Being Human

Three virtuoso artists explore the body in their works at Etherton Gallery

Alice Leora Briggs doesn't use pencil or pen to make her drawings depicting murder and death along the border. Instead, she wields knives.

Slicing into black scratchboard with tiny X-Acto blades, she carves away the darkness to reveal the light underneath, creating intricate white-and-black line drawings. Just as, say, a drug dealer who hacks off somebody's head can't go back and change what he's done, Briggs can't undo the scratch marks she makes with her knives. But she is so sure, so skillful with her strokes, that her masterly sgraffito drawings at Etherton Gallery are flawless.

Take, for instance, "Decapitación Humana," 2009, a grisly accounting of 12 skulls hanging on four rows of ropes. The skulls are turned in multiple directions--straight ahead, facing up, facing down--and each is anatomically precise, with gaping eye sockets in exactly the right places in the turned heads, their planes and curves precisely rendered. The title is inside in the picture plane, just like in a Mexican movie poster, and letters drip with black blood.

Briggs, a former Tucsonan, normally lives in Lubbock, Texas, but right now, she's living a half-hour from Juarez in a New Mexico town. She's doing a border-art residency while working on a collaboration with Tucson writer Chuck Bowden about the chaos on the border; their project is variously described as an "illuminated manuscript" and a "graphic novel." One day last week, gallery owner Terry Etherton said Briggs was working at that moment in the morgue in Juarez, a city whose drug wars have lately turned it into one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Briggs was drawing cadavers.

Her 20 pieces in the show, some with pale passages of acrylic paint layered over the scratch drawings, conjure up multiple horrors along the border line. "Camp," 2008, pictures a couple of desert vigilantes in close-up on the north side of la linea, their trailers parked behind them. It's hard to think of a more riveting image of pure evil than the faces of the two men, one grinning open-mouthed, his teeth lined up like tombstones, and the other tense, close-mouthed and mean-eyed, holding a switchblade open in his hands. (A small portrait of the artist's husband, the genial Peter Briggs, appears incongruously alongside these desperados.)

"Rollover," 2009, brings the deaths of migrants on America's highways up to the level of tragedy, where they belong. The carcasses of vehicles lie crushed on the nighttime roadway; troopers mill around the carnage. The naked dead, still terrified, are fleeing toward the Promised Land, grasping one another, their writhing bodies recalling the dances of death in medieval paintings.

Likewise, "Death of a Virgin," 2007, has a Madonna borrowed from art history. A killer aims his machine gun at the veiled Virgin Mary, who pleads--futilely--for her life, her hands clasped in supplication. "Tocino Fresco," 2008, pictures Bowden sitting at a café, taking in the streets of Juarez, where a dead pig lies on a cart, and vendor sells newspapers littered with photos of the executed. But Briggs doesn't confine herself to the apocalypse on the border; she layers in glimmers of other calamities, while using the borderlands "as a metaphor for all sorts of things going on in the world," she writes.

Briggs is an extraordinarily talented draftswoman, a gift that links her to Bailey Doogan and Chris Rush, the other two artists in this virtuoso exhibition, called Translations. The other two also take on difficult subject matter, and like Briggs, "explore the body as both medium and message," as Etherton wrote in the exhibition catalog.

Doogan has shown at the gallery many times over the years. Three years ago, her retrospective here and at the Tucson Museum of Art chronicled her lifelong project of mapping the body, especially her own, from the smoothness of youth to the crevices and creases of middle age and beyond.

This time around, Doogan concentrates on her face. Eight self-portraits--two in luminous black-and-white charcoal, five in oils, and one in photography (a collaboration with photog Jack Kulawik)--chart the ways humans arrange their faces into masks. Sometimes, the mask becomes reality.

In the catalog, the artist recounts that she suffered from severe depression after a series of illnesses and surgeries. She was unable to make art at all for two years. One night, in her usual despair, she tried to ready herself to go out to an opening. Standing before the bathroom mirror, she pulled her face into "socially acceptable facial expressions: smiles, grins, thoughtful concern."

Not only did the exercise help lead her toward emotional equilibrium; it gave her a new subject and led her back to art. She enlisted Kulawik to take photos of her twisting and stretching her features, and from these pictures, she made drawings and paintings of the contortions that helped bring her "mind, soul and body" back into working order.

In "Five-Fingered Grin," 2008, Doogan arches her left arm over her head to her right cheek, and pulls her mouth back toward her ear as far as she can into a painful grimace. "Four-Fingered Smile," also 2008, has her right arm going to the left side of her face, with her trying, and failing, to stretch her pursed mouth into a smile.

Both these works are charcoal on primed paper, and like Briggs, Doogan is able to render many gradations of light and shadow using just black and white. Though they offer dark visions of depression and its aftermath, they are softly beautiful.

Rush made his name in town for his Old Master portraits of disabled children and young adults, exquisitely rendered works that were both compassionate and dispassionate. He revisits this theme here, elongating the figures' features and limbs in the way of the Mannerists. In "Lu 2," colored conté crayon on paper, a nude young girl has a looming forehead and a coil of black hair circling her neck. "Emily," another young girl, has a disfiguring red birthmark sprawling across her face and chest, yet Rush captures her clear-eyed loveliness. This artist is particularly inventive in his media, often choosing materials from times past. A haunting black-and-white self-portrait, painted in oil on copper, is surrounded by a ghostly array of 19th-century portrait tintypes of men long dead. A child's school slate circa 1875 serves as the canvas for a chalk drawing of the back of a boy's head in "Lesson." For "Rhino," a 2009 drawing of bones, Rush rescued an 1831 Italian legal document; his fanciful dinosaur skeleton is alongside the flowering script of a long-dead scribe. "Coil 2," 2009, is a rigorous nude in conté crayon of a female body wrapped into the "child's pose of yoga"--arms and legs folded into the torso, and the head tucked under. The creamy skin and curves of the body are caught in a shaft of bright light.

As talented as he is at drawing, Rush is also a good painter, and it's a pleasure to see his colors in a show that leans heavily toward black and white. Among all the serious subjects, "Blue Brick," a 2008 oil on Masonite, is a delicious homage to pure beauty. In a pleasing composition of rectangles and boxes and curves, a bright blue brick sits atop a stark wall, partly in brilliant light, partly in shadow. Beyond is a turquoise background as alluring and lovely as a desert sky.

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