Glorious Guns

A timely installation at MOCA examines the weapons of the drug trade

Earlier this month, Mexican President Felipe Calderón made a showy stop in Ciudad Juárez, the violent city just south of the Texas border.

Calderón stood next to the international line and made a plea in English to his neighbors al norte, begging them to stop the flow of American guns south into Mexico.

"Dear friends in the United States," he said, according to The Associated Press, "Mexico needs your help to stop this terrible violence we are suffering."

Law-enforcement officials believe that a majority of the guns that fall into the hands of the narcotraficantes come from Texas and Arizona, where the laws are lax, and weapons are easily had. These American weapons have played a part in the slaughter of some 50,000 people in the Mexican drug wars over the last five years.

There's nothing romantic about this deadly trade, but in Plata o Plomo (Silver or Lead), a timely art installation at MOCA Tucson, Texas artist Camp Bosworth examines the narcos' romance with the gun.

Lovingly carved golden guns the size of men preside in the museum gallery, alongside giant rifles, machine guns and bullets that are gorgeously tricked out. A huge gold-chain necklace, wads of carved hundred-dollar bills and bottles of tequila catalog the rewards of the narco trade. A painting of a lonely country graveyard illustrates its tragedies.

The guns may come from the U.S., but they do their bloody work in Mexico, and Bosworth crafts his art weapons using Mexico folkloric techniques. Many of the motifs—death heads, snakes, jaguars and eagles—come straight out of Aztec art. Artisans along the border and points south are renowned for fine metalworking and carving, and Bosworth's big guns are similarly beautifully made.

"Plata o Plomo," 2011, the exhibition's title piece, may be the biggest gun of all, at about 9 feet long and 4 feet high. There's not a trace of metal anywhere on it; it's crafted entirely by Bosworth's own hand out of wood, paint, gold leaf and mirror. The entire gun is carved in intricate bas-relief, with plant patterns interspersed with grinning skulls. A skeletal head sits atop the gun; an eagle head is at its rear, and a snake sinews its way all along the barrel. The whole thing glows gold and silver.

A briefcase stashed with cash and bullets is equally beautiful and equally well-made. "Somethin's Goin' Down," 2011, is enormous; the case is about 6 feet long and 4 feet wide, and the propped-up lid stands up another 4 feet. The briefcase has a lovely silver shine on the outside, gold on the inside. Carved wads of $100 bills (painted with little portraits of a pink-faced Benjamin Franklin) are stacked inside, underneath still another gun and a half-dozen gold and silver bullets. The inside of the lid is elaborately carved in still another bas-relief of decorative swirls; a Day of the Dead skull is at the center.

"Mi Vida Loca," 2009, is also finely crafted. One side is a carved golden gun; the far side opens up to reveal a mirrored glass bar, filled with golden cocktail glasses and tequila bottles.

What's the point of all the beauty and precision in these representations of deadly weapons? Exhibition notes describe the installation as a visual corrido, a paint-and-wood version of the borderlands ballads that lionize the heroics of the narcotraficantes. And like those songs, these artworks can be bouncy and fun, as odd as that sounds. They've got cleverness to spare, from the ingenious combination lock carved onto the briefcase, to the huge golden necklace that dangles from the ceiling. The charm attached to this "Narco Bling (Ballad of Chalino Sanchez)" is a golden dollar sign.

But unlike the corridos, Bosworth's work demystifies the deviltry of the drug dealers, or so he hopes. "I don't think I'm romanticizing narco culture or power," he says in a written statement. "I am working through it."

That message is not as clear as he would like, but it's true that by magnifying these objects of the drug trade, Bosworth subjects them to our scrutiny. The bullets and skulls writ large are vivid reminders of the harvest of death, caused in large part by our nation's appetite for drugs, not to mention those guns that Calderón complained about.

The two paintings are the most explicit of the 10 pieces in the installation. These cleverly made works—thin slabs of layered and painted wood—show us the beginning and the end of the business. "Cash Crop—Maiz de Especial" depicts a marijuana field in the picturesque Mexican countryside. A blue sky, fluffy clouds and distant mountains on the horizon are the backdrop to a lush, green field luxuriant with the pointed-leaf plants. A couple of men are harvesting the crop. It all seems innocent, a picture of blameless rural labor.

The companion piece, "Cementerio Pelon," shows the graveyard, planted in a stark desert. Strewn over a hillside are graves: Here lie the dead of the drug wars.

A second, more-disjointed show displays the work of Tucson native Armando Miguélez. While Bosworth's installation occupies the large and handsome Great Hall, Miguélez's Legislate Crazy is dispersed into a warren of small back galleries. This arrangement makes a certain kind of sense. The artist has lived all around the world, and his work conjures up his "scattered ... personal geography." Graphic prints of skyscrapers and airport layouts (the kind you find in airline magazines) evoke his restless voyages through distant airports and cities around the globe.

But the show also looks at our heavily fortified local border, the polar opposite of that free-flowing international travel. Not only does the manmade barrier interrupt physical crossings; it clamps down on identity and invades privacy.

One room is filled with what look like floating elephants in pink plaster—but they're not that benign. These pieces, "Alcancias," represent Tethered Aerostat Radar Systems, or TARS, security devices that cast Big Brother's eye on la frontera. Elsewhere, placards fill a hallway with vaguely political slogans: "No Nos Entenderán Si Hablemos Español (They Won't Understand Us If We Speak Spanish)," and, "No One Is From Tucson."

Taken together, these disparate works don't add up to more than a sketchy meditation on the border. Still, even that has some value—and Miguélez has one work that's both visually satisfying and metaphorically meaningful.

"Golden Line" is a big swath of dark-green cloth with a hand-embroidered water tower at its center. The name of the border town Calexico is stitched across the tank. That name—half California, half Mexico—has always evoked for me all that the border is and could be: a passageway instead of a barrier, a portal instead of a barricade, and a conduit between two cross-fertilizing cultures that happily collide and combine.