Friday, February 17, 2012

Alice Leora Briggs gets medieval at Nauhaus

by Dean Liscum

Abecedario de Juarez by Alice Leora Briggs at Nauhaus is medieval in both technique and content. The technique, sgraffito, is a reductive process in which layers of colored plaster or clay are etched or scraped away to create an outline and reveal an image. It gained popularity in the 16th century but artist were using it in medieval times. The content, the horrific violence associated with the drug trade in Juarez, Mexico, is medieval in a "get medieval on your ass" Pulp Fiction\Quentin Tarantino kind of way. It makes you wonder whether the progress of humanity follows the path of one big möbius strip.

The exhibition gets its name and the literal inspiration for one of its pieces from Hans Holbein the younger's 1538 alphabet series in which the artist illustrated the alphabet for young children using graphic images of death. (I'm kidding. The target audience wasn't exclusively young children.)

H is for headless.

N is for narcotics.

D is for D.E.A. and customer service.

Y is the new form of crucifixion. 
Brigg's show is a modern Dance of Death series that both documents and illustrates the drug wars effect on the active participants and the innocent bystanders. Brigg's application of 14th-century technique to illustrate the violence in Juarez solemnizes life. She's managed to reclaim the sanctity of death and life from the media circus which has turned it into entertainment to terrify us, as in the focus of the local newscast, or amuse us, as in Spike TV's 1000 Ways To Die. The subject of life and death, in Brigg's hands using this antiquated technique, has become reverential again.

The relationship to technique and religious iconography isn't accidental or subconscious as Briggs mockingly illustrates whether its a paramilitary police officer drawing a bead on a virgin or a contemporary man back stabbing a Grecian or Roman suitor.

Death of a Virgin

Death of suitors
The allegorical subject of dancing with death, which once applied to life in general, has become pervasive in the city of Juarez. There death, of the violent brutal kind, is a daily occurrence. In the early Renaissance, Albrecht Dürer and Holbein the younger created allegorical works to symbolize life and stages and situations of it. Brigg's works are realistic, almost journalistic portrayals of events that have come to symbolize the times in Juarez. Brigg's works would be poetically profound if they weren't portrayals of true crimes. Instead, they are poignant and painstaking in both the scenes that they depict and the reductive process Briggs uses. Through sgraffito, she removes material to uncover an image much the way a reporter must uncover a story or a detective must investigate a crime and discover the truth. The antiquated technique gives this act of exposing / revealing / unveiling crime scene photos a certain old-world gravitas, immortalizing what has become quotidian in U.S.-Mexico border towns.

Briggs isn't the first artist to apply an antiquated technique to a contemporary subject matter in an attempt to both re-present what has become so familiar (in this case violence) as to be invisible so that we can "see it for what it is again". Lynd Ward and Franz Masereel used the technique of wood cuts to create wordless graphic novels that addressed modernist themes. Using a completely different technique (paper cutouts rather than sgraffito), Kara Walker achieves a similar effect to Briggs, using an antiquated technique to emphasize/highlight societal ills: racism and sexism for Walker, the war on drugs for Briggs.

Briggs' A-B-Cs illuminates the violence and the needless death not only in Juarez but in the media and in our minds, using the medium of martyrs, and making it as easy to see as "1-2-3".


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