Last spring I mentioned to a friend who has been all over Texas that I was interested in what Texans call “the border fence”—an amalgamation of steel and reinforced concrete that has popped up here and there along the Mexican border. I had an art panel that was ten feet long and meant for something special. I was planning to drive down to Eagle Pass, about three hours from my home, to see what there was to see.
But he said the best place to see the border wall was much farther away than that: in West Texas, about an hour and a half south of Sierra Blanca. It was remote and uncluttered, far from cities and towns. And he told me that I should not stay there after dark.
It has the presence of a Richard Serra steel sculpture: a rusted, pillared monument that seems arbitrarily placed
My husband and I flew into El Paso, rented a car (and FYI you can’t rent a four-wheel drive in El Paso), headed back east toward Sierra Blanca, then turned south toward the Rio Grande. The interstate became a two-lane paved road, then a dirt road, and then really a dirt road. Gone were the barns, farmhouses, and livestock I was used to seeing.
The landscape in that part of Texas is such a sensory deprivation experience that finally catching sight of the wall was thrilling. It has the presence of a Richard Serra steel sculpture: a rusted, pillared monument that seems arbitrarily placed—until you remember that it is hugging the banks of the Rio Grande and Mexico is on that side and the other side is where you are standing. As it turns out, hearing about the fence or seeing pictures of it does not translate. You need to see it. And what I do, in fact, is all about seeing. We pulled over. As my husband opened the car door, the border patrol was right on top of us. They were friendly, curious, and helpful. As they continued down the road alongside the wall, we realized that they had probably been tracking us for the last thirty minutes—what was this suburban couple in a Nissan doing out there anyway?
The border wall works as all historical walls have worked: as statements of power and intimidation and defense.
In my work depicting the Texas horizon, I am regularly exposed to fences: they define, divide, and describe a landscape that historically resisted all that. The ubiquitous barbed wire fence that edges the distant field and bisects the ground into rectangles becomes a geometry lesson that demonstrates planes, intersections, and perspective. These fences exist as drawn lines—as opposed to the fence as a statement of property rights, displacement and conflict.
From a distance, the border fence I depict in my horizontal format of 10 feet long and 1.5 inches high zigzags with the bleached landscape of scrub and chaparral. It is a dark angular gesture that slashes across your vision, recedes and partly disappears in to the brush and foothills, then approaches and looms above you. At close range, the fence is a series of steel pillars, at once imposing and sculptural; from afar, it is overpowered by the terrain and dwarfed by the mountains.
As it turns out, hearing about the fence or seeing pictures of it does not translate. You need to see it. And what I do, in fact, is all about seeing.
The border wall works as all historical walls have worked: as statements of power and intimidation and defense. These walls also make those statements visually, like art, in a way that electronic surveillance and drones do not. The scale, the materials, and the intent elicit a physical reaction. And it is that tension—between the expanse and the individual, the great and the trivial—that my work explores.
What remains to be seen is whether this border wall, like the Berlin Wall, the Great Wall of China, and Hadrian’s Wall that came before it, eventually becomes just another tourist attraction.
Texas Border Fence and other works by Katie Maratta can be found at Gallery Shoal Creek in Austin, Texas.