Critics’ Picks

Chico MacMurtrie, Border Crossers, 2021. Performance view, Naco, Arizona and Naco, Sonora, 2021.

Chico MacMurtrie, Border Crossers, 2021. Performance view, Naco, Arizona and Naco, Sonora, 2021.

El Paso

Chico MacMurtie

Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts
500 West University Avenue The University of Texas at El Paso
September 16–December 10, 2021

We all saw the horrendous news photographs of United States agents on horseback, who appeared to be whipping Haitians crossing the Rio Grande. Such images of violence against those seeking refuge confirm the enduring injustice of America’s southern border policies and work to foreclose any visions of lasting structural change. “Border Crossers,” Chico MacMurtie’s exhibition at this Texas institution, acknowledges this grim reality while summoning a different future. The show features the largest presentation to date of the artist’s drawings as well as performances near several crossing sites—including Naco, a town straddling Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, which is close to MacMurtie’s childhood home—where inflatable robots with long tentacle-like arms expand to poetically transgress today’s barriers.

While many of the show’s dozens of small sketches—mechanical studies, performance plans—illustrate how the robots came to be, the handful of monumental landscape drawings, each one approximately three by seven feet, illuminate their wider world. The watercolor Word Map (The Night the Oxygen Ran Out), 2021, gives us an aerial view of a hilly colorful terrain occupied by walled-up cells in which fields of color and text reside. Some display dark headlines (“ICE SILENCING FREEDOM OF SPEECH”), while others contain dreamy messages (“MATERIALS THAT CAN HEAL THEMSELVES”) that, beneath the work’s blue sky, suggest hope. Even more absorbing is Border Crossers (The Wedge), 2017, one of two charcoal drawings whose sweeping marks depict peaceful borderlands inhabited by desert plants and ghostly renderings of the artist’s contraptions. In this image, curving robotic arms reach over a surreally rendered wall that appears to stretch deep into the sky. The partition has a sharp corner that pierces the foreground. It seals off the area behind it while still allowing open access across the remaining frontier.

Last May in Naco, dozens of people gathered for a performance on either side of the metal bars that divide what was one town. US officials peeled back concertina wire, and the artist’s machines approached. Plastic arms inflated and moved towards one another, curving to eventually cross and touch over the wall. While this poetic moment didn’t alter the present, it opened a path for imagining a more humane tomorrow.