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The Dark Side 

Three artists in Etherton’s ShadowLands deliver haunting works

click to enlarge Joel-Peter Witkin, “The Graces, Los Angeles.”

Joel-Peter Witkin, “The Graces, Los Angeles.”

The autumn sun may still be till casting Tucson in a golden light, but the shadows are lengthening and the days are darkening earlier.

At Etherton, in the haunting ShadowLands exhibition, three artists embody the gloom of the coming ghostly season.

The intensely gifted Alice Leora Briggs strews a naked corpse across a tea table in her woodcut "where nothing, when it happens, is never terrible enough." Three elderly people at the table are trying hard to concentrate on their tea and crumpets and ignore the dead man lying among them.

A man hangs from a noose in "Execution of an Extraterrestrial, Petersburg, Virginia, 1864" by renowned photographer Joel-Peter Witkin. Adapted from the gruesome annals of Civil War photography, "Execution" also pictures the witness, an army officer on a horse, calmly watching the dangling body as it decays.

Roger Ballen, another world-famous photo artist, elusively conjures up South Africa's troubled past. The American-born Ballen has lived in South Africa for years, and it's hard not to read some of his works as allusions to apartheid's horrors.

In one series of nightmarish photos, part abstraction, part stage set, graffiti is scrawled across peeling walls that suggest prisons. Sketched faces of monsters and ghosts look down on iron beds or couches where unseemly things are taking place.

A young black boy lies backwards and upside-down over a sofa in "Les Hammering into Wall," 2000. Above him, a white man is banging a hammer against the plaster. It's hard to tell: is the kid playing a game by twisting his body into such an unnatural position? Or has Les's mallet broken the boy's back?

In "Unwind," from 2013, ghouls, sketched in paint or charcoal, jostle against each other on another wall. In between them hangs a wholesome portrait of a smiling young boy from long ago. There's a man pinned down on a rusted bed beneath these phantoms. It's possible he's meant to represent the boy grown older. But no matter who he is, he's drowning in psychic horror. His face hidden by a baleful mask, he himself has become a monster.

Ballen has never before exhibited in the American Southwest, let alone in Tucson. Working in black and white on old-fashioned film, the sixtysomething artist has published a multitude of photography books and regularly shows his work around the world. His early work tended toward documentary, chronicling life under apartheid; he brought back images from impoverished towns in the hinterlands and in the poor communities ringing Johannesburg.

"Dresie and Casie, Twins, Western Transvaal, South Africa," from 1993, is a compassionate, if unsparing, double portrait of two mentally disabled twin brothers. It's downright painful to look at. Standing side by side, dressed in filthy, threadbare clothes, the pair peer out in puzzlement at the man with the camera.

In the last decade or so, Ballen has turned to a dark surrealism. Evoking psychological and physical trauma, he stages his images and decorates them like a set, placing puppets, drawings, and animals into what the gallery calls "imagined spaces." The background drawings, dancing across the plaster walls, are not unlike the painted biomorphs of Joan Miró and Jan Arp.

But Ballen stays away from the bright colors of those surrealists. His black and white images are far darker, in every way, than those bright paintings. The powerful "Funeral Rites," from 2004, is stripped of all of Ballen's usual props. Human figures, metal beds and wires have all been banished. There's nothing left but drawings of the dead. Five terrifying ghosts rise up on a wall, staring out at the living, refusing to disappear into death.

Witkin, a gallery regular, goes back and forth between the true darkness of that Civil War hanging and playful fantasy. He makes cinematic tableaux populated by such creatures as a female centaur, half-woman, half-horse, standing in an old-fashioned parlor in 2007's "Night in a Small Town, New Mexico."

But Witkin's great passion is making arresting, even beautiful photos of people who are transgressive or damaged, people whose "difference" keeps them on the margins of society. "Portrait of Greg Vaughn" from 2004, is a nude of a real young man with one arm; in a toned gelatin silver print, Witkin turns him into a noble marble statue worthy of the Greeks and Romans.

One of the loveliest of these works is 1988's "The Graces, Los Angeles." Another adaptation from the classical world, it's an update on the female Three Graces of Greek myth. Witkin's modern-day trio are as lovely as the Graces of old, but these three are handsome intersex people, with perfect breasts and equally perfect penises.

Leora Briggs, a former Tucsonan who lives in Texas, has for years made detailed drawings that rival the old masters'. Tempted by scenes of death, she's even worked in the morgue in the murderous Mexican city of Juarez, sketching the corpses of drug-cartel victims. Her deadly Mexican images filled the pages of Dreamland: The Way Out of Juarez, a collaborative book about the drug carnage with text by the late author Charles Bowden.

Her new work at Etherton is also a literary partnership, this one with the late poet Mark Strand. Her 12 detailed woodcuts each elaborate on a line of his poem "The Room," a harsh vision of one man's unhappy life and death.

A gruesome dying bird twisting on the ground, each and every one of its feathers carved carefully into the woodblock accompany the line, "their shadows the spilled milk the world cries over." An Adam and Eve with roots in the art of the early Renaissance flee Eden in another print, illustrating Strand's words "and into his room the misfortunes come."

Before the man's final misfortune, when he becomes that corpse on the tea table, Leora Briggs takes him through the apocalyptic streets of Juarez, past the bodies of the murdered lying on the street. It's a hellish scene of endless death, at every moment, or as Strand would have it, "death by daybreak, death by nightfall."

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