Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Alice Leora Briggs: "where nothing, when it happens, is never terrible enough"

Alice Leora Briggs
Santa Muerte - 2008

There are few living artists whose work is as compelling and as morbidly fascinating as that of Alice Leora Briggs. Even fewer who have the ability to artistically comment on contemporary social and political issues with as much insight, subtle irony and tragic humor. Her work consciously references Holbein's Dance of Death, Rembrandt's Flayed Ox, Gerard David's Flaying of Sisamnes and William Hogarth's ironic moral engravings to name just a few. Whether she is working in 13th century German sgrafitto etching techniques, woodcuts or woodburns, her essential illuminations into the black hollows of human nature are striking and unforgettable, their brutal meanings transcendent, resonant beauty shivering in the bones. 

When I first spoke to artist Alice Leora Briggs last spring, Juarez, Mexico, was under siege by rampant gang- and drug-related violence. Briggs had just completed an arts residency in southern New Mexico and frequently traveled the 30 minutes to witness the carnage and aftermath left by a recent spate of murders in and around the border town. 
She visited so called "death houses," sites of mass executions, and spent time studying the victims' remains in the city morgue. 
"One room is entirely full of bullets from the executions," Brigss said. "I saw an autopsy of a young man who was executed. There was a story in the New York Times about the morgue a day or so after I was there. The photos of the freezers had everything looking tidy. They must have cleaned for them. I was glad to get a different view....The bodies were all akimbo and not neatly wrapped up.... I see things on the news and compare it to what I saw and they do not always jive." 
In response to what she saw, Briggs picked up her etching knives and, using an old etching technique from the 13th century called sgraffito, cut through dark wood to reveal images of what was laid before her eyes. 
Alongside the graphic images, Briggs also incorporates medieval or renaissance scenes like an old-master draftsman. In a more recent conversation, Briggs explained what drew her to violent depictions: "The first time that I went to Italy, I realized that I was part of an extended tradition in Western art. I mean, you go to Italy, walk into any church, and the subject matter is about torture and death and human suffering. And these are things I think maybe are not entertaining, but certainly are worthy of our attention."

Dreamland: The Way Out of Juarez
Words by Charles Bowden
Drawings by Alice Leora Briggs

In 2010, Briggs collaborated with Charles Bowden on the book, Dreamland: The Way Out of Juarez:

What do you call a place where people are tortured and murdered and buried in the backyard of a nice, middle-class condo? Where police work for the drug cartels? Where the meanings of words such as "border" and "crime" and "justice" are emptying out into the streets and flowing down into the sewers? You call it Juárez or, better yet, Dreamland. 
Realizing that merely reporting the facts cannot capture the massive disintegration of society that is happening along the border, Charles Bowden and Alice Leora Briggs use nonfiction and sgraffito drawings to depict the surreality that is Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Starting from an incident in which a Mexican informant for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security murdered a man while U.S. agents listened in by cell phone—and did nothing to intervene—Bowden forcefully and poetically describes the breakdown of all order in Juárez as the power of the drug industry outstrips the power of the state. Alice Leora Briggs's drawings—reminiscent of Northern Renaissance engraving and profoundly disquieting—intensify the reality of this place where atrocities happen daily and no one, neither citizens nor governments, openly acknowledges them. 
With the feel of a graphic novel, the look of an illuminated medieval manuscript, and the harshness of a police blotter, Dreamland captures the routine brutality, resilient courage, and rapacious daily commerce along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Stamps for Dreamland series is stunning and evocative. The implicit authority of the stamp is sublimely subverted by the use of imagery associated with the hellish Narco-Terrorist world of Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas. It is a modern day Dance of Death, narratively compelling as the woodcut prints of Hans Holbein, and yet something entirely new, utterly 21st century. And yet, a thing that has always haunted human beings. Desire and death. You imagine that when the lights of the world have been extinguished, these images of Alice Leora Briggs are what the desperate trembling survivors will look to for some insight into the nature of our current insanity. In her images are the omens, portents and signs of the sickness rotting inside the heart of our world.

Everyone knows the facts and yet the facts slip from everyone’s hands. Walk a hundred feet from a body on the pavement - the blood puddled around the skull - and it never happened, the young girls smile, the traffic zooms past without slowing, the city beats on and on, and the dead no longer exist and soon the memory of the dead will be a rare bit of fact polished and cherished by the family and ignored or forgotten by everyone else. This is a survival tactic and it crosses all class lines. This is the fruit of living without history. This is the result of amnesia in television, radio, and print. This is the sweet drug that comes from fantasy. The authorities are real. The police enforce the laws. The courts function. The army protects. The streetlights sweep evil from the night. There is a consensus here to believe the unbelievable, to insist that things are normal - the government is in charge, the incidents, should they even come to notice, are accidents, little imperfections in the tapestry that is life and this tapestry is sound and beautiful to both the eye and to the hand as it strokes the elaborate weave of lives that make up the city.

It took me a long time to accept that the present is always acceptable. Period.”
- Charles Bowdee, Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields

Alice Leora Briggs
Twelve - 2008

“I don’t trust the answers or the people who give me the answers. I believe in dirt and bone and flowers and fresh pasta and salsa cruda and red wine. I don’t believe in white wine; I insist on color.”   
- Charles Bowden 

Alice Leora Briggs
Narcotraficante - 2008

Alice Leora Briggs
Decapitacion Humana - 2010

Disquiet has marked art since its beginnings: the success and failures of Paleolithic hunts, the tides of slaves who filled Egyptian tombs, the memento moris of Dutch stilled lives, the spears of Shakespearean wit. Likewise, occupation with human frailty and worldly conceits is integral to Alice Leora Briggs’ work. When she was seven years old, her brother fell to his death at Grand Teton National Park. And, perhaps as a result, Briggs probes with curiosity and intensity those facets of human life that we often seek to closet. The artist finds her subject in the narco-violence that plagues Ciudad Juárez and in an asylum built by a visionary on the outskirts of this Mexican border city. Briggs explores the daily adaptations made by the citizens of the narco-battered borderlands. She renders them in her native amalgam of classic and contemporary imagery and oblique narratives coaxed from European art history. 
In tandem a recent series of woodcuts explores a twelve-line universe, The Room, a poem by American poet laureate, Mark Strand. Each of her images conjures one line from the poem. The world she creates is brittle, tenuous, and furtive. The images glimpse into concealed longings and secrets, like looking into someone’s emotional closet. In her persistent way, all of Briggs’ work finds a way to link our contemporary anxieties, desires, and expectations with those of the art historical past. Her visual quotations from Albrecht Durer, Hans Holbein, Hendrik Goltzius, and others meld seemingly incongruent worlds into the singular time and place of her drawings.

Alice Leora Briggs
where the farmer sits and stares - 2014

The Room by Mark Strand 
It is an old story, the way it happens
sometimes in winter, sometimes not.
The listener falls to sleep,
the doors to the closets of his unhappiness open 
and into his room the misfortunes come --
death by daybreak, death by nightfall,
their wooden wings bruising the air,
their shadows the spilled milk the world cries over. 
There is a need for surprise endings;
the green field where cows burn like newsprint,
where the farmer sits and stares,
where nothing, when it happens, is never terrible enough.

Alice Leora Briggs
Spit - 2007

O Fortuna,
velut Luna
statu variabilis,
semper crescis
aut decrescis;
vita detestabilis
nunc obdurat
et tunc curat
ludo mentis aciem,
dissolvit ut glaciem. 
Sors immanis
et inanis,
rota tu volubilis,
status malus,
vana salus
semper dissolubilis,
et velata
michi quoque niteris;
nunc per ludum
dorsum nudum
fero tui sceleris.

Sors salutis
et virtutis
michi nunc contraria.
est affectus
et defectus
semper in angaria.
Hac in hora
sine mora
corde pulsum tangite;
quod per sortem
sternit fortem,
mecum omnes plangite!

O Fortune!
Like the moon
rising first
then declining;
hateful life
treats us badly
then with kindness
making sport with our desires,
causing power
and poverty alike
to melt like ice. 
Dread destiny
and empty fate,
an ever-turning wheel,
who make adversity
and fickle health
alike turn to nothing,
in the dark
and secretly
you work against me;
how through your trickery
my naked back
is turned to you unarmed. 
Good fortune
and strength
now are turned from me.
and defeat
are always on duty.
Come now,
pluck the strings
without delay;
and since by fate
the strong are overthrown
weep ye all with me.
- Carmina Burana

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