Lubbock artist Alice Leora Briggs’ Dreamland: The Way out of Juarez, which opened Sunday at the El Paso Museum of Art, leaves me extremely conflicted.
Obviously talented and extremely dedicated she uses a version of the ancient technique of sgraffito technique to explore her themes. In this case, she cuts white marks into black surfaces to depict contemporary themes which look like something from the Middle Ages.
Traditionally, Sgraffito, which originated in the 16th century, was used either to decorate external walls or ceramics and seems to have been most often used to expose different colors or to create a design in one color with an exposed contrasting color underneath. Briggs works exclusively in black and white. and her work seems more closely aligned to Northern European woodcuts, which it resembles, though with contemporary themes.
Here she has focused on Juarez and the horrendous violence which has recently attracted world-wide attention. She visited morgues, rehab centers which had been scenes of massacres, and other centers of death. She has accurately captured details including local newspaper headlines, accurately depicting real events like pigs head masks placed on bodies, and decapitated heads. but all in a richly detailed style which makes the contemporary look like some medieval scenario. In some cases, bodies are wearing medieval furs or corpses are cut open like some ancient medical display. This might be Durer visits Juarez.
There are also a series of “stamps” in which she has also evoked the violence here and linked it to global commerce, often in witty ways. These horrifying scenes are all extremely well done and beautifully rendered.
She is obviously exploring more universal themes of violence and death, globalization, past and present, among other things. The work is quite brilliantly done.
So where does the conflict come from? For the last year or so, Juarez has become a favorite hunring ground for worldwide press. Everyone from the BBC to El Jezeera has come and dutifully reported the violence and the horrors; El Pasoans are continually reminded of why nobody should ever step foot in ultra-dangerous Juarez
We who live here are beginning to feel like some cadaver being pored over by medical students and doctors. We feel like a patient spread out etherized upon a table (to appropriate the old poet), and frankly we are all sick of it. We are sick of people coming in from outside reporting on the most obvious and the most sensational. Everyone reports on the violence, and while we are glad that people are paying attention, we are tired of being portrayed as a city in which there is nothing but gunfire, kidnapping and extortion, important as those things have become to life here, The situation is far more complex and requires far more subtlety. One rather wishes someone would try to understand the essence of Juarez.
A number of Brigg’s works include pig images and some anti-police graffiti. This might have been a literal rendering of something she saw, but as an exploration, the situation requires much more subtlety. This work is going to be released as a book by UT press. It will include text by Charles Bowden, whose over heated prose also tends to make one cringe.
Obviously Briggs is a serious and dedicated artist, and equally obviously she is using the violence in Juarez as metaphor or as an aid in creating a more universal portrait linking present and past, among other themes. But this city is something more than suitable subject to be used and exploited as a metaphor. It should not perhaps make a difference that she is from somewhere else or that most of the work displayed comes courtesy of The Box gallery in Santa Fe, but it does.
Most of the University artists here no longer deal with the violence here partly because they are tired of how everyone else in the world has made Juarez an object of horror, and partly because everyone is trying to explore his or her own artistic themes and trying to live as normal a life as possible despite a difficult situation.
If Briggs is fascinated with death and violence, then perhaps she should explore the violence of the drunks running over people on the streets of Santa Fe or the crazies who burst into fast food restaurants or schools and blast away at everyone in sight. there is plenty of violence across the US to make tons of work.
If people are going to come here then one asks they really try to understand why Juarenses love Juarez, that they really understand not only the complex play of forces going on, but the richly complex life of people here, of the way in which Juarenses try as best as possible to live life as normally possible, why despite everything going on people still laught they still live they still go out and smilke at each other. Juarez is not a cadaver; it is not a subject for metaphor.-david sokolec