Y Gallery is pleased to present “The Execution of Maximilian: Border Paintings” by Ray Smith and G.T. Pellizzi, two Mexican-American artists of different heritages, but common cultural backgrounds. The exhibition refers to the violence represented by the border itself, replicated in the way illegal immigrants are treated—“backyard” policies creating a ripple effect of economic and social strife, as far off as in cities such as Ciudad Juarez. The daily violence that is produced at the borders is somehow reflected through these paintings, which were executed by shooting at cans of paint with shotguns, on the Texan border of Mexico near Brownsville, between the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012. The making of the paintings took place outdoors in what is, and has been for over a century, the dump for the Iturria Ranch. This arena of action and the displacement of painterly production from the artist’s studio directly into nature and the outdoors echoes the Impressionist movement-taking place around the same time as Manet’s Maximilian paintings. Here, though, the natural landscape is taken to reference the Mexican–American border.
From 1867 to 1869 Eduard Manet made a series of paintings titled The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, depicting the death of the then Habsburg-Lorraine Emperor of Mexico, who had been placed in power by Napoleon III, Emperor of France. Benito Juarez’s army that was fighting to reestablish a republican government, spearheaded by a nationalist drive to free the country from European control, executed Maximilian. The execution of Maximilian shocked the people of France because it brought to light the very contradictions that existed within the French State, between the post-revolutionary republican tradition and the authoritarian Napoleonic one.
Manet was perhaps the first to paint a contemporary political event, making this perhaps one the first modernist painting cycles, inscribed in the here and now. Almost presaging photo-journalism, Manet’s painting reflects a fait divers, concerning France, yet happening outside of France, at the very moment when Napoleon III was about to inaugurate the World Fair in Paris—far away, yet so close to republican political concerns being raised in France at the time.
Within some versions of Manet’s series, onlookers hitch up onto the walls to catch sight of the execution, as if it were a spectacle. The large cloud produced by the gunshots is also central to the picture, half-hiding the victims-protagonists and becoming a main subject within the landscape, while the viewers who are placed on the other side of the action, become spectacles in themselves.
Because of their politically subversive nature, Manet’s series of paintings were not shown in Paris at the time that they were made. The principal painting crossed the Atlantic into US territories, and was only exhibited in New York and Boston in 1979. The second version of the painting was partially destroyed, and only exists as a patchwork of disconnected fragments. Manet’s paintings focus on the executioners and the arena-like enclosure where the execution takes place. In most versions the emperor himself is hardly visible. Oddly, the executioners, though they are part of Juarez’s forces, seem to be wearing a French uniform, while the emperor wears Mexican garb and hat.
There is an echo of these inversions in this new series of paintings by Ray Smith and G.T. Pellizzi . The painted panels are analogs of the permeability of borders. The region where Pellizzi and Smith’s works were made was for centuries Spanish and then Mexican, until in 1836 it was redefined as part of the independent new state of Texas, soon to join the United States. The impact of these shifts on the identity of people living on the border is multiple, and they take new forms today with the Narco war on drugs, channeling money and arms one way, immigrants and illegal drugs the other. Violence seems to be pervasive even in Texas’ liberal use of capital punishment for purported killers.
The paintings evoke (with some irony) the romanticization of the Southern gentleman pursuing hunting sports, a spirit that is remote in relation to the great urban art centers such as New York and Los Angeles (The ranch where these paintings were made is just a few miles from the Anderson Ranch where Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot Harry Whittington).
In this work, Ray Smith and GT Pellizzi transfer open sky activities, in which a convergence of libidinal forces crystallize sound and impact into one explosive moment, to the makeshift arena of the art gallery. William Burroughs’ shotgun paintings constitute a famous precedent. And beyond American borders Nikki de Saint Phalle made one of her first shot paintings at the American Consulate in Paris in the sixties. From an American art historical perspective the paintings resonate with the heritage of ‘action-works’, such as Jackson Pollock’s, and the idea of the automatic gesture. In the “Maximilian Border” paintings the memory of these gestures is literally mediated through a form of lethal technology.
The liminal character of cosmetic splashes of color and layers of meaning is paradoxically exposed in the confinement of a new arena. In a return to a form of abstraction, and of ornamentation within abstraction, the paintings can be said to be sensual in their bursts of energy; in their punctures (not unlike Lucio Fontana’s concetti spaziali), offering an opening of consciousness beyond painting-as-surface, towards an idea of painting as a site that can also be seen as a wound.
The border paintings refer to a site as much as they are a site. They refer to a plethora of historical specificities as well as existing within a temporal reality of their own. They act as transpositions rather than depictions, of suggestions and homologies of social political situations that are both so near, so far.