On ViewDallas Contemporary
January 30 – May 30, 2021
Known for his massive paintings of people around the world living at the edge of contemporary society—including Syrian refugees in Greece and Turkey, transgender activists in Berlin, and forgotten working people in his rural hometown in China—the neo-realist painter Liu Xiaodong was commissioned by the Dallas Contemporary to create a series of paintings on the US-Mexico border. As with his other painted series, Liu created the works for Borders after spending eight weeks studying the community, taking photographs and sketching, and, when conditions allow, even painting en plein air. Clean of any didactics or text elucidating the exhibition’s aims, the exhibition is unapologetically visually driven. All ten paintings in the show, created in 2019, equally refuse to cohere or form any singular socio-political crisis narrative of the border.
Instead, the subjects of the paintings are curiously mundane. In Mountains and River (2019) a tight row of vertical slats runs across the entire top half of the oversized canvas, in contrast to the lushly rendered, freely flowing stream below. Just a few glimpses—offered between the slats—of a pair of military personnel locate this fence at the border. At once a landscape painting, abstract grid painting, and social realist painting, the work embodies the starkly different realities—natural and constructed—that sit closely together at the border. In several other paintings distance and proximity, or the institutional and the personal, are likewise compressed. Boundary River (2019) is a close-up portrait of a family fishing and playing in the river on the Mexican side of the border. A hidden police car on the other side, however, tacitly nods also to the relentless surveillance of this narrow strip of water.
There is a distance, amplified by their grand physical scale, to these paintings that may reflect Liu’s own remove from the border. But at the same time, the transparency of Liu’s process and the human content of the paintings are a crucial component of the show. In a back gallery, 60 framed photographs and sketches, as well as a documentary film, present the artist’s 1,530-mile trek along the Mexico-US border. While the artist is the film’s protagonist, we also can see the subjects’ close engagement with him. The film focuses particularly on Liu’s friendship with the county sheriff, Tom Schmerber, of the border town Eagle Pass. At one point, Liu, touched by the open hospitality of Schmerber and his family, asks the sheriff about the growing media coverage of the coronavirus and China. Undeterred by political or media narratives, Schmerber responds to Liu that fundamentally “people are people,” and adds that he understands what it feels like for the artist to be away from home. Not all, however, are so sympathetic, as the current spike in anti-Asian violence clearly demonstrates—Liu’s anxiety about being from China appears more prescient every day. Even museums are not exempt from this problem, as we have seen in the controversy surrounding the show’s own organizing institution over its recent termination of two staff members who urged the museum to make a statement in support of the AAPI community.
Borders is as much a portrait of the transformed artist as it is a collective rendering of those who call the border home. When walking back through the gallery of paintings to exit the exhibition, familiar characters from the photographs and film begin to emerge, as in Tom, his Family, and his Friends (2019). Here, Liu dramatically stages a female officer on her horse in the center, yet situates her and her uniformed colleagues in the surreal setting of a backyard barbeque at Schmerber’s house—he and his family occupy the foreground. The artist makes cameos in a couple of paintings, too, like in Juarez at the Casa del Migrante in Juárez (2019). Sitting on the floor in a corner, joined by a pig and mysterious figure in underwear, Liu paints himself awkwardly crashing a hangout of teenagers who look at home relaxed on couches, albeit in one of the largest migrant shelters in Juárez.
Originally scheduled to open in April 2020, during the show’s eight-month delay the politics and the policies that shape life at the border have profoundly changed. However, the exhibition shows us that irrespective of the ebb and flow of institutional and media scrutiny, the life and the extraordinary humanity of the people on the border will remain.