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Master Class

Newly minted MFA artists tackle the world’s woes, from migrant deaths to war profiteering

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In an exhibition replete with jars of human blood, a video of war and monstrous shapes dangling from the ceiling, Karlito Miller Espinosa's oil painting on canvas seems downright old-fashioned.

But don't be fooled. Espinosa's painting is every bit as contemporary—and challenging—as the works made by his classmates in the MFA exhibition. Boldly rewriting art history, he provocatively uses his work to condemn the Border Patrol for the deaths of migrants in the desert.

It's no easy task, but Espinosa is up to it. The young artist made a partial copy of an old master work by Caravaggio, the revered Italian artist famed for his dramatic use of dark and light. Espinosa recreated a portion of his "Madonna of the Rosary," a 1607 oil that commemorates the legendary moment that the Virgin Mary gave the first rosaries to St. Dominic and bade him to teach the faithful to use the rosary to pray.

But Espinosa's sumptuously painted work, "Untitled (Nuestra Sonora del Rosario)", leaves out Caravaggio's Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, and instead zeroes in on his ragged beggars, the poor folks praying on bended knee for rosaries and redemption.

The beggars, it seems, are stand-ins for the migrants of today, beseeching the powerful for justice. Above them hovers a page from a real-life 1994 Border Patrol document that outlined the much-criticized policy of "prevention through deterrence."

That government directive militarized the border and pushed migrants farther into the dangerous desert; the authorities incorrectly believed that the inevitable deaths of migrants in the wilderness would stop others from coming. Instead, the deaths piled up.

In the painting's title, the Virgin Mary is renamed "Nuestra Sonora"—not Señora—for the Sonoran Desert, the place of the migrants' suffering. The Tucson Museum of Art has already moved to buy the timely work, a rare feat for a grad student.

The painting is actually just one piece of an installation named Prevention through Deterrence. Among the other elements are two lecterns modeled on the Lincoln lectern Pope Francis used to deliver an address to Congress about the rights of immigrants. Each of the lecterns has a repository, and Espinosa has filled them with desert sand he collected at the remote locations where migrants have died terrible deaths.

Espinosa is not the only one of the eight students in the MFA show using art to condemn the world's wrongs. This serious crew has made works about the profitable worldwide trade in arms; about wars; about attacks on the environment; about personal traumas. And they make their cases in up-to-the minute media, from inkjet print to video projections to lab slides to fiberglass to baby powder to human blood.

The blood comes courtesy of Khaled Jarrar. For his performance piece "Blood for Sale," the artist drew his own blood, deposited it into glass jars, and hauled it to New York in a refrigerated cooler, a rig now on view in the museum. Recorded on a color video that loops continuously on the gallery wall, we see Jarrar hawking his blood on a sunny day on Wall Street.

The response is mixed. A dubious cop who tries to shut him down shrugs and leaves when Jarrar explains he's doing performance art. A woman scolds the artist for wasting blood that might have gone to the dying. One young man bites; pulling out a wad of cash, he says he's thrilled to be part of a cool art project.

In fact, the work is a protest against arms manufacturers who profit from deadly wars. "Capitalism works like a vampire and sucks humans' blood by ... sell[ing] them guns to kill each other," he writes in an artist's statement. And Jarrar sends any money he makes to hospitals in war-torn nations, including Yemen, where civilians have died by the thousands, some of them killed by Raytheon weapons, according to reports from the New York Times and CNN.

In the installation "REFUGE," Nassem Navab also deals with war and violence, but they creep up only slowly. Navab has lovingly re-created her immigrant parents' living room with found furniture, every stick of it covered in clear plastic, the better to ward off dirt inside and disaster outside. And while a loop of casual conversation plays in Persian continually, we gradually become aware that behind a pair of semi-transparent curtains chaos rages: a blurry video shows people fleeing soldiers and being beaten in the street. For immigrants from war-torn countries, the memory of violence does not fade.

Anna Maranise also travels the terrain of trauma. A big corner of the Joseph Gross Gallery is filled with unidentifiable nightmarish objects, some of them dangling eerily from the ceiling. Made out of a vast array of materials—wire, fiberglass, paint, rope—the massive biomorphic pieces include a huge slab in fleshy pink and a semi-human in dark-green and black. They seem off-balance, and even dangerous memories of past tragedies ready to strike.

Laura Kassmann tracks personal malaise in "Mood Anatomy," an installation and video that tracks her moods through color. Sam Heard, who suffered a cardiac setback that limited his movements, created a series of pencil marks on canvas; for each of these large and interesting abstractions, he measured the strength he needed to draw each mark—and noted where his strength failed.

Ashley Dahlke's colorful corner in the UAMA is a cheerful explosion of pinks, greens and yellows. Spray paint, found cloth and plastics join forces in her abstract collages on the walls and delicately balanced sculptures on the floor.

Olivier Dubois Cherrier, known for his lavish landscape paintings, takes up one entire wall with a color video of a lush piece of Sonoran Desert, all blue skies above and abundant greens below. But Cherrier cleverly positions a small painting of the same place on a billboard in front of the giant video, the painting's mountains in perfect sync with the video's.

It's beautiful but the respite it gives is short-lived. The work's ominous title—"Expecting Nothing Is Going to Change at the Island in Tucson"—reminds us of one more world malady that we must address: the on-going destruction of the natural world.

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