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Powerful 516 ARTS exhibit examines artificial nature of borders

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Now approaching its 12th anniversary, 516 ARTS has evolved into Albuquerque’s only non-collection contemporary art museum comparable to SITE Santa Fe though smaller and less generously funded.

516 ARTS’ current offering, “The U.S.-Mexico Border: Place, Imagination and Possibility,” is a knock-down, drag-out slugfest examination of the artificial nature of national borders and among the venue’s best efforts to date.

“Toy An Horse” by Marcos Ramirez is a 2016 model of his monumental-scale version installed on the Tijuana-San Ysidro border in 1998 with a nod to the Trojan Wars.

The show was curated by Dr. Lowery Stokes Sims and Ana Elena Mallet and imported from Los Angeles. The exhibition features work by 40 artists from the U.S. and Mexico and, due to its size, is shared with the Albuquerque Museum. This review covers the core of the original show with a few local additions at 516 ARTS.

We are currently inundated with artificial intelligence, virtual reality and seemingly transfixed by hand-held devices that place the entire world of information at our fingertips. Well, a lot of it anyway.

This exhibition emblemizes a growing global groundswell of artists who are re-establishing the ascendency of the handmade one-of-a-kind object. The show features pottery, furniture, paintings, sculpture, collage, installation and yes, even a few videos and, heaven help us, a couple of QR codes for your smartphone.

In the front window Albuquerque multimedia artist Augustine Romero offers “Alien With Child,” one of a series of watchtower-inspired sculptures dealing with the plight of survival. His work alludes to the incredible dangers of desert border crossings and the toxic term “illegal alien.”

Los Angeles-based artist Eduardo Sarabia is a talented master craftsman and potter whose “A Thin Line Between Love and Hate” installation of excellently executed traditional Talavera-style vases and beautifully painted packing boxes fills the east side of the second room.

Sarabia’s contemporary pottery motifs and box designs set aside the lovely 16th century blue-on-white floral themes of original Talavera pottery in favor of imagery addressing the current clandestine border traffic, including illicit cargo, drugs, sex workers and undocumented migrant laborers.

His prodigious skill set elevates Sarabia’s most controversial design elements to the level of high fine art, much like Francisco Goya’s late 18th century and early 19th century painting protesting war and man’s inhumanity to man.

Long before the arbitrary border was drawn between what are now the U.S. and Mexico, Aztecs traded parrot feathers with the Anasazi people. And centuries before that, the art and technology of ceramic pottery came to the region from the south.

During the Spanish colonial period, Navajo and pueblo weavers moved from cotton to wool with the introduction of Churro sheep. Design motifs imported from Persia to Saltillo, Mexico, were adopted by Navajo weavers, giving birth to the “Saltillo diamond” pattern.

Marcos Ramirez ERRE reaches back to Greek mythology to make his border commentary. In the southwest corner of the ground floor gallery, Ramirez has installed a creature on wheels titled “Toy An Horse” a beautifully crafted sculpture of a two-headed wooden horse a la the Trojan War. The exhibition model was made in 2016.

Ramirez includes a photograph of the monumental-scale original executed and installed on the Tijuana-San Ysidro border in 1998 that measured 32 feet tall and 28.8 feet long.

The impeccable craftsmanship and overall drop-dead gorgeous design of Ramirez’s two-part project make it my favorite of the show. I’ll leave it to viewers to interpret the nuances and implications of his effort.

The issues surrounding the border have long roots. In 1973, Rupert Garcia created “¡Cesen Deportación!” (Stop Deportation) a hand-printed serigraph. The print in the current exhibition was pulled in 2011. Its strong graphic design featuring barbed wire over a blood-red background implies the violence involved in border protection.

There are works addressing the border wall issue and even one complex presentation of shoes and sandals made by hand.

This is an exciting and powerful show that is well-worth a long visit. Two thumbs up.

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