Sunday, November 28, 2010

Border war a muse for South Texas art

San Antonio Express-News
November 25, 2010
by Lynn Brezosky

BROWNSVILLE — Time has etched history into the bricks of 409 East 13th St. This pre-Civil War building a block from the Rio Grande has withstood the sieges, raids, blockade running, bootlegging and epic storms that have blown through this city at the tip of the Texas borderlands.
And now the façade has taken on a new incarnation as a gallery, workshop and meeting place for artists who are inspired by the ongoing Mexican drug war. Those artists have found a muse in the rattling gunfire and smoke plumes from across the border in Matamoros, in the whispered accounts of neighborhood teenagers believed dead after spurts of drug soldier glory, and in the images of destruction and bloodshed flashing on their computer screens.

“We're in a political situation. I've got a war going on right across the river,” said Mark Clark, who after a career interspersing social activism with gigs in tony East Coast art museums found himself “retiring” in 2005 to a region that has become one of the battlegrounds of the drug trade.

Galeria 409 opens

Clark poured the proceeds from the sale of a house near the U.S. Capitol — a house that once had been a drug den — into the building that formerly was so dilapidated that officials thought it should be bulldozed. Galeria 409 became a showcase for bicultural border art, a venue for indie music and an art school for locals.

Artists from around the world found Clark as they embarked on projects on immigration, such as Susan Harbage Page's images of personal effects abandoned on the river banks.

The border fence was for many the cause to fight, or at least document. Among them was French photographer Maurice Sherif, who journeyed from San Diego to Brownsville for a photo essay dubbed “The American Wall.”

In February, Clark and other artists joined in “Art Against the Wall,” a protest that used the wall as a staging place for artwork protesting it. He found himself at the epicenter of a region battling the dictates of Washington, D.C.

“I've been in a million demonstrations, and when I came down here to find myself in a demonstration with the president of the local university and the mayor, and they're on my side ... it was truly uplifting,” he said, recalling one of many protests.

But the wall went up in its patchwork of styles, and the heady if ineffective activism against it now seems like ancient times.

Bag lunch on the riverbanks, not long ago a place to take in the detritus of migration or talk about the wall's symbolism, now has an eerie quality. Mexican military helicopters circle overhead, loud, low and obvious. What had been a flood of human migration is barely a trickle, victim to the sputtering U.S. economy. Anyone with a police scanner can hear the chatter of the smugglers.

The ground floor of the gallery remains a showplace for artists from both sides of the border. But upstairs, which requires a walk up an outdoor spiral staircase, is something new and raw.

It's Clark's workspace, and much of the work is his, reflecting an evolution through periods of trompe l'oeil photorealism, anamorphic painting, still life, portraiture, marine life abstracts, and political compositions ranging from flaming Buddhas from the Vietnam War era to border themes with a dangerous political bent.

Skeletal imagery

There's the giant, Hieronymus Bosch-inspired painting that he calls “Montezuma's Revenge.”

It's a depiction of “every gringo's worst fears,” he said. The scene, laced with skeletal imagery, Aztec iconography and blazing Mexican colors, jabs hard at the cultural divide.

Among the details: a helmeted head flies off a Dallas Cowboy, the body lifted high by a masked Mexican wrestler; a surly Ronald McDonald sellshelados (ice cream) from a push-cart; indigenous Mexican women wash clothes in a blond woman's swimming pool.

Another, “Greetings from Brownsville, Texas,” takes the American pinup approach to a voluptuous Latina inner-tubing down the center of the Rio Grande. Cartoon-figured Border Patrol agents wave and peer through binoculars at her, oblivious to the illegal immigrants climbing the riverbanks and wall behind them.

Still another takes the form of the pre-Columbian Codex Borgia to a street battle between Mexican military and drug cartels. There are boxy, pastel-colored buildings with rigid, vacant-eyed figures in hieroglyphic stiffness, be them the shooters or the victims, the child assassin or his line of blank-eyed severed heads. The bullet holes are large and donut-round, the blood spatters neat red blotches, and the whole effect is dull and lifeless, down to the dog, the bird, and the red-and-blue rooster.

His who's who of characters at a game table pulls no punches. There's the former sheriff now serving 26 years for corruption, a former county judge blamed for trying to sell local South Padre Island beach access, a navigation district official linked to $21 million in missing international bridge funds, a flip-flopping city councilman and, in a corner seat, former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, holding a fence picket. Each plays his own game. A former bishop who pulled the plug on a television show critical of the Catholic Church oversees.

Irreverent touch

The light, irreverent touch is necessary, Clark and others say.

“It's all kind of a little kitschy or tongue-in-cheek or using a little bit of hyperbolic humor to sedate it,” said David Freeman, who has been drawing from graphic photos in Mexican newspapers for a current project using piñatas and other street items. “I think it has to do with not trying to have your audience shut down too much.”

Jesus De La Rosa, who teaches art at Texas A&M-Kingsville, found himself pulled from a series of abstract works to black-and- white prints focusing on drug war terror.

“I just see the prints as the only way to express, to do something about, what's truly going on on the border," he said. “It's like 30,000-plus people have died and nothing's really happening. Nothing's being done. It's all being kept hush-hush. The cartels and military, they've all quieted the media down. The people, we have no voice.”

Old masters

Then there's Rigoberto Gonzalez, whose recent exhibit, “Baroque on the Border,” goes in another direction, painting contemporary scenes in the style of old European masters, his way of ranking the drug war among the darkest periods in history. He said his 10-by-20 foot “Balacera en Matamoros,” or “Shootout in Matamoros,” was the first of his works that made people cry.

It took eight months of drawings and getting people to pose, and while inspired by a 2009 shootout in Reynosa, the title became interchangeable.

He's since found himself fighting with curators who balk at some of the more violent pieces.

“It's still Texas. It's very conservative,” he said. “For some reason people think that art should only be about pretty things. But art is supposed to engage you.”

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