Alice Leora Briggs
by Veronica Ceci
Alice Leora Briggs has been collaborating with Flatbed Press to create woodcuts that, though flat, have a notable depth. Printed entirely in black with chine collé to add a whisper of tone, these works are built from a combination of the artist’s real observations of people and her imagined contents of their skewed worlds. The prints are dark, a literal darkness built up by a great volume of line melded with a subconscious darkness brought about by a strong sense of dread.
The artist’s strongly graphic compositions invite and reward proximal inspection. The use of collaged papers broadens pictorial space not by following the laws of physics but rather by outlining the laws of remorse. The faces are all real, nuanced. A slight tick at the corner of a figure’s mouth belies a more complex story hidden in details like an old master allegory.
Briggs’ method of generating the printing blocks requires laborious devotion. The artist starts with a smooth flat piece of wood, painted red. She meticulously draws her image with a black marker, considering every line. Then countless hours are spent carving the red away. Only the remaining raised surfaces accept the kiss of ink from the printer’s soft rubber brayer. The many pounds of force generated by the etching press transfers the ink onto the cotton rag paper that is its final destination. In this way the artist delineates her tale with directional lines harkening to the mastery of Albrecht Dürer.
The artist mines every inch of the woodblock for mark-making potential. What is taken away from the block is just as important as what is left behind. For example, the substantially scaled (61 1⁄2 x 41 1⁄2 in.) piece La Ventana uses four styles of line just to describe the central male figure.
The wood’s natural grain speaks for itself in the hair. A sort of fishscale illusion resulting from tight cross-hatching emerges from the shadowed edges of his curled body. Small waves of oppositional curved lines so sharp one can sense the starch circumscribe his shirt. The inner portion of the forward leg devolves into manic confetti that lets enough paper show through to suggest a highlight without allowing the eye a moment’s rest. Through this masterful cyclone of pattern, he looks into us and finds the horror in each of our pasts. La Ventana leaves the viewers to decide where they stand as they look through the window.
The influence of Mauricio Lasansky, whom Briggs studied under at the University of Iowa, is evident in both her skill and her attraction to somber realism in her themes. The artist did not conjure the figure in La Ventana. He is a real man named Santiago whom Briggs encountered during her frequent visits to an asylum on the outskirts of Juárez. She doesn’t just observe the asylum’s inhabitants but integrates with them, sharing meals and working together on creative projects. On her sojourns to this dangerous city, a wellspring for her imagery, the artist collects moments from the present which also operate in artistic traditions of the past.
She doesn’t just observe the asylum’s inhabitants but integrates with them, sharing meals and working together on creative projects.
Alice Leora Briggs does not limit the narrator of her work to a single voice. Paired with lines from a Mark Strand poem, the 12 woodcuts the artist is currently working on provide a familiar entrance, language, to an uncanny place. The words of Strand, named US Poet Laureate in 1990 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1999, are a natural pairing for Briggs’ talents. In The Room, the poem Briggs has chosen as her current accomplice, he describes hypnagogic scenes with decisive language. Each line implies a crystalline moment, and joined together with the artist’s compelling interpretations, the poem and the prints behave like a devotional. The viewer must consider each one as well as the whole.
In The Green Field Where Cows Burn Like Newsprint jester-like archers lend a fantastical air to the mysterious scene. We don’t know who or what they are aiming at, only that an equal amount of arrows are shooting back towards them as they combat the unseen. Horizontal lines that gradually allow for more space create a fade defining the edges of the foremost characters. These two men are oblivious to the farce of falling arrows behind them. They instead focus their attention on a parrot. Animals make several appearances in this cycle of work. Briggs’ depiction of them ranges from docile to feral, but they are always the other, removed from human experience. It is that remove that allows Briggs to evaluate with such thorough insight those parts of life, death and pain, which are so often purposefully hidden.
There is no hiding from the crisply physical facts of the body in Where Nothing, When It Happens, Is Never Terrible Enough. A murmuring banquet recedes just left of center, cut across by a prone male figure, stitched together post autopsy, ignored in favor of sips of tea. The body is offered no covering from the crumpled cloth it rests upon. It may seem that the willful ignorance of the diners renders this memento mori powerless within the narrative space of the picture plane. A lingering eye will, however, eventually find indications of response. The rightmost of the three principal consumers of victuals offers a defiantly clenched fist upon the table and a determined stare. Borne of the combination of Briggs’ experience at a morgue and at the annual Land Arts of the American West dinner, other notes of intertwined melancholy and excess exist throughout.
Briggs’ depiction of them ranges from docile to feral, but they are always the other, removed from human experience. It is that remove that allows Briggs to evaluate with such thorough insight those parts of life, death and pain, which are so often purposefully hidden.
By merging the observed and the intuitive, Alice Leora Briggs captures and creates narrative worlds. Her images command attention through skillful rendering and linger in the mind with tense power. Her work is on display through October 26, 2014 at Evoke Contemporary in Santa Fe and will be shown at Flatbed Press in Austin during the month of November.