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.

Aleppo

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

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Border art themed openings

There are two openings this focused on border issues.

Tonight (Friday) Metalworker extraordinaire and good friend Ale Carrillo-Estrada is opening her solo show “Itinerant Dialogues” at Xolo Gallery 2800 N Piedras from 6 -9 pm. A too brief summary is that she fuses carefully constructed jewelry and other metal items with themes concerning immigration and border culture.

Tomorrow from 2-4 at the Chihuahua Desert Museum on the UTEP campus there will be the opening of “Uncaged Art”. This important and probably heartbreaking show is the art work of 13-17 year old immigrant children who were held in the detention center at Tornillo. Current UTEP President Diane Natalicio as well as other special guests will speak at 3 and I’m hoping it will show that you can cage the body but not the spirit. – David Sokolec

September is for art

It’s September and time for art on both sides of the border.

Rubin Center at UTEP is opening three shows this Thursday (Sept 20). Kerry Doyle, the indefatigable director, went to Oaxaca (does she have the best job ever, or what) and explored the booming print scene there. With co-curator Carmen Cebreros Urzais, whose extraordinary CV seems to go on forever, she has brought back a variety of prints for a show called Iconografica Oaxaca by artists who are blending the traditional indigenous iconography with the contemporary.

The second show called Revolutions is by Russian born artist Yana Payusova who uses the medium of ceramics to explore issues of power and gender. She has exhibited internationally and is currently teaching at University of Arizona in Tucson.

The third show features internationally known Mexico City based artist Betsabee Romero with a show called Tu Huella Es El Camino. Her themes include issues of immigration, globalization and cultural issues in general.

I believe this exhibit includes a large installation outside of the gallery.

So all of this is opening Thursday night from 5-7.

Meanwhile on this side of the border, the Museo de Arte, which is celebrating 50 years is opening a show called Exilios del imaginario which features a retrospective of photographers who have shown at the museum from 1968-2018. This is set to open on the 28th at 7pm.-david sokolec

Kress Collection Rehang Misguided

The Kress collection at the El Paso Museum of Art, comprising works roughly from the 14th through the 18th century, is a remarkable treasure and has often quite correctly been called the crown jewel of the museum. Contrary to what some have said it really was rehung some 8 years ago along traditional historically linear lines with each room painted a different color to further emphasize the different time periods on view. This was not all that dramatic a change, but simply neatly divided the work up in historical categories.
Apparently the current administration decided the collection needed a complete reorganization, received a grant from the Kress foundation to do so and hired Dr. Elizabeth Dwyer, who fairly recently received her PhD from the University of Virginia for the task.
She decided to hang the collection thematically and to that end chose to hang the works based on the categories of “Madonna and Child”, “Honored Saints” “Sacred Stories” and the “Rise of Secular Art.”. This latter includes the sections world views, Rococo portraits, Nature’s outlines and grand portraits.
While the section of secular portraits and domestic scenes are fine, it is the art in the first rooms which focus on religious content rather than the treatment of that content and, more appallingly, explanatory notes which are too often mere religious propaganda and proselytizing which makes this current approach extremely troubling.
While individual exhibitions with a limited shelf-life are often created to call attention to content or to some link between different artworks not immediately apparent, more permanent displays, such as this is intended to be generally are designed to call attention to the skill involved or to historically important works. As such the display of religious works of art in public museums has always been universally acceptable precisely because museums, at least good ones, take care to take an objective, non-religious view of the art regardless of the relation individual patrons might have with the content.
The display would perhaps not be quite so objectionable were it not for the accompanying informational cards which too often read like religious propaganda.
One card begins “For two millennia, men and women of remarkable faith, fortitude and virtue have shared in St. Jerome’s desire for eternal salvation.”
In another card concerning St. Francis, someone for whom I have a great deal of respect, the card reads more like a Sunday school catechism class than something appropriate for a museum. There are far too many “Our fathers” and other such verbiage spread about which creates something deeply troubling and ultimately off-putting.
The thing is it didn’t have to be this way. The works themselves are nicely displayed. As in the rest of the museum, the walls have been painted bright white or covered in white wall covering with a vaguely Italianate background,. and whether it is the reflection of the light against the now bright white walls or whether they have intensified the lighting, the effect is that details are more easily seen. This is a little shocking at first as we have lost the more intimate feeling which was provided by dark crimson walls and subdued lighting from before, but does make the fine detail more available. Reminds me of a certain club in Chicago back in the day which turned on all the lights at 5 in the morning when they wanted everyone to leave. You could see every detail-scary in the club, helpful here.
Even with the works displayed to focus on the religiosity of the work, there could have been a more thorough objective discussion. For example a larger discussion of how the portrayal of the Madonna and Child from a purely otherworldly view to a more human one reflected the profound change in thinking resulting in the Renaissance. This was mentioned on one of the cards, but the theme could have been much better developed, along perhaps with a later discussion of how as money began flowing to individuals rather than only to the church, art changed from glorifying religious figures to glorifying wealthy individuals. This would have provided a better bridge to the later works in the show which seem a bit unconnected. There could have been a discussion of gold leaf or the importance of certain colors, or the inclusion of certain patrons within what were exclusively religious works. These religious works were, of course, originally intended as instruction, but art museums have been correctly and fairly scrupulous in avoiding this aspect. Here it seems to be predominant and this is completely unacceptable.
An art museum is a place for everyone, regardless of personal belief, to feel welcome and a close scrutiny of much of this rehung collection does the opposite. Despite a few interesting bits of historical information such as that on a Jacopo del Casentino altarpiece, the misguided choice to focus on theme has led to a display which is too often off-putting, divisive and deeply troubling.-david sokolec

Extinction and Excess

In the show Ethics, Excess, Extinction currently on view at the El Paso Museum of Art, the elephant in the room is the elephant in the room, or rather three large white puffy elephants created by Billie Grace Lynn. I don’t know whether the artist considered the idea that the term “white elephant” refers to a usually large, expensive undesirable purchase or if white was simply the color of the material at hand, but in either case they are here to remind us of the danger to the species as well as the danger to many others. One of the really heartbreaking photos in the show is by Nick Brandt, whose black and white photos of park rangers in Africa holding elephnt tusks is a simple but powerful image of the destruction men have wrought on these wonderful animals for the sake of money.
The show consists of a wide variety of approaches to the subject. Karen Knott has a haunting group of photos from her India series which shows an animal ensconced within the walls of a beautiful India interior.
Internationally known artist Kiki Smith contributes a number of huge tapestries portraying various wild animals. There is documentation of performance artists and videos linking people at a flea market with animals foraging.
All of the works in this show remind us in various ways that we are not the only ones on the planet,and that extinction not only means a loss to the animals but a profound loss for the world.
The show is organised by Artworks for Chicago and runs through May 13.-david sokolecIMG_20180221_140256701~2.jpgFotor_151925865347478.jpgIMG_20180221_140740398~2.jpg

Frida y Diego en Blanco y Negro

There is a reception tonight (Sept 7) at the Franklin Smith Gallery in the Chamizal National Memorial in El Paso for what appears to be a great exhibition of photographs taken of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
Sponsored by the Consul General of Mexico in El Paso the show called “Una Sonrisa a Mitad del Camino”features photographs of the daily life of the pair by such luminaries of photography as Edward Weston and Manuel Alvarez Bravo among others.
The reception scheduled for 6 pm will also feature the participation of the group Euterpe Jazz Flamenco.
The exhibition will continue until December 22. -David Sokolec

Dreams Under Border Skies at Rubin Center

I thought the day the DACA program was rescinded would be a good day to visit Erika Harrsch’s installation Under the Same Sky..We Dream at the Rubin Center.
Before I talk about the show, I want to talk about the flood. No, not that flood, but the one that hit the Rubin Center here in El Paso. It seems the intense rain last Friday completely flooded the first floor of the center. There had been problems during rains before, but this was so bad that everything had to be ripped up and torn out from the small auditorium to the offices. The first floor currently looks like a construction site. Fortunately the main gallery space upstairs was untouched, and the indomitable director Kerry Doyle is currently running her empire from a card table set up in the small corridor between the reception desk and the back room. Here’s hoping that all get repaired soon.
As I said the upstairs gallery is fine and that means one can certainly explore the current exhibions. Erika Harrsch is based in New York, but she has spent a fair amount of time on the border and her work often concerns immigration and border issues. A year or so ago, she set up a huge spinning wheel here in which participants could “win”a North American passport”” which presumably would give one the right to freely cross all borders in North America. Revolutionary concept. Shengen convention anyone?
Here she has done something quite moving.
Hanging from the ceiling and completely stretching from one side of the gallery to the other is a cutout of the US-Mexico border completely filled with a video composed of 35,000 photographs of the sky over the Juarez-El Paso border. This video consisting mainly of shifting cluds is projected on both sides of the cutout. Ducking through this low hanging cutout (well, some probably have to duck, others of us can just fit beneath)brings one immediately to a darkened space filled with the same mats and blankets used in ICE detention centers. On each mat is a “Dreambook” illuminated by an attached reading light, containing the words of the “Dream Act.” From stereo speakers comes the magical voice of Mexican singer Magos Herrera singing those same words and thereby transforming the pure legalize into something truly wonderful. I was vaguely reminded of the practice of singing the words of the Torah, which also transforms what are, at times, purely prosaic words and some fundamental laws into something somehow much greater.
One is encouraged,to sit on the mat, read the book, listen to the words being sung and wafting over the room and then looking up at the shifting clouds projected above and ponder, reflect and perhaps to dream.
This is a deceptively simple, and perhaps precisely because of the simplicity powerfully moving work.
The installation is accompanied by a collection of interviews with various dreamers made by the Santa Fe Dreamers Project. Around the corner from Harrsch’s installation photographers Sylvia Johnson and Kerry Scherck show portaits of dreamers and a short interview with each one in which they discuss their life and hopes and dreams.
The two parts of the show combine perfectly into a profound reflection on an extremely relevant and important issue.
Erika Harrsch and some of the “dreamers”will be holding a panel discussion on September 28 at the show’s closing. It is scheduled for 6 pm, but check with the center for more details. -david sokolec