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Tucson Weekly Southern Exposures

Etherton Gallery's latest exhibit features Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide.

By Margaret Regan

JANUARY 12, 1998:  IN 1975, THE Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide photographed three grieving women in Chiapas, the southernmost and possibly poorest state in Mexico. They stand in a row, old and young, draped in black veils, their faces contorted by sorrow. "Duelo," or grief, Iturbide called the picture.

Whether it's a testament to the timelessness of Iturbide's vision, or a reminder that social conditions in Mexico change slowly if at all, her mourning women of two decades ago could as easily have been photographed two weeks ago. During Christmas week, a massacre took the lives of 45 Indians in Chiapas, most of them women and children. (Investigators have blamed the murders on supporters of Mexico's ruling party, the PRI; the victims reportedly were sympathetic to the reforms favored by the Zapatista rebels.)

But Iturbide, a leading Mexican photographer now in her mid-50s, is not a political artist or even a social documentarian. From time to time she does do a kind of ironic commentary like that found in her "Héroes de la patria" (1993): It shows an impoverished Indian walking below portraits of the Mexican heroes who were supposed to redeem his lot. But if most of her 38 works now on view at Etherton are hardly tracts about injustice, they often provide an unsentimental picture of Mexican Indians struggling to hang onto their cultures. A woman wearing traditional Indian garb and toting chickens hurries anxiously along a street in town, past a wall that just may be spattered with blood ("Los Pollos," 1979). Carnival celebrants don elaborate masks whose meaning may already be disappearing ("Carnaval," 1974). A few pictures shot in Los Angeles depict the parallel Chicano struggle. Three hostile young women glare back at the photographer in "Rosario, Cristina and Liza, White Fence, East Los Angeles," 1986.

The photographer gives these pictures a sharp edge. Working in a vein one critic calls subjective realism, she combines two opposing impulses, one symbolic, one modernist. The latter shows up in the spare compositions and austere backgrounds of her fine black-and-white prints. She expresses her symbolic bent by adorning her unflinching portraits with significant objects, especially the flowers, masks and shrines of Mexican folk religion. Together the two impulses give her subjects a mythic beauty, curiously tempered by reality. The startling "Nuestra Señora de las iguanas," 1979, is a perfect example of this trademark mix. The lady in question wears a halo of iguanas on her head.

In Iturbide's hands the conventional Mexican folk objects become almost macabre. A bride in white dress and veil wears the ubiquitous death mask of Mexican folk art; she stands in front of one of the textured crumbling walls that Iturbide often uses as an almost-neutral backdrop. A bare-breasted young girl poses in front of a flower-laden shrine, but her air of eroticism and defiance leaches the expected sweetness from the scene. So too "Angelito Mexicano" subverts a folkloric cliché. This little girl in angel wings has a mane of unkempt hair and a dour expression; her solid individuality belies her angelic status. (For an instructive contrast to Iturbide's constructed images, see Helen Levitt's realist Mexico street scenes from the early 1940s, at the Center for Creative Photography just until January 11.)

While Iturbide often poses her subjects, she apparently also waits for the chance moment on the street. (Henri Cartier-Bresson, who favored the spontaneous photo, was one of her mentors, as was the great Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo). Iturbide's "El Señor de los pajaros" (1984) is an elegant vision of a passerby looking up at a flock of birds; it's a picture both specific and universal about the enchantment of nature.

Allusions to death pepper Iturbide's works, from the skull masks worn by holiday revelers to the dead animals handled by people who still live close to the land. The lovely "Cementerio," 1992, is uncharacteristically dreamy; its silent graveyard full of painted crosses is softened by mist. The other pictures about death are more direct, and more brutal. "Antes de la matanza" (1992) shows a flower-bedecked goat about to be sacrificed, apparently in a religious ceremony. In "El sacrificio" (1992), the little slaughtered goat dangles lifeless from its killer's hands.

Iturbide once said that she "seek(s) to trap life in the reality that surrounds (her)." Likewise, another artist now showing at Etherton gives new life to dead creatures through art, in a suite of hand-colored photographs she calls Small Deaths. Kate Breakey, a photographer who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, collects tiny dead creatures that were hardly noticed in life: geckos, butterflies, birds, flowers. She photographs them in black and white, and enlarges their images dramatically into prints about 3 feet square. Then she paints and pencils the giant photographs in sumptuous color, with mesmerizing results.

There's a forlorn, and very dead, whiptail lizard in "Cnemidophorus exsanguis, Chihuahuan Spotted Whiptail," 1997. (Not only does Breakey give her works scientific names, written on the prints in silver ink, she composes them like standard scientific illustrations.) The whiptail folds its little front paws over its belly and throws its dead head back. Breakey has painted it lavishly, saturating the background with a rich brown maroon, and delicately coloring the lizard's fine scale pattern in gray and purply blue.

Lots of the creatures in the other 16 photos, though, no longer look dead at all. The birds are downright monumental, all puffed up with pride over their grand size and hyper-colored feathers. An enormous phainopepla, pictured in profile, looks fierce. Delicate white and yellow strokes of Breakey's pencil atop shiny black paint suggest feathers. And her huge dead flowers, especially a luminous white rose, are gorgeous. Like a scientist, Breakey draws our attention to nature's microscopic patterns that too often go unnoticed: the lizard's scales, the bird's feathers, the petal's folds. Her work makes us more conscious of the teeming tiny life--and death--all around us.

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