Life and Art in the Desert

Even though it might seem we’re living in a place containing only concrete, broken sidewalks and buildings, we’re actually living in a pretty vast desert, something readily apparent from a plane or even a fairly short drive. Of course, the word desert means different things to different people. Many who live elsewhere might think of the desert as being empty or barren. Those who have explored the desert know that careful scrutiny reveals abundant and varied forms of life. They also know it can be dangerous as well as rich and breathtakingly beautiful.

All of this by way of introduction to the exhibit “Desierto/ Arte/ Archivo” currently on view at the Central Cultural de la Frontera and running through the end of January.

This was a project begun back in June in which Dr Leon de la Rosa Carrillo engaged participants in exploring different aspects of desert life through a series of lectures and discussions led by different experts and figuring out ways of interpreting the culmination of those discussions through art.

Not unsurprisingly the show actually feels a bit like a desert. At first glance it seems spare, and perhaps even a bit arid. The predominant tone, mainly due to a few large pieces, is light brown. Like the desert itself the pieces require close inspection to reveal their beauty and riches.

Jane Terrazas’ work looks at first glance like a simple colored rendering of a part of the Chihuahuan desert, but it is, in fact, created with dyes made exclusively from plants found there with special attention paid to the controversial Samalayuca mine and the danger it poses to the region’s health. The qr code for the piece explains which plants produced which colors, and gives a more detailed explanation. While Terrazas uses plants, Cassandra Adame uses minerals and stones from the region to create pieces of jewelry set here among rocks from the area for her piece entitled Tierra de Nadie. (No Man’s Land, which also happens to be the Mexican title given to the movie Sicario.

The desert can mean a lot of different things. It can be a term indicating a place of danger and you might feel the need for protective armor, and while at first glance, Alejandra Rodríguez and Octavio Castrejón seem to have created what looks like some sort of Bedouin head covering, they have actually designed a physical protection which includes thick sharp wooden arm bands to protect against all manner of dangerous animals both four footed, but especially two footed, that roam in this desert city. Others mine their childhood or create desert curio cabinets to explore the theme.

The show contains video, installations, and among other pieces a series of very free flowing portraits drawn on long sheets of canvas. This work by artists Réne López Dorado and Alejandra Vargas called Sangre(s) de la Arena shows just the simplest rendering of individuals whose own recordings of reflections on their life can be downloaded from an accompanying qr code next to each

Perhaps the most impressive piece, and certainly the largest, is a recreation of the border wall with large recreations of all of the animals whose life is specifically threatened by its existence. This work called simply El Muro (the wall) by a team composed of Paola Mendoza, Laura Menesses, and JuanCarlos Reyes, provides something of an anchor to the show and is clearly linked to the impetus for the show itself, which was created in conjunction with Albuquerque 516 gallery as part of their Species in Peril of Extinction along the Rio Grande series.

At the risk of coming off as some kind of dinosaur, I do want to say something about the use of qr codes which are used exclusively here in lieu of wall information charts. They definitely provide a clean contemporary look and, more importantly, can transmit more and different kinds of information than can be provided on a simple wall post. On the other hand, while it might be safe to believe everyone has a phone capable of reading them, it seems a bit presumptuous to assume so. Additionally while the building, owned by the University, now offers free wifi to its guests, I’ve found it doesn’t always work, and not everyone has an unlimited data plan. This is not the fault of the show, but it is something that needs to be considered, otherwise it seems something of another unintentional barrier between those who have and those who don’t.

Apart from that quibble, this is an excellent show which reflects the hard work and careful thought expended in the long months of preparation and study, and focuses our attention on the fragile environment in which we live. – David Sokolec

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Scenes of Absence in Juárez, Syria, Sudan

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

Procesos – working the line

As everyone knows, the Maquilas, those factories set up by international and national companies along the border helped transform the economy of Northern Mexican towns. As everyone also knows, they created problems inherent in the work itself and also as a result of a certain culture often found within the work environment.

The Art Museum of Ciudad Juárez(MUACJ) has mounted an exhibit called Procesos de Línea -which opened last Friday the 13th asking us to take a look at some of the consequences of long hours and repetitive work.

Of course there have been any number of other exhibits, demonstrations, and performances over the years on the subject, but it is always worth remembering and taking a look at the lives of people within our community working long hours for little pay to produce all manner of bright and shiny consumer goods. – David Sokolec

At Saturday’s Charla con Mujeres Trabajadores as a part of exhibition Procesos de Línea.

Mago la Magnifica

Margarita Gandara Armendáriz (Mago) who died last year at the age of 89, has been given a well deserved retrospective at the Museo de Arte de Ciudad Juárez. A true fronteriza she was born in El Paso, but, interestingly, her grandfather registered her as a Mexican citizen. She was always interested in art, studied it formally and then after 25 years of marriage , divorced and constructed a private art studio in Juarez which she called Casa Cui and spent years there happily living and working alone until the violence in 2011 forced her out.

She was strongly influenced by Italian Renaissance al Fresco artists as well as by Byzantine mosaicists. From that beginning, she incorporated a wide variety of, at the time, untraditional material such as fiberglass, wood and incorporated techniques learned from bricklayers to focus on visually exploring her surroundings, but also the underlying cultural spirit in the form of prehispanic and Christian religious symbols which always lie just beneath the suface here .

La Maquina de la Esperanza

La Niña cósmica

Although she worked in many different media, it is unquestionably her large murals and her sculptures which are the most impressive and are here shown along with an installation representing her beloved studio Casa Cui.

Fortunately Casa Cui has now been turned into an art center which will not only keep alive the memory of this wonderful artist but also her desire for that space to be an oasis for artists.

Installation reproducing Casa Cui

The show continues until September 7. – David sokolec

Margarita Cabrera Named Texas Artist of the Year

Congrats to Margarita Cabrera for being named Texas Artist of the year by Art league of Houston. The former El Paso resident was cited for her work deeply involving communities and inviting the audience as active participant in her projects. She will be given a huge solo show later this year and a gala dinner. You can read more about it at: – david sokolec

Big Change at Museo de Arte

After some 20 Years at the Museo de Arte de Ciudad Juárez, Rosa Elva Ruiz is stepping down as director. She joined the museum in 1993 and became the first female director in 2001. After so much time it may be natural for her to want a change, but it’s going to be strange not to see her introducing artists, musicians and writers at various events.

I have so many fond memories of events at the museum- not just art shows but also concerts, literary events, and lectures. She has been responsible for so much activity including the long reconstruction of the museum after a devastating fire some years back. There have been remarkable expositions and, of course, there is the border biennial which began while she was director.

On the other hand, stepping into the role of director, is artist Diego Diego and it will be interesting to see what new and exciting things he’ll bring to the museum. The Museum is a part of the National network so there is really a lot to draw from although I believe money to do so is somewhat meagre

In any case I want to wish Rosa Elva all the best and extend congratulations and great success to Diego Diego. There are a lot of possibilities for this museum and I’m looking forward to seeing in what direction he will move it. – David Sokolec

Speed Demons

Marfa is known for minimalist art mainly because of Donald Judd, who lived there back in the day ; Julie Speed, who lives in Marfa now, provides an answer, or perhaps an antidote, in her intriguing show “East of The Sun, West of the Moon” currently on view at the El Paso Museum of Art.

This is a dense, reference packed show show comprising collages, oils and even an immersive video projection room.

Many of her collages feature a meeting of Eastern and Western historical or archetypal figures as a central theme. This, however is only the beginning. She fills the sides of the work with small inserts referencing a wide variety of subjects and references both artistic, biblical, historical-essentially everything but the proverbial kitchen sink.

Speed shows both wit – there is a painting called “Eating Warhol’s Lunch” , which shows a couple eating tomato soup, and another titled “Judith Reconsiders” which portrays Judith with the severed head of Holofernes, as well as a very dark side.

The works often include insets or background scenes of violence. A recurrent theme seems to involve bears devouring a fish or other wild animals behaving like wild animals. There are scenes of domestic chaos and sharpened knives.

Sometimes you can take in a painting at a glance. These are not those sort of paintings. They require close attention so as not to miss everything going on.

All of this is wonderful and exciting and something different. The Museum has also turned a conference room at the back of the exhibit into an immersive recreation of Speed’s own studio with video projection of her paintings filling the walls and a soundtrack playing her favorite music which is as eclectic as her art.

The show is up through April 7.

It feels almost sacriligeous to be talking about Jacob Lawrence second in this review. In 1938 this Lawrence , one of the best known artists of the Harlem Renaissance, made a series of paintings about Haiti. Near the end of his life, he made a series of prints from that series in which he concentrated on Toussaint L’Ouverture, the famous General and leader of the slave revolt which brought freedom to the island. It is this series of important prints shown in their entirety upstairs at the museum.

This will be up until Feb 27.-david sokolec