Once upon a time the border between Mexico and the United States was about land and sovereignty. It wasn’t too difficult to cross that line. But then it got complicated. Especially since 9/11, the border isn’t just about land, but about trade, undocumented immigrants, terrorism, guns, drugs, and military surveillance. In 2003, as artist Kim Martinez read news accounts of increased militarization at the border while more and more migrants were dying in the desert, she began to consider exploring these issues through art.
Fast forward 10 years and Martinez is now showing a body of work that resulted from her curiosity and concern about border issues; a body of work that includes both paintings and video animation installed at Finch Lane Gallery through November 15.
Martinez will quickly tell you that this exhibit is not about immigration rights. Rather, it is about the journey from Mexico to the United States. It is about the enforcers on both sides of the border; the coyotes, often affiliated with drug cartels, who smuggle humans and other commodities across; the killing of Mexicans by Mexicans with the help of American guns; the death of the old culture of easy, neighborly visits across that line. It is about risk and death. Martinez leaves it to the viewer to think about public policy and how each of us is complicit in its results.
One might think from this quick listing of some of the complex issues that the exhibit could be grizzly, violent, and painful to watch. On the contrary, Martinez has used symbolism and elements of magical realism that engage the viewer intellectually to figure out what it all means.
The exhibit includes 15 monochromatic paintings (acrylic on paper) matted in white and framed similarly in black frames. In the midst of the black and white paintings, which cover three walls of the gallery, is a two-sided video screen suspended from the ceiling. It soon becomes clear to the viewer that the video is an animation of the still images in the paintings. The fourth gallery wall holds five brightly colored acrylic paintings on linen – some of the symbols and characters of the video series against a hypnotic pattern of colors spiraling or vanishing to a point.
Back in 2003, when Martinez first began wondering about the border situation, she knew she needed to go there to gather not just facts and images, but the feel of the place.
“I’m a romantic painter, meaning, for me to paint about something I need to understand, to actually be in it,” says Martinez. “I need to have the whole sensory experience.” She and a friend, a high school teacher, spent a month studying the historic trails used by migrants. Then they found a group – Humane Borders – that provides water stations in the desert to help prevent migrant deaths from thirst. Martinez and her friend volunteered with the group, helping them check the water tanks to make sure they had not been poisoned, refilled them, and picked up trash left by the migrants.
Martinez wanted to visit the infamous Highway of the Devil near Oregon Pipe National Monument. This route, where Cortez looked for cities of gold and bootleggers smuggled alcohol during prohibition, is one of the most dangerous along the border. “I was turned away by the Border Patrol,” says Martinez, “because a Border Patrol Agent had been killed there the day before.”
She also traveled to the Mexico side of the line and saw places where migrants hide, and where they meet up with the coyotes to arrange the border crossing. And she visited Odham, a small Indian reservation where people who cross often end up, seeking help for illness or injuries.
In addition to seeing and feeling these parts of the migrant experience, Martinez also heard stories. She heard about some of the changes that have occurred in border towns since the enactment of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, the law intended to facilitate free trade between Mexico and the US. She heard about the women of Juarez, who came in droves to that border town to work in new industries created after NAFTA. In the past 10 years some 700 women, 10 to 29 years old, have been murdered and brutally marked by cutting off of one breast. There are theories about the murders but no arrests.
If this seems like a very broad, complicated story, it is. That’s why Martinez began mind-mapping all the information on a big canvas in her studio back in 2003. From the central points – “migration,” “multiplicity,” “territory,” “structural,” and “autonomy” – the dense text and drawings swirl around the canvas providing a vast array of possible stories and images to include in the series of paintings and the video. The mind-map, which she calls “The Random Process” painting, is included in the exhibit and pieces of it introduce each narrative segment on the video.
Like the mind-map, which is not linear, but more of a random, stream-of-consciousness exploration of all the facets of the border experiences, the video is also a seemingly random arrangement of story vignettes. “I didn’t want it to be a linear narrative,” she says. “I wanted it to have that sense of magical realism. I wanted the viewer to be unbalanced to feel some tension.”
The images and characters that appear in the paintings are creatures of Martinez’s imagination. Loaded with symbolism and metaphor, the characters draw the viewer in for a closer look, and beg for interpretation. The viewer might not get all that was in Martinez’s mind, but they will be held long enough, even mesmerized, to become curious, to look closer, to become uneasy.
For example, in one scene the coyote who helps people cross the line is eaten by the line, which has turned into a snake. There’s the binocular-eyed snake with a ruffled collar representing the forces of power who watch the border. And there’s the gas-masked enforcer who cuts the heart out of the border town culture.
The title of the exhibit — 7 Steps Forward, 7 Steps Back — comes from the rituals of some indigenous peoples of North America after someone dies. “For seven days, four times a day, the survivors pay homage to the deceased by visiting and marking their burial site with seven lines. Then they walk forward seven steps to the site and, when leaving, walk backward seven steps. This practice assures that the dead will have safe entry into the afterlife.” (from the artist’s statement)
The video is looped for continuous play and can be viewed from both sides of the screen. The images, as the paintings, are black and white. Sound effects, created by Martinez from household objects, heard from two speakers, add to the tension of the action.
From Paint to Video
This is Martinez’s first experience making a video. She wanted a gritty roughness to the video so she chose to paint the images with black and white acrylic on paper, leaving the edges rough and smudged. Though each image was laboriously constructed, she wanted it to have a spontaneous feel.
When she started the series, she worked backwards to create the steps in the animation, the frames that make up the action. In other words, she’d paint the final action, photograph it, then paint out elements, photograph it again, and so on. She decided it would work better in the other direction – painting the partial scene, photographing, adding elements, photographing again, and so on until the scene was complete. She resisted using Photoshop to add or subtract elements to create the action steps, though in one or two scenes she did use Photoshop to build additional steps for the length of animation.
Since she worked from imagination rather than from live models, Martinez did hundreds of sketches to explore the actions of her characters — for example, how a body moves when it is falling.
The video also incorporates sketches of desert plants from Martinez’s sketchbook and pieces of her mind-map to separate and introduce story segments. Martinez credits Janet Frick for video editing. As Martinez drew, and photographed the images, Frick worked with her to capture and design the sound and place the images in the timeline.
From Black and White to Color
The five paintings on linen were created mostly after the video was completed, in 2013. The imagery in the paintings is rendered in black and white, similar to the video stills. But they are set against a color pattern that seems to make the figures vibrate. Martinez calls it “a strategy to engulf the viewer into the space. Additionally, the color ground and black and white figures are a way for me to talk about the use and abuse of power structures, victim and victimizer, binaries that provide the raw material for my research.”
In one of these paintings, drones, appearing almost as insects, are arrayed on the color pattern. In another, mayonnaise packets, frequently seen in trash discarded by migrants, are scattered across the vibrating color pattern. Another painting, “7 Steps Forward, 7 Steps Back: Fast and Furious,” recalls through its imagery the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearm program that attempted to track firearms across the border after allowing US gun dealers to sell weapons in quantities that were illegal. The tracking failed and thousands of guns ended up in the hands of Mexican criminals.
The black and white paintings are titled with lines from William Blake’s poem “Visions of the Daughters of Albion.” Written in 1793, the poem is not about the border at all, but condemns slavery in America. Martinez sees a parallel between slavery and the present-day disregard for individuals by those who hold power, whether governmental or corporate.
This is the first installation of 7 Steps Forward, 7 Steps Back, but hopefully not the last. If one of the roles of art is to make the viewer think and feel more deeply, this exhibit could be a catalyst for some form of individual or collective action. Says Martinez, “As global citizens we’re all involved. I’m not trying to give the viewer the answer about what they should do. It’s an unresolved kind of package. My expectation is that’s the viewer’s job.”
Take a look. Then decide. What will you do?
Sue Martin holds an M.A. in Theatre and has worked in public relations. As an artist, she works in watercolor, oil, and acrylic to capture Utah landscapes or the beauty of everyday objects in still life.