James Drake

Events along the U.S.-Mexican border are part of the daily psychic undertow in the Southwest, even for middle-class Anglos, who have come to believe that the traffic—day laborers, political refugees, drug smugglers, and the anticipated menace of killer bees—crosses overwhelmingly in one direction. James Drake has resolutely stationed his art at the border in a double sense: by working there—in El Paso, Texas for the last 22 years—and by focusing on the pathos of that sovereign boundary as the subject of his recent drawings and sculpture installations.

In this group of seven works Drake attempts to retrieve a recurrent tragedy from the decay of journalistic memory and to raise it to the level of persistent and permanent symbolic evidence. In The Illegal, 1987, the evidence is specific and literal; the interior of a boxcar strewn with shoes, clothing, and a cardboard carton, scarred by a conspicuous gash in the floor boards where some of the 18 trapped men who eventually suffocated had tried to break through for air. Lines from a journal found among the victims’ remains (written here in both Spanish and English) flank this large, expressive charcoal drawing. The quoted entry closes with poignant irony: “Adiós, El Paso, he vuelto Chamizal. Ha regresado to amigo el ilegal” (Goodbye, El Paso, I am back, Chamizal. Your friend the illegal has returned). The words signal something more than death, more than the loss of transient lives. Throughout much of this exhibition Drake intends to cast us into the deadly condition of that boxcar at the border, locked inside, like the ill-fated Mexicans, by the coyote, their agent of passage.

In Juárez/El Paso, 1986–88, one of two other major works on this theme, the typographic slash takes on a great burden of meaning. Drake’s divided theater of steel and charcoal consists of a play of oppositions revolving around a central headless, armless female figure, her arched right foot marking the pivotal point for the entire multipart work. A pair of black swans glide past her half-circular stage—a doubled sign of dark promise—and, in the backdrop, a railroad bridge leads to or from a bleak, closed station. On either side stand steel arches, bristling on the left with tools, and on the right with weapons—pick, shovel, and machete versus M-1, anti-tank weapon, revolver—forming an equation of obvious disparity. Two additional panels, an image of a lone, open boxcar and an incinerated heap of blackened trash were installed separately, a decision that inhibited a complete reading of this complex work.

Drake attempts to construct a very different, ultimately problematic set of equations in the three large pieces, The Revolution (Orozco), The Inquisition, and Raft of the Medusa, all 1988. In each case, an image appropriated from art history and drawn in heavy charcoal is balanced against a symbolic, sculptural construction, usually one pertaining to either conflict or injustice. In the 30-foot Raft of the Medusa, Drake faithfully renders (with certain alterations in size and subject matter) Géricault's famous painting of 1819. On the right side of the piece are four steel plates intended to represent an interior boxcar wall. Three life-size welded figures confront the wall: one who duplicates a pose from the lower right of the original histrionic composition; one who stands, his arms above his head, violently pushing against the wall; and one, representing the lone survivor, who lies procumbent with his head pressed up to a small air hole that sustained his life.

What is intended, apparently, is a heroic analogy in which Drake wishes to establish a parallel between the steerage-class castaways of the original piece and the Mexicans locked and abandoned in a boxcar in Sierra Blanca, Texas. Like Géricault, who turned his revulsion concerning the fate of his subjects into monumental inspiration, Drake means to elevate the status of his subjects through an artistic labor driven by a similar humanist urge. But by conflating two vastly separate histories Drake runs the very real risk of dematerializing the historical, as well as of undermining the critique of representation fundamental to the strategy of appropriation. He also invites a comparison between expressive achievements (those of Géricault, Goya, and Orozco against his own) that remains, in the end, disparate and unequal.

Ed Hill/Suzanne Bloom