Ambiguous Narratives

Alice Leora Briggs takes her 'manic duty' seriously, as her works at Etherton show

Alice Leora Briggs declares upfront that she has a "manic duty to make marks on surfaces."

She's not kidding. The 17 pieces she's exhibiting at Etherton Gallery are a cornucopia of scratch marks, a bounty of white lines crisscrossing and zigzagging without end across her black surfaces. But these spirited white lines are hardly in the service of abstraction. Briggs deploys them in meticulous scratch drawings that conjure up everything from an explosion in Beirut to a medieval torture chamber.

They trace out the wrinkles in the sagging flesh of an old woman's face. They evoke the spoons glistening on a banquet table. They sketch the outlines of a car shattered in a street. Briggs' drawing skills are so breathtaking, they rival such Old Masters as Dürer and van der Weyden. And in fact, her wholly original work makes abundant use of art historical references, fusing them with tragic images drawn from today's newspapers and television news.

"Exempla Suburbia," 2005, pictures a macabre crew dressed in medieval garb systematically tearing off the skin of a male victim tied to a table. The carefully drawn image could be right out of a Brueghel vision of hell. But a modern-day TV camera carefully records the mayhem, while beyond, a man mows a suburban lawn. The cameraman remains neutral to the pain he's chronicling, and the mowing man doesn't even bother to look.

The work seems to reproach us for our indifference to modern-day evils in hellholes like Abu Ghraib and Fallujah. But this is too simplistic an interpretation of Briggs' complex--even profound--work. Relayed in intricate compositions that link past and present, guilt and innocence, her works are an anguished cry against human suffering down through the centuries.

Briggs has a particular affinity for machinery, and she fills her works with fantastical gears and cranks and engines. Sometimes her scary wheelworks fill up the entire space, making them claustrophobic industrial prisons blocking out nature and light. In one, Jesus himself seems to weep.

"Five Blind Men," 2006, has five biblical-looking characters in the foreground of a factory, and a couple of workers in 1930s caps and shirts working in the background. The despairing Jesus sits at the center. One of the biblical characters reaches toward the eyes of another, but he may not be giving him sight. He's perhaps taking it away.

In the gospel of John, Jesus declared that he came into this world "so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind." The blindness metaphors may serve as Briggs' indictment of capitalism: It is the exploiters who are morally blind.

Rotting flesh and corpses flow abundantly into Briggs' crowded pieces, literally so in "Deluge," 2004. A man in a cozy L.L. Bean-style sweater, marvelously flecked with the artist's fine lines, calmly reads his Bible. Beyond him rages a flood, and panicked victims in the water scream for help and flail their arms, unseen and unheard by the sweater man. A bridge stretches above the swollen river, and lines of people in medieval hoods stoically climb the stairs and file across.

Like most of Briggs' works, this one mixes the tragic and the everyday. Most of us can go about our comfortable lives unaffected by distant drowning deaths in the 9th Ward of New Orleans or the lowlands of Indonesia. Likewise, a man and woman eat breakfast while a city explodes behind them in "Damage," 2005. Businessmen negotiating over dinner in "Departing Memory," 2005, hardly notice the decaying head lying on the table.

These characters could have come right out of a work like Brueghel's 16th-century painting of Icarus. Icarus tragically plunges to his death, his wax wings having melted in the sun, while an oblivious farmer goes on with the business of life, plowing his field nearby. Sometimes, plowing the field--keeping on keeping on--is the only sane alternative to despair.

Briggs has previously staged two gripping installations in Tucson. One at the Tucson Museum of Art mimicked a no-exit prison complete with electric chair. Another, a gigantic collaborative piece with Michael Cajero, created a writhing Purgatorio within the white walls of the UA's Joseph Gross Gallery. Now transplanted to Lubbock, Texas, with her husband, former UA Museum of Art curator Peter Briggs, the artist is no less inventive in these scratch drawings.

She's even made up a name--sgraffito drawing--for her distinctive technique. As a base, she uses clayboard, a layered surface with masonite on the bottom, hard white clay in the middle and a soft layer of dried black India ink on top. Her drawing tools are razor-sharp exacto knives, and when she draws, her knives remove the black ink and reveal the white below, bringing light to the darkness.

Briggs shares the exhibition with two Tucson artists who also create ambiguous narratives. Kate Breakey has made a name for herself in town and around the country with her Small Deaths series, large-format painted photos that memorialize the lives and deaths of the tiny critters whose corpses she finds around her desert home. The work on view is from the new series Memories and Dreams.

Breakey's using the same MO here as before. She poses the critters inside her studio, enlarging them to monumental size in giant photos and hand-coloring the gelatin silver prints. But she's working more in pairs now, creating relationships between her subjects. In "The Kiss," she arranges two small birds on a slant, face to face, one with a single wing unfurled. Dead red roses below confer honor on this poignant, even heroic, duo.

And Breakey's moving more into the still-life tradition, even deploying the classic tablecloth that you find coming from artists from the old Dutch painters to Cézanne. In the lovely "Three Nests," the woven twig nests are arranged on a white cloth tinted beige, against a wall colored a delicate lavender. These little bits of animal architecture, left behind by their late makers, stand in eloquently for the life that has slipped away.

Chris Rush reprises his imaginary portraits on historical documents. Seen a couple of years ago at Obsidian Gallery, these works feature Rush's own drawings on tossed-out papers the artist uncovers in Tucson and in European flea markets.

An elaborately hand-scripted document from 1773 France now bears Rush's charcoal sketch of the famous French wild child, complete with hairy face and braid. A 1912 arrest record for one Alice Swartz in Montana, on charges of operating a brothel called the O.K. House, is now adorned with what Rush imagines Swartz's face to be: hardbitten, but defiant.

Rush is a gifted draftsman, but it's unclear just how much his drawings add to these ephemera of history. The documents are interesting all by themselves, and the drawings pin them down too literally to a single interpretation.

Like Briggs, Rush seems to have a "manic duty" to draw. But he'd be better off making works entirely his own, like the majestic "Coil," one of the few all-Rush works exhibited in the show. A conté drawing on paper, it pictures a snake twisted into a jar, dead and beautiful, but ready to erupt.