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Heaven and Hell

A new three-person show at Etherton includes works by Alice Leora Briggs capturing the darkness of border towns

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Alice Leora Briggs takes her inspiration from Ciudad Juarez, a hellhole of annihilation where humans are slaughtered wholesale and bodies are butchered and disappear.

In art that's slashed and chopped and burned, Briggs conjures what she calls the city's "landscape of violence." The dead are stuffed into car trunks in her fierce and gorgeous work; blood flows on the streets. Chopped limbs are bound with rope and decapitated heads are lined up in rows. Dead animals lie abandoned and rotting at the side of roads.

Briggs' media are as violent as her subjects. In her sgraffito drawings, the Texas artist slashes inky papers with stiletto points, scratching out white line drawings of the dead. Her forays into woodcut printmaking are even more brutal. Her cruder tools, she says, "cut deeper and more deliberately." From the gashes of her woodblocks spring nightmare buildings that prevent escape ("The Room") and a monstrous toothy being that seems set to devour human flesh ("In Case You Forgot").

Lately, she's been making burn drawings, using hot metal to singe the paper with images of floating corpses and maps marking the spot where kills have been made. Then she sets the edges on fire.

On view in a three-person show at Etherton Gallery, Briggs' work is black and white and gray, a palette, she says, that allows her some distance from the bloody horrors she's seen. Formerly of Tucson, Briggs goes regularly into Ciudad Juarez, the border town that's been called the murder capital of the world. (Recent estimates suggest that the carnage in the Mexican drug war has reached 80,000 killed and many more who have disappeared.) She's a regular at the morgue, where she's permitted to make drawings of the dead.

A few years ago, Briggs collaborated with writer Charles Bowden on Dreamland; Bowden's text about the bloodbaths was interrupted by her haunted, hallucinatory art. Bowden's knowing, despairing face turns up in a couple of works here. In "Reasons for Leaving," he looks outward, buttressed by a stack of books. That backdrop, representing sanity and rational thought, shifts dramatically in "Butcher." Behind Bowden's portrait here, bodies are hung on hooks and workers are busily flaying the skin. It's a scene straight out of a medieval vision of hell.

But the murders Briggs memorializes are occurring right now, in the 21st century, in the Age of Reason. "Levantado," a 2013 sgraffito drawing on panel, pictures the corpse of a young man curled into a car trunk. There's a license plate below him; it reads "Chihuahua." An ordinary soda cup stands alongside another victim, this one sprawled on the street in "No one will explain the details," 2011-2012, a burn drawing with ink, gesso and collage on handmade paper.

The work of the immensely talented Briggs is steeped in art history. Her infernos recall Bosch and her nightmares Goya; her beautifully drawn woodblocks are reminiscent of Dürer's. And her extraordinary gift for drawing—with tools from fire to knives—rivals that of the Old Masters who contented themselves with sedate Conté crayons.

It makes sense to pair Briggs' work with the sumptuous photos of Joel-Peter Witkin. A renowned artist now in his mid-70s, Witkin also tackles the horrors of human life, as well as its ecstasies. And like Briggs, he does so in works of exquisite beauty, elaborately composed and gorgeously printed.

Witkin has long sought out people on the margins, outcast for their sexual proclivities or their physical "otherness." Transvestites, hermaphrodites, hunchbacks and amputees have all modeled for Witkin, who poses them respectfully in complicated allegorical tableaux about what the French call la condition humaine. (And in fact the French are intense admirers of his work. A recent Witkin show in Paris, titled Heaven or Hell, exhibited his photos with works by the same great printmakers of the past that influence Briggs, including Dürer and Goya.)

"Portrait of a Dwarf," a 1987 work in the Etherton show, is a seminude of a woman. She wears a corset and mask, and holds a hoop that could be a child's toy or a circus prop. Nearby is a broken sculpture. The woman turns her head toward a pair of very long legs that run down the right side of the image; the limbs are much taller than her entire truncated body.

Witkin fully orchestrates photos like this. For every image, he creates sets filled with props and characters and costumes, and laden with mythological overtones. The shots take weeks to set up, and afterward he laboriously manipulates the negatives and prints in the darkroom.

But it all begins with a quick sketch on paper. One of the Etherton works, "The History of Commercial Photography in South America, San Francisco" from 1984—picturing a clothed man holding a penis close to his face—is accompanied by its preliminary sketch. The wonderfully Picasso-esque drawing, fresh and loose, provides new insight into Witkin's process and reveals the loose ying of his inspiration that ends in the careful yang of his disciplined kaleidoscopes.

More recent works, from the 2000s, suggest a partial change in direction. In an artist's note, he complains of the "lack of the beautiful in today's art." A number of the pictures from the last few years feature women of unearthly beauty.

"La Giovanissima," from 2007, is far simpler than most of Witkin's works. The model is so lovely—"one of the most beautiful I've ever seen," Witkin writes—that he turned her nude portrait into a stripped-down celebration of physical perfection. Gone are the props and panoplies. She alone presides in the picture, an icon of eternal beauty.

Holly Roberts of New Mexico is another artist who elaborately works her surfaces. (Not for nothing is this show called Surface Tension.) Once upon a time she began her works with a photograph; she'd use it as a canvas and paint atop its slick surface, leaving portions of the printed photo below to bleed through. Her psychologically dense imagery, suggesting psychic states, has to my eye always had the air of the Southwest. Its squat heads and attenuated limbs of humans and animals are reminiscent of the pictograph drawings that literally litter this landscape.

Roberts has kept the same aesthetic, but exactly reversed her process. In her new suite of works at Etherton, the paintings are below, the photographs above. The photos are never wholly there, of course; they're cut and cropped and otherwise rendered nearly unrecognizable. In "Angry Baby," for instance, the child's hair is made up of black-and-white snippets of photographed tree branches. Her dress is composed of cracked earth.

But the new works retain the aesthetics and profundity of the old. "Deer with Spots," from 2012, is a Roberts self-portrait as deer. It's a riff on Frida Kahlo's well-known "Wounded Deer" painting from 1946, in which Kahlo portrays herself as a deer stabbed through with arrows.

In Roberts' version, a photo of her own head is attached to a deer body. No arrows appear, but the antlers seem to pierce her skull. And her unblinking face, masked in white, seems to look out in sorrow and gravity on the joys and sufferings of the human race.

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