An Artist’s Reaction to Today’s Politics

“Art, an enduring record of man’s emotional response to his existence…the communication of emotion rather than of information.”— Peter Hurd, Artist1

It’s been a while since my last blog. Not so much because there was nothing to write about in the turbulent aftermath of Donald Trump’s election and subsequent inauguration as our President, but more because events have occurred so rapidly that it has been hard to stay up with them either intellectually or emotionally.  I have left it to others to put their words on paper (or computer or video) to describe and dissect the immediate events as they have occurred this past year. I think all of us, regardless of our political leanings, felt beset by the almost daily revelations of scandal, bigotry, racial slurs, personal attacks on individuals or entire groups (Democrats, Republicans, Muslims, Blacks, etc), abrupt changes in leadership and policy directions, “fake news”, lies and distortions, etc.—much of which has been fueled by incessant tweets and incendiary remarks by the President. I for one have felt helpless wondering what if anything I could do that would be more constructive in trying to participate in today’s political discourses and debate.

As an artist I have tried to find the answer in my art—to paraphrase Peter Hurd, by communicating emotion rather than simply information. With that in mind I am using this forum to present three recent pieces of my art that, hopefully, convey a sense of the emotions and concerns felt not only by myself but many of us that reside in the southern regions near our border with Mexico. Of particular concern has been the political attacks on undocumented immigrants, many of whom reside and work peacefully as our neighbors but are now being treated as “criminals” by Trump’s newly energized Border Patrol and Homeland Security. Immigration issues are the general theme that runs through the art I am presenting here.

“The Border Wall” (20″ x 30″, Oil on Canvas)—Painted during the height of the Presidential election, I initially called this piece, “Trump’s Wall” but generalized it as “The Border Wall” to be less inflammatory in its presentation to a general art audience. The painting is based on actual photos of our southern border with Mexico between the City of El Paso (Texas) and Ciudad de Juárez (Chihuahua). It is a view that you can see from Interstate 10 as you pass through El Paso. In the distance is the Mount Cristo Rey crucifix statue of Christ which straddles the border (New Mexico and Mexico) as the highway heads west directly from these twin cities. The wall—actually a metal fence approximately 30 feet high— is shown painted black and stands approximately 50 feet high in the painting—the proposed height of Trump’s wall during the campaign and now into his administration. On one side (north) is the border highway that parallels the Rio Grande river seen on the other side of the wall. On the US side the colors are muted and the storm clouds seem to be gathering, whereas on the Mexican side the colors are bright, the sun is emerging from the clouds and children are playing on the riverbank under the watchful eyes of a Border Patrol truck. The physical as well as the emotional juxtaposition of Mexico with the US is particularly poignant in this unique geographical site where the cities of El Paso and Juárez stand side by side divided by a boundary more political than physical.

“The Border Wall” by Paul Maxwell–30 x 24″ oil on canvas, 2016

“Madonna of the Rio Grande” (20″ x 30″, Oil on Canvas)— Unlike many of my paintings, this tableau of a woman crossing the Rio Grande with two children in tow is from my imagination and created entirely from various scenes real and imagined as seen from the US / Texas side looking into Mexico. The face and emotion of the woman is based in part on the revered “Virgin of Guadalupe” depiction of the Virgin Mary hanging in Mexico City. The children’s faces are taken from actual photos of undocumented immigrant children detained by the US Border Patrol in Texas. While I never saw a child with a teddy bear as I’ve depicted, there were a number of photos showing young children with dolls and other toys brought with them as treasured possessions providing them some measure of comfort. The setting sun casts a glow on the family, including a slight “halo” reflection from the mother’s head, illuminating the “Madonna.” The boy wears a New York Yankees baseball cap under his hoodie and an American flag emblem shown as part of his backpack, underscoring his desire to be associated with the US.

A conservative relative of mine when shown a photo of this painting, stated forcefully, “It’s nice but I believe in the rule of law!”  I responded, “So do I.” The woman and children shown, like many women and children recently detained on the Texas/Mexico border are actually refugees from El Salvador (or Guatemala or Honduras) driven north in desperation to escape criminal and government persecution rampant in their own countries. As international refugees they are entitled to just and humane treatment with full rights of adjudication as allowed by the UN International Refugee Convention and our own US Refugee Act. Unfortunately, most Americans are unaware of these laws and conventions and consider anyone crossing our borders as “illegal” and therefore should be deported as rapidly as possible, ignoring “the rule of law.” Often refugee status is denied with little or no adjudication, especially if the immigrants in question are denied any legal counsel, held in isolated detention facilities, and quickly deported.

“Madonna of the Rio Grande” by Paul Maxwell, 24 x 30″, Oil on Canvas, 2017

 

“El Jardinero” (20″ x 30″, Oil on Canvas)—This painting, a mix of an actual scene with one imagined, depicts what is seen throughout the Southwest border region and, indeed, throughout the US where menial laborers—gardeners, day laborers, construction workers, carpenters, farm workers—are often employed regardless of their immigration status. The homes shown are in an affluent neighborhood of southern New Mexico  just a few miles from the border.  It show the rich hues of homes in our Southwest and the wonderful colors of the desert landscapes and plants in our gardens. Technically I believe one of my best paintings, the strong sunlight casts shadows and helps highlight the primary colors of plants such as our red “Bird of Paradise,” the yellows from the lantana, the variegated greens of the agave, the deep blue-green of the piñon tree, and the rose-colored roof tiles and rocks of the garden. Even in shadow, rich reflections and colorful tones are employed. In contrast the gardener himself is made up of various hues of gray created from the complementary opposites on the color wheel. Basically, he’s muted and invisible in a world of bright colors, much as the immigration community and laborers remain invisible in our society.

“El Jardinero (The Gardener)” by Paul Maxwell, 24 x 30″, Oil on Canvas, 2017

I hope these three paintings communicate to their observers a truer sense of what is seen and felt by many of us who live here in the border lands than is generally communicated elsewhere in our nation. Hopefully, as well, it will add in a positive way to our political discourse as we move forward in these turbulent times. My contribution to communicating emotion through art—Paul Maxwell

1Introduction to “Peter Hurd Sketch Book” by Peter Hurd, Edited by John Meigs, The Swallow Press Incorporated, Chicago, Ill, 1971

“The Border Wall” was shown in Sunland Park’s Ardovino’s Desert Crossing until this past September. It is available for private viewings in the artist’s studio in Las Cruces, NM. “Madonna of the Rio Grande” and “El Jardinero” can be seen at the Art and Framing Gallery on N. Mesa Street in El Paso, Texas. All of my work can be seen on my website:  www.maxnewmexart.com

This document was edited by Carol Feickert, CeeJay Publications, Denver, Colorado. Contact [email protected]

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3 thoughts on “An Artist’s Reaction to Today’s Politics

  1. Really good both the text and art. You really understand the shadows. I wish the rest of the country knew what life was like at the border. Thank you.

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