"I find her pictures, in spite of the subject matter, to be strangely beautiful"
Alice Leora Briggs, Gun + Smoke, sgraffito on wood panel, 2007. Courtesy: Avants/Oullette Collection
"My artwork has not stopped the rapes, kidnappings and murders, or brought reason to this border city. But I am without other tools."
–Alice Leora Briggs
I admit it. I was apprehensive about attending this exhibition. I had seen images of some of Alice Leora Briggs’ drawings in advance: there were pistols, machine guns, tortured bodies and dead animals. All of the works interpret drug cartel violence in Juárez, Mexico. I expected the visit to be tough. Access to the museum’s second-floor Clinton Adams Gallery is by elevator; it swallows you on the ground floor and spits you out its rear door into a sea of red. Blood red. Nearly every wall in the gallery is painted this way, underscoring the death and despair in the art.
The elevator door opens on to "Gun + Smoke," a diptych that tells the story of an attorney who unwittingly scheduled a meeting with his own murderers. In one panel we see the killer’s left hand holding a gun—finger on the trigger—to the attorney’s head. Briggs then places the other side of his head in the second panel, slightly out of alignment with himself. There is a cigarette in his left hand and a ring on his little finger, suggesting an attachment. His face appears younger in this panel; next to him is a caring, bespectacled onlooker who registers no visible fear. The two sides of the attorney’s face show different emotions, but neither of these feels like fear, either. Instead, he seems resigned to his fate.
“I don’t think these things are beautiful,” says Briggs, “but I try to make the images beautiful because I think they deserve our attention.” This could be interpreted as a contradiction, but in fact it mirrors an inherent belief of the cartels, that they are killing people who deserve to die and that this is divine justice. Further underlining the contradiction is Briggs’ admission that she is interested in portraying “extreme situations that bring out the best and the worst in people.” She does so by using sgraffito—a technique with roots in 13th-century Germany—to cut, scratch, and gouge the pictures.
How oddly fitting to choose a violent method to create the drawings’ violence. First, Briggs prepares a wood panel with a substrate of white kaolin clay covered with a thin layer of black India ink. Then she uses objects like needles, knives, steel wool and wire brushes to create her detailed images. “Every time I make a mark,” she says, “I’m making a light in the dark.”
Briggs frequently includes references from allegories, history and Shakespearean tragedies, particularly those depicting martyrdom war, and torture. In "Death of a Virgin," the left half of the picture shows a detailed shooter, complete with ear protection and a shiny belt buckle. He inserts the muzzle of his semi-automatic weapon into the praying hands of the Virgin swooning into the arms of St. John the Evangelist from Rogier van der Weyden’s "Crucifixion Diptych," c.1455-59. The figures of the Virgin and St. John hang upside down in the right side of the drawing as though suspended from above. The entire background shows Renaissance-style figures that are inverted in the top half of the drawing and upright in the bottom half. When they are upside down they are in the business of dying and when upright they are simply going about their lives, eating, reading, lusting.
Briggs often presents events from normal life in the foreground while horrific violence occurs in the background. In "Damage," we see a man eating quietly, fork in right hand, napkin in left. His female companion holds one hand to her face in a gesture of worry. Behind them, destruction is total. There are burnt-out cars and a trashed and partly collapsed building. To inform her work, Briggs often travels to a Juárez morgue, or the site of a particular execution, or the “death houses” used for torture, or an asylum for the disinherited.
With "Abecedario de Juárez," Briggs borrows from Hans Holbein’s 1538 alphabet. Each letter is drawn on a separate board and not only represents elements of cartel vocabulary but is also often draped with a body or floats above a murder scene. Briggs’ intent is to show the daily killings as both industry and entertainment, and to capture the current vocabulary where each letter has its own glossary of narco terms.
The exhibition showcases 41 works, mostly sgraffito, from 1996 to 2012. Curator Robert Ware incorporates many quotes from Briggs in the accompanying wall text. The most chilling is Briggs’ description of her own brush with death in Chicago in the early 1980s when “a total stranger slammed a loaded gun into my mouth.” She also describes how no one stopped to help and how the experience “contributed to my interest in places like Juárez.” (Also setting the stage for her self-described preoccupation with mortality was the death of her brother in a climbing accident at age 15.)
In a media room next to the gallery, visitors can view an 80-minute film, "El Sicario, Room 164" (Icarus Films, 2011) by Gianfranco Rosi and Charles Bowd. This is a gripping interview with a Juárez hit man who worked as a police officer while on the cartel payroll. The interview takes place in a hotel room where he tortured his victims. He wears a black hood and punctuates his remarks by drawing on a white sketchpad. Watching even a few minutes of the film adds another layer of grim reality to Briggs’ paintings.
The elevator sends me back out into the museum’s bright lobby. I’m ready to shed the tension, and as I do I realize that I’ve reacted just as Briggs said—I find her pictures, in spite of the subject matter, to be strangely beautiful. Yes, it’s deadly red upstairs, but that’s also the color of life.