War Correspondents: Two Ways of Dealing with Conflict

The war outside. The war within. Two new art exhibits mine two very different terrains: One culture's external battle against drug cartels, and one person's struggle against mental demons. Both kinds of conflict take huge tolls and demand the kind of reflection (and introspection) that these exhibits inspire.

At Intersection for the Arts, “Evidence: Artistic Responses to the Drug Wars” emphasizes Mexico's symbiotic relationship with the United States, and the countries' chaotic attempts to rein in Mexican drug traffickers. A coterie of filmmakers, photographers, and visual artists see the problem from highly unusual (and occasionally sickening) angles, as in Gianfranco Rosi and Charles Bowden's documentary El Sicario, Room 164, which spotlights a hooded killer who worked for Mexican criminals. “You have to keep cool and not panic,” he says about murdering people who got in the criminals' way. Photographer/filmmaker Robert Gomez Hernandez showcases — through a video camera that artgoers look through — footage of drug cartels' execution videos, while artist Miguel A. Aragón presents tar papers that he's drilled to look like the heads of victims. The faces in all these works are unforgettable, and “Evidence” is a kind of artistic wake-up call to pay more attention to a pernicious war that is raging less than two hours' flight from San Francisco.

At Robert Koch Gallery, “Hesitating Beauty” interprets the life of artist Joshua Lutz's mother, and how her mental illness affected the family. Much more an elliptical peek and a re-imagining than a straight-ahead narrative, “Hesitating Beauty” begins with an image of a beautiful dark-haired woman wearing a stylish winter coat as she stands before a bridge. She's avoiding the camera with her eyes, and she's almost frowning, but so what? The hints of paranoia and schizophrenia, though, are sprinkled more clearly in other images that reflect a later life of hospitalization. Lutz took many of the photographs we see even as he was worried about his mother's well-being, and about his own mental health as the offspring of a sick woman. “Hesitating Beauty,” also the name of Lutz's book, is a public reconciliation of Lutz's view of his mother and his mother's view of Lutz and the world around her. “In making this work and simultaneously falling deeper into her psychosis,” Lutz writes, “I tried to imagine a time when the past, present, and future collided; a place where the weight of memory is heavier than reality.”

Memory and reality are intertwined in both “Hesitating Beauty” and “Evidence: Artistic Responses to the Drug Wars.” Both exhibits puncture illusions. In her video essay at Intersection, Fiamma Montezemolo captures graffiti on the U.S.-Mexico border that derides the steel girders designed to separate the countries. The graffiti bellows: “Enjoy your security.” Wars, these exhibits suggest, rarely lead to real security.

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