The TX landscape, its inhabitants and its geographical location have
inspired two widely disparate artistic endeavors in the newest offering
at The Gallery at the University of Texas at Arlington.
colorful depictions of local flora and fauna share the large, open
gallery space with Margarita Cabrera’s sculptural meditations on the
U.S. / Mexico border.This unlikely pairing results in a visually dynamic exhibition with enough variety to intrigue, yet enough space to enable a thorough engagement with each artist.
Mexican-born, El Paso resident Margarita Cabrera lives in the shadow of the U.S. / Mexico border, whose constant presence informs her work. With striking conceptual clarity, Cabrera’s sculptures provocatively address border dynamics, international relationships, American consumerism, and the urban realities of twin cities such as El Paso / Cuidad Juárez and San Diego / Tijuana. Intricately crafted (occasionally with the help of Mexican labor), Cabrera’s soft objects possess a pliability that belies their rigorous commentary on the economic interdependence of the United States and Mexico. Spread throughout the UTA gallery are five hand-sewn cactus plants, each set in a terra-cotta pot and raised up on a pedestal. The cactus is a prominent visual icon of the border landscape, as well as a plant known for its endurance and resilience in an exceptionally hostile climate. Yet Cabrera’s cacti are literally stitched with a meaning that extends beyond this initial reading as the plants themselves—such as Echinocreus Dasycan (2006)—are sewn from border guard uniforms the artist purchased from secondhand stores in El Paso.
Materiality is also significant in Cabrera’s miniature renderings of Hummer vehicles, a military machine that General Motors adapted for domesticated, recreational use by the typical American family—if they can afford it. Executed on the same scale as toy Hummer vehicles (and employing some of their parts, such as the wheels), Cabrera’s versions of this extreme sport utility vehicle are rendered in soft vinyl. Because of the demanding nature of this handcrafting, Cabrera enlisted the assistance of factory workers she hired from across the border. One Hummer sits alone atop a pedestal. The remaining 160 are stacked on the floor in the shape of a pyramid, referencing both the distribution of wealth in this country and the percentage of the American population likely to enjoy the financial affluence required to purchase such a vehicle. The miniature assembly line utilized in the execution of Hummer Pyramid (2006) recalls the maquiladoras factories situated just across the border in Mexico, where parts imported from around the world are assembled to produce household gadgets such as blenders and coffeemakers. These factories employ Mexican labor but are usually owned by companies located in the United States.
Soft sculptural elements continue to figure in Cabrera’s five immigrant backpacks, two of which appear in this exhibition. Each was executed for a different member of a fictional Mexican immigrant family, and the contents were inspired by Cabrera’s visits to border patrol stations, where she glimpsed those items confiscated from immigrants detained as they attempted to illegally cross the border. Backpack (blue) (2006) was created with a young boy in mind. The contents of the mesh backpack include wire cutters, religious icons, a medicine bottle, garlic to ward off rattlesnakes, a CD player and a water bottle, all hand-sewn out of vinyl. These contents were removed from the backpack by Cabrera during a gallery talk, but are usually zipped inside the backpack, which hangs on the gallery wall, where they are more difficult discern. An installation similar to that at the Sara Meltzer Gallery in New York, where the backpacks were placed on a table and their contents allowed to topple out into clearer view, would have been appreciated.
Fort Worth artist Billy Hassell’s paintings primarily feature local members of the avian population: cardinals, mockingbirds, painted buntings and roosters. Yet Hassell’s birds are not the scientific depictions found inside nature catalogues belonging to the ornithologist or weekend bird-watcher. The intricate delineations of anatomy, careful depiction of layered feathers, and theatrical movement and pose that characterize the work of John James Audubon have been replaced in Hassell’s paintings with bold planes of brilliant color and a penchant for exploring the dichotomous placement of naturalistic subjects on stylized, patterned grounds. Many of these paintings, such as Cardinal with Thistles II (2007), situate a carefully rendered bird on a dense and detailed floral background. Rather than attempt to place the bird in natural, three-dimensional space, the floral grounds are flat and highly ornamental, allowing the viewer to scrutinize the intricate patterns upon which the birds rest and to contemplate Hassell’s varied approach to each layer of the painting. On occasion, the artist has cut his wildlife subjects from wood and affixed them directly to the canvas, subsuming them into the decorative environment. The exhibition at UTA features 22 works by Hassell, including acrylic on panel renderings of birds or their wood-relief shadows, as well as a sampling of watercolors. The artist’s interest in conservation is apparent in this offering, and anyone with an affection for the natural environment will feel at home in Hassell’s meticulously crafted world.
Yet Hassell is not without surprises. An awareness of his place in the history of painting permeates these fanciful observations of the natural world. Mondrian’s Ghost/Flower (2007) moves the avian woodcut out of the shallow space of a floral ground and into a Piet Mondrian composition. Likewise, in de Kooning’s Ghost/Flower (2007), a bird has swapped his nest for the less-than-cozy confines of a canvas whose frenzied brushstrokes consciously recall the powerful gestures of Willem de Kooning. Occasionally, the expected bird relief is replaced with an ornamental fragment of foliage or, as in the case of Low Water (2006), a fish sliding onto the green canvas from below. These variations on a theme prove intriguing for the visitor moving through the galleries at UTA, as Hassell explores alternatives within the range of subjects for which he is already well-known and respected.
The work of Cabrera and Hassell combines in The Gallery to create an exhibition that is both conceptually rewarding and visually arresting, making the trip to Arlington worthwhile for all far-flung inhabitants of the sprawling DFW metroplex.
Images courtesy UTA gallery
Sarah Hymes is currently a graduate student in art history at TCU.