Border Ghosts

A show at Etherton is a reminder of the struggle between the powerful and powerless, and the tragedies that surround us

On a gorgeous overcast day in southern California, way back in 1979, when the sun and clouds played cat and mouse in the sky, law enforcement officials captured a pair of migrant Mexicans.

The two workers were in the fields south of San Diego in San Ysidro, an agricultural region named after the patron saint of farmers. Photographer Alex Webb—like the farm workers, like the agents—was working there too, and he recorded the arrest in a photo of unearthly beauty.

The four men—capturers and captives—stand knee deep in a fertile green field. They're surrounded by thousands of canary-yellow flowers, lit by rays of sun beaming in below the clouds. A helicopter clatters overhead. The two workers raise their arms in the air in a gesture of resignation, and the agents set about frisking them.

In the distance, another cop arrests another migrant. And no doubt beyond the frame of Webb's photo, still another worker is being apprehended, and another and another.

The picture, simply titled "San Ysidro," goes beyond journalism, all the way into art. Now 34 years old, the image is not just a documentation of one raid: It's a timeless icon of the unending tango between the powerful and the powerless.

Taking pride of place at Etherton Gallery in the big summer show Unpacked: The Art Fair at Home, the now-famous photo echoes Goya's "The Third of May 1808." (Thanks to gallery staffer Daphne Srinivasan for this insight.) The great Spanish artist painted a terrified man about to be executed by a faceless phalanx of soldiers. The man, like the migrant workers in California, helplessly flings his arms into the air.

Goya's painting was prompted by a Napoleonic invasion, but it's become a stand-in for the terrors of all wars. Webb's photo likewise moves easily between the universal and the particular. Here in Southern Arizona it's an eloquent reminder of the continuing tragedies of the borderlands. Between Jan. 1 and July 10 this year, the bodies of 108 migrant dead have been brought to the Pima County morgue, well above the 95 dead in that time frame last year. And during the record-breaking heat of June, when the temperature hit 100 degrees or more every day, the desert yielded 29 migrant bodies. Last June, there were 20.

"I can't fully explain why I have been drawn to borders and the edges of societies," Webb recently told a Los Angeles Times interviewer. "Is it my fascination with uncertainty, tension, and complexity? Perhaps. ... What I do know is that I seem to come alive, photographically, in such places."

A master of brilliant color and elusive narrative, Webb is showing a half-dozen works at Etherton right now, all shot on the streets of Mexico, Cuba, Haiti and Turkey. His photos are among some 130 pieces by almost as many artists in Unpacked: The Art Fair at Home, which rounds up art that the gallery has taken on the road this year.

Now back home after heading off to four art fairs between January and April, proprietor Terry Etherton and company unpacked the crates and put the work on the walls in the Tucson gallery. They've even scattered a few of the crates on the floor, not only giving the show a jaunty air of bon voyage, but also providing visitors with an inkling of what an undertaking it is to haul—or ship—valuable art around the country.

With its roll call of artists local and national, living and dead, who have at one time or other exhibited at Etherton, Unpacked is a bravura show of greatest hits. It brings together paintings and mixed media by mostly local artists, including Jim Waid, Nick Georgiou, Bailey Doogan and New Mexico's Holly Roberts, as well as priceless photographs by big-name photogs of the likes of Frederick Sommer, Diane Arbus, Danny Lyon and Harry Callahan.

The influential Sommer, who lived in Arizona, is represented by "Glass," from 1943, an abstraction of shards pushing out and beyond the picture plane. Callahan's classic 1947 portrait of his wife, Eleanor, has reduced her face and arms to a few elegant lines. Arbus has magnified a baby's squalling face to a monstrous size, and Lyon reprises his "Memorial Day Run, Milwaukee," 1966—a cool black and white of a cool motorcycle dude and dudette—from his last year's Bikeriders solo show.

Among the mixed-media artists, Georgiou, a New York transplant and the gallery's "pulp star," has devised what amounts to a brand-new genre. At a time where we're diving deeper and deeper into digital, he cuts up old books and newspapers, then folds the papers into tiny squares and rectangles and reassembles them into sculptural paintings.

One of his paper people, "Vivleia," is a full-scale human, a 3-D woman sitting on the gallery floor, peering out at all comers through a set of tubular eyes. "X Flowers" is a pretty wall work of flowers in a vase, each and every posy composed of discarded paper and lost words.

But Georgiou's pièce de résistance is "Wigorama," a 2012 wall piece inspired by the mysterious wig store downtown on Congress Street. (Who wants all those wigs and why?) Georgiou's grid of paper heads reworks the shop's window display of heads topped with wigs. He translates their blank features into cubist faces that look like they've escaped from Picasso's "Demoiselles d'Avigon." Georgiou is a master colorist, and he's twisted his colored book covers to craft noses and eyes and mouths—and wigs—wildly colored in orange and blue and green.

At first glance, "Wigorama" seems purely entertaining, just a crazy riff on a bit of downtown kitsch. But the more you look at those paper faces, with their staring eyes and screaming mouths, the more they move into Everyman territory. Georgiou's faces become emblems of all human lives and deaths, and all the joys and sorrows in between.

And when you see these souls there on the back wall, not far from Webb's "San Ysidro," they suddenly metamorphose into something specific. Their distorted faces turn into those of the desert's dead, of the travelers who dreamed of making a better life, but instead thirsted and suffered and died in the cauldron of the borderlands.

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