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Daring drawings from Juarez are painfully beautiful

“Death of a Virgin” 2007-2008 by Alice Leora Briggs captures the dreamlike irrationality of the drug wars as a gunman prepares to murder the Virgin Mary.

“Death of a Virgin” 2007-2008 by Alice Leora Briggs captures the dreamlike irrationality of the drug wars as a gunman prepares to murder the Virgin Mary.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — If there is room in heaven for artists then Francisco Goya, Leonardo Da Vinci and Pieter Bruegel the Elder are most certainly smiling down upon the painfully beautiful “In the Wake of Juarez: The Drawings of Alice Leora Briggs,” a solo exhibition at the University of New Mexico Art Museum.

The installation is the brain child and work product of UNM Art Museum Raymond Jonson curator Robert (Chip) Ware, aided and abetted by museum staff.

Briggs is a relentless detective, visual journalist and weaver of allegories who ferrets out the truth about the social pathologies of our time. She sets upon her revelatory task with the painstaking dedication of a zealot.

If you go
WHAT: “In the Wake of Juarez: The Drawings of Alice Leora Briggs,” a 41-piece solo exhibition
WHEN: Through May 25. Hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Call 277-4001. NOTE: The museum will be closed for spring break from March 11-18, reopening on March 19
WHERE: University of New Mexico Art Museum, Center for the Arts, adjacent to Popejoy Hall
HOW MUCH: Free with a suggested $5 donation

Though zealotry is usually confined to religious beliefs Briggs has discovered a surreal and thoroughly corrupted culture that allowed the La Familia cartel to leave the following message at a five-corpse murder scene.

“La Familia doesn’t kill for money, it doesn’t kill women and it doesn’t kill innocent people – only those who deserve to die. Everyone should know: this is divine justice.”

Briggs’ fearless pursuit of the long dark shadows and perverse religiosity lurking within human nature directed her through Juarez’ virtually empty barrios from which most residents have fled in fear, execution sites and clandestine burial sites where she studied the bodies, bullets, guns and broken handcuffs pulled from shallow graves.

Her wanderings through devastation-filled streets and alleyways took her to death houses where the Juarez cartel tortured their victims and included the Juarez morgue, where she witnessed the autopsy of a young man following his execution.

“My artwork has not stopped the rapes, kidnappings and murders or brought reason to this border city. Cutting, scratching and gouging out my disquieting similes has not even fed people. But I am without other tools. Drawing is the calculus I possess,” Briggs wrote in her artist statement.

Drawing is Briggs’ forte, which she wields like an angelic sword to cut away the statistical veils through which we view the carnage wrought by puritanical legislation that treats drug addition as a crime rather than seeing it as both a symptom and disease borne by the disenfranchised.

It is Briggs’ social conscience that impels her to speak truth to power and her aesthetic mastery that allows her to harvest historic imagery from Hans Holbein the Younger to Rogier van der Weyden in support of her thesis.

The show includes many works that preceded her involvement with the city of Juarez. In “Discount, 2006” Briggs metaphorically recounts a real-life mugging in Chicago that included a drug addict shoving a loaded gun into her face. In her comments on the piece she points out that she was able to identify her attacker to police, who arrested and jailed her assailant. There are no such avenues for victims in Juarez, where the cartels offer police the false choice of silver or lead, to either become corrupt or dead.

Briggs’ astonishing rendering skills are apparent in every composition, but one of the finest is “Death of a Virgin, 2007” in which Briggs captures the irrational dreamlike nature of the drug wars through the depiction of a gunman wielding an AR-15 style weapon that has been shoved between the praying hands of an inverted image of the Virgin Mary. The pale gray background that offers normal and inverted horizon lines is filled with human figures rendered in subtle acrylic washes.

The entire piece is a magnum opus.

Briggs executes a self-portrait in “¡Basta! (Enough!), 2012” depicting the artist eating a fast-food lunch while a worker in the background mixes cement for the construction of a building memorializing the children of Juarez caught in the crossfire.

A mural-scale Briggs work titled “Abecedario de Juarez, 2010” is based on Holbein the Younger’s “Dance of Death Alphabet, 1538,” a series of woodcuts accompanied by a passage on death from the Bible. Briggs’ version uses narco slang words, the names of cartel leaders and others participating in the Mexican drug wars.

Briggs is a jaw-dropping talent who possesses the visceral fortitude to unflinchingly face down demons.

I’m too awestruck and gob smacked to find the exit, please lead me to it so I may close my eyes and see no more, but when I do the pictures are still there demanding attention!

Two thumbs up.

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