and portrayed it as little more than a war zone. Some visitors came expecting to see bullets flying everywhere and were surprised to find people in the street going about their daily routine. Rather than simply showing a somber empty landscape or a mutilated body, a more complete picture of that time would also include the true heroes which were average citizens trying to go about their business. Students continued to go to schools and universities, when doing so was an act of heroism, because as one student said “You never knew when you left for school in the morning if you or your friends would all arrive back home safely that night” . Yet they continued with their studies. They packed concerts and theater productions. They jammed into book and poetry readings. In the worse year of the violence in terms of murders they waited for hours to skate at a new improvised outdoor skating rink. If there is something universal about the horrors of war, there is also something unique to each place, and it is almost essential to try to capture that as well particularly for someone who is not a photojournalist on deadline, but obviously someone who can take his time to explore a city or area. In addition to portraying the scenes of violence in any area it is equally important to show how people continued basic civilized behavior in the middle of utter chaos, not to throw in some sort of optimistic note, but because that forms a crucial part of the scenario. During the war in the former Yugoslavia, a man in Sarejevo was asked why he always wore a sport jacket in the middle of such violence . He said “If I don’t, the barbarians will have won.” Rather than only portraying the obvious effects of a war on a city an exploration of a war zone should also show how people try to keep the barbarians from winning.
The show at UTEP will be up through December 13 and at MACJ through November 24.-david sokolec