November 6-December 18, 2021
Opening reception Saturday, November 6, 6:00-8:00 pm
For centuries, artists have used the grotesque as a bludgeon against religion and politics, power and predators. From the ancient civilizations through Bosch and Breughel, to Goya and modern times, artists have felt the frustration of helplessness and futility before malicious authorities they were powerless to turn aside. They have experienced war, pestilence and personal trauma. By degrees, the work absorbed their fears, anxiety and anger, and became monstrous.
Again and again, history has shown us that the times dictate what the art will be. Kirk Hopper Fine Art is honored to present two solo exhibitions: some 30 woodcuts and linocuts, spanning four decades by San Ygnacio-based artist Eric Avery, and videos, sculptures, major installation and drawings by San Antonio artist Anne Wallace. Spend time with the works and it becomes clear that their art stems from a contention with compelling issues: love, death, spirituality, beauty. Mainstream themes in Western art raise their heads alongside core concernsmigrants rushing toward the U.S. border, fleeing even worse calamity in their own countries: HIV/AIDS, COVID pandemics and other contagious diseases; climate threats; less food.
Avery and Wallace, close friends for many years, approach their works from divergent perspectives and media. However, there is a way of understanding them that connects their imagery to the nature of trauma, to how it makes experience gigantic and incongruous. Their art serves as eloquent, if brutish, testimony to the necessity of questioning the complacency, coarseness and banality of the environment, the contamination of life itself. For artists of such conviction, the world is estranged, life is absurd; the revelation of human failings is a necessity and the documentation of bearing witness a responsibility.
What they seek is a healing language. Both look at the messy, chaotic parts of representation and how we construct ourselves as people. Taken together, the expansive range of works by Avery and Wallace are wider in their human sympathies, weightier of image and intellect, shot through with intimations of light. What they offer are moments of grace.
Avery's art is informed by his experience as a medical doctor and social activist. Early on, he worked at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and volunteered his medical services to aid Vietnamese refugees in Indonesia and people in the refugee camps of drought-stricken Somalia. Avery became an active member and head of the Laredo group of Amnesty International, with a particular interest in human rights violations in Central America and near his home in San Ygnacio along the border of Mexico.
He began making woodcut prints during his free time in the refugee camps to release the overwhelming frustration of coping with disease and lack of medical supplies. Just as the woodcut proved to be particularly adaptable to the art of the German Expressionists, whose dramatic concepts and predilection for vigorouseven violentcolor and line were well served by the bold lines cut readily on the woodblock, so does the medium serve Avery's desire to address the darker aspects of the human condition.
Chimera (1991) depicts a monstrous war machinehorns, claws and Old Glory splayed across its rib cagechewing off the bloodied head of a victim. Bush, transformed by Avery into a demonic television set, with protruding horns and fangs dripping with blood, peers over the grotesque creature's head and surveys the collection of rockets, missiles, guns and gas masks. A condor covered in oil serves as a counterpoint for the phrase, "Our Father of War." Accordingly, Avery emphasizes the phallic elements in the print and the grandiose moniker popularized by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who famously described the Gulf War as the "Mother of All Battles." In USA Dishonor and Disrespect (1992), the huddled masses yearn to breathe free in a Haitian boat at sea just a stone's throw from Miami. A U.S. Coast Guard patrol tows off their launch as a throng of refugees spills over its sides into a maelstrom of sharks and turbulent waters. Here, Avery portrays the scene with reference to three source images: Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), John Singleton Copley's Watson and the Shark (1778), and Theodore Gericault's Raft of the Medusa (1818-19).
During the stressful two weeks while Avery waited for the results of his first HIV test, the artist drew his own arm and cut the imagethe muscular limb outstretched with veins and sinew, fingers curled. Blood Test (1983) represents the pandemic's spread into people of color, from the earlier infected gay male population. In Seasons of the Year by the Animals Killed in South Texas (1983), Avery conflates issues of predator and prey. A dead crow (spring) is hung from a fence post, ostensibly to keep other birds out of the fields. The smashed shell of a turtle (summer) is found on the edge of the Rio Grande. The carcasses and skins of coyotes (autumn) and deer (winter) are left in the town dump by hunters.
For Stash House (2020), Avery worked with papermaker Susan Mackin Dolan to make a print about human trafficking and a stash house that had been busted by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) from a Laredo Morning Times news clip. Triggered by memories of refugees in Somalia and Vietnam, as well as the 1788 Brooks Slave Ship broadside, Avery's folio conveys the constraints of the 73 people sleeping and hiding in a small house, waiting to be moved north. The civil chaos and danger in Central America push people to leave family and possessions, risking everything in a desperate struggle for survival.
Significantly, Avery sees history's patterns as cyclical rather than linear, crossing similar terrain again and again as they wend their way toward disaster. Experiencing his art at KHFA is to grasp how extremely relevant this workproduced over four decadescontinues to be in what's turning out as the inescapable conditions of the 21st century: deterioration of human rights; multi-drug resistant infections; the complexities and subtleties of gender identity that pervade our culture today. "The cutting of blocks, the hand printing, now making the very paper I print on, grinding up AIDS orphans clothes to carry content," says Avery. "All of this is a working through the body of a lived socially responsible queer doctor's life. What I saw 40 years ago on this border View Across the Rio Grande is more true today. The Haitian people dying in boats is happening today. The pressures on my Somalia refugees in my camp, from war, famine, droughtnow, it's migrants from Central American across from where I live. I saw and did this. Now you look or look away."
Similarly, Anne Wallace's three videos, sculptures, installation and drawings aim to engage our minds and spirits, bringing us to a state of awareness that will not permit us to avert our eyes. In doing so, she reminds us that all of society's ills are really cut from the same cloth. What keeps us from connections, wholeheartedness, compassion? How do we connect with people who are different than ourselves? What is revealed, hidden, erased? For Wallace, art is more than embellishment. Her work may be commentary or denunciation, but on whatever level she chooses to act, she grapples with the core issues of our fuller humanity.
Wallace's family heritage comes from several generations of Central Texas ranchers and that historic connection to landa sense of placehas informed her relationship to the natural world. Although Wallace was raised in Galveston, she lived and worked in Mexico for several years during the 1980s before moving to San Ygnacio where, with Avery, she formed the Refugee Assistance Council in Laredo and was an active member of Amnesty International. Since relocating to the historic Lavaca neighborhood of San Antonio, she has documented its increasing gentrification and urban renewal. Throughout, Wallace has also documented the journey within herself, showing the complexity of how we constantly modify our representations and experience of the past.
In the KHFA exhibition, we can enter Wallace's narratives at any point. She asks that we know our own history; know the other person's history; and recognize our interdependence. The group of life-size figures, carved from salvaged eucalyptus, Arizona ash and hackberry trees is titled Ma sa laach 'ool? What does your heart say? (1989-90), a Mayan greeting for hello. A small girl covers her mouth, a woman holds her dead child, another stands defiantly in a fit of rage. A dead figure, genitals exposed, is splayed on the ground. Using a chainsaw, Wallace hacked the wood with cross-hatching, like splinters or wounds. Inspired by her work with Central American and Haitian asylum seekers detained in Laredo, the sculptures embody the painful human reality of violence in war, but also the dehumanization of "the other."
Nearby, Wallace's video "Western" (2021), features a string of predatorsa bobcat, fox and several coyotessuspended from a gibbet. The dead animals, a rancher's message to the animal kingdom, hang alongside the marker of the Great Western Trail, once a principle thoroughfare for Texas cattle bound to Northern markets. We witness their bodies decomposing, as bones and as dust of the land. In the mix, scissor-tailed flycatchers and butterflies are seen in an instant; trucks pass by. We are mesmerized by the ambient sounds, movements and sudden stillness.
Conversely, "Un Mundo Raro" (2013), filmed on the U.S./Mexico border, is propelled by an indie rock song and fast-paced scenes that convey the human desire to maintain connection and love, as well as the rupture caused by the brutality of poverty and the drug trade. For Wallace, the border flows both directions, requiring perseverance and ingenuity to survive on either side. Most people see migration flowing only one way to the detriment of U.S. culture and economy. However, U.S. citizens cross into Mexico for many reasons which may be invisible to the general U.S. public, but understood by residents of the borderlands. Wallace writes: "Cheaper prescription drugs, dental work, sex (trips to 'Boystown' have been rites of passage for many young men), booze and partying, good food, shopping for bargains and handcrafts, making illegal weapons sales (fueling cartel violence and human rights violations), buying and shipping illegal drugs into the U.S. market, cheap and 'docile' labor for transnational companies looking to avoid fair wage scales and safe factory standards and, of course, to see friends and family who have been walled out. Our tax dollars subsidize the worst of these. Corporate agriculture subsidies allow huge U.S. farms to export cheap corn, undercutting the sale of locally grown Mexican corn and contributing to flight from Mexico's breadbasket regions."
Un Mundo Raro functions as a taut counterpoint to Wallace's powerful installation, Lost and Found (2019), composed of discarded water bottles, carpet shoes and clothing found along the migrant trails in the Sonoran desert. Whenever humanitarian organizations leave water, they also carry out trash. Wallace gathered the bottles and carpet shoesmade as a cottage industry on the Mexican side, supposedly to erase tracks. She washes, dismantles and re-makes the discarded scraps of clothes into prayer flags. Migrant deaths, a grisly reality for decades, have spiked in one stretch of the border after another. The scraps of clothes, without names, are often all that's left of migrants who journey across Mexico under the scorching sun to the U.S. border. They are empty casings of the men, women and children. The dozens of bottles cast ghostly shadows; the remnants of clothing still contain the DNA of the wearer, like a second skin.
For the KHFA exhibition, Wallace is also including the series "Women in the News" (2003-21)watercolor, gouache and ink drawingsin addition to vintage handkerchiefs with block-printed images of grieving women. Like the migrant scraps, Wallace pins the handkerchiefs to a clothesline so they flutter in the air, prayers to women bent over in sorrow of personal or communal tragedy.
Feet moving, hands touching, bodies breathing in cadence. "Dancing the Ruins" (2019), a three-channel video projection, integrates classical and hip-hop dancersSyrian refugeesperforming amid contemporary and haunting architectural settings in Berlin and San Antonio. Here, Wallace rediscovers the beings we were yesterday, as well as the sensations that make us who we are today and who we will be tomorrow. The Covid pandemic has evoked a longing for people, times and communities. For Wallace, dance is a space of healing, trust and ecstasy in the company of others. Perhaps we think about our bodies in a different way now, as a battleground of space and touch. Can we find ourselves through gesture, fluidity, spirituality? "The dance floor is also a contact point, a border," says Wallace. "I don't ask your name, age, history or immigration status. I look into your eyes and put my hand on your shoulder. You put your hand on my waist and lead me across the floor."
All of the human and animal figures summoned forth by Avery and Wallace resemble something close to forces of nature. Their actions feel Biblical. In much of the art, a question is provoked: Has holiness withdrawn from the world? At their core the works reconcile a desire for freedom with a desire to be seen and reckoned with. Avery's woodcuts and linoleum blocks; Wallace's videos, sculptures, installation and drawings: they allow us to slow down, take their measures, as with private devotionals. Our communion is now shaped by new continuing hesitations. At a time of acute environmental and social consciousness, such visionary reflectionsnot as separate, disposable parts, but as a connected, responsive organismhave immediate significance. The result is a powerful human encounter, a process of viewing akin to getting to know the characters as fully dimensional beings in the face of dehumanizing conditions of the world.