In an upstairs hallway at the Armory Center for the
Arts in Pasadena, a small show of photographs by Maria Teresa Fernandez
focuses on the fence along the U.S.-Mexico border that begins a couple
of hundred feet out in the Pacific and ends about 60 miles inland, near
El Centro, Calif.
That's a lot of territory to cover, and rather
than documenting all parts equally or presenting a historical overview
of the politically charged barrier, Fernandez zeros in on details:
little incidents that might seem insignificant but that accumulate to
form a knot of narratives by turns tragic, defiant and touching. Of the
84 color prints that make up the accessible exhibition, all but eight
are close-ups -- tightly framed pictures that bring visitors nose to
nose with the fence and arm's length from the often poignant mementos
left beside it by people whose lives it has affected.
None of Fernandez's photographs are titled, dated or labeled. Four short
wall texts provide a bit of background, leaving the snapshot-style
pictures, arranged in six loose groups, free to tell their stories.
Fernandez is not a sociologist or an activist but a poet, an artist
whose goal is to capture various facets of the human drama that unfolds
at the fence.
It all begins innocently enough, with nearly abstract shots of the
fence's piecemeal patchwork of recycled materials and painted-over
portions, which form accidental compositions. Algae, barnacles and rust
create a wide range of surface textures. In several images, the
crumbling metal, worn thin and turned orange by the salty air and water,
contrasts dramatically with the cloudless blue sky it reveals through
The next cluster of pictures is the largest and most forlorn. In it, the
Mexico-born, San Diego-based artist documents some of the many
memorials that have shown up along the fence's south side.
Some are humble: ad hoc, on-the-run gestures to lost and fallen love
ones, such as a pair of old boots hung from the fence or a simple cross
marked with a man's name or, more often, "no identificado."
Others are elaborate, resembling altars or shrines festooned with votive
candles and overflowing with offerings of fruit and flowers as well as
personal treasures. Bold graphics and figurative images -- including
piles of skulls, fleeing people and dazzling landscapes -- are painted
on the fence as mural-style backdrops. A few, made by anonymous artists
armed with spray paint and brushes, turn the surface into a ground for
illusionistic paintings of doorways to an Edenic land of freedom and
The third group of images depicts the remnants of large, well-organized
protests: coffin-shaped boxes, hundreds of water bottles, and
billboard-style messages decrying the social injustice and economic
inequity represented by the fence.
The fourth group of photos turns away from such unofficial, DIY
additions to the fence to portray its authoritarian features.
Sun-bleached images of steel and concrete reinforcements, military-style
border patrols, construction and repair crews, towering light posts and
surveillance cameras show a Godforsaken, Orwellian landscape.
The last two groups of pictures return to the heart of Fernandez's
project: the anonymous men, women and children whose lives are divided
by the fence. One group shows close-ups of hands -- pressed against the
fence or clinging to its chain-link sections. They are among the only
works that seem posed, and they come off as greeting-card clichés.
In contrast, the last group is haunting. It depicts couples, families
and friends gathered on both sides of the fence as if they were all on
the front porch or around a picnic table, casually chatting on a weekend
afternoon. Many bring folding chairs, coolers and portable stereos and
try to pretend that the steel pilings of a 12-foot-tall fence don't
separate them. Fernandez captures the absurdity of the situation and the
adaptability of the people, giving heart-wrenching form to both,
especially in her images of lovers who drape sheets over themselves --
and through the fence -- for a little privacy.
Fernandez's eight panoramic photographs, which reveal the vastness of
the fence as it snakes across the land, amplify the absurdity of it all.
They provide just enough big-picture context to make the up-close and
intimate pictures all the more potent.
By Dave Pagel
For The Los Angeles Times