We owe it to Brian Maguire to be as blunt in describing his exhibition as he was in painting it: this show deals with death. “North and South of the Border” (at Rhona Hoffman Gallery) commits to displaying loss in three distinct forms. With so much variety in such a small space, it runs the risk of a cheap ploy relying on morbid fascination. But Maguire makes his case in a video statement at the entrance of the gallery: “The absence of a proper police investigation gives rise to the need for journalists, writers, filmmakers, [and] artists to record the cases. Otherwise, the people disappear with nothing.” As a journalist, the impetus of documentation always interests me, and in that regard, Maguire succeeds. He also does more.
On the east wall of the gallery are the faces of three missing and murdered Indigenous people: Rosie, Justin and Ashley. Maguire painted these portraits based on photographs chosen by the victims’ families. He painted each as a set, one version for the gallery and the other for the family. This act gives each portrait extra significance, as they become part of what’s left of the person. Maguire is conscious of this. The strokes are thick and strong. The hues are azure and orange. Maguire overcompensates with color, imbuing them with extra life, yelling for them the only way he can in a cool, echoing room.
The back wall is devoted to a single massive canvas, the 114” x 152” “Aleppo 5” (2017). A crumbling gray building dominates the scene and a dark figure passes in the foreground. The image mimics plenty that have been exported to American media since the start of the Syrian civil war over a decade ago. The cavernous ground levels of the building emit such a haunting black that one can be forgiven for missing Maguire’s touch of blue. Amid the rubble and the darkness, the small square of blue is solace. Its floating, central placement doesn’t allude to anything except a mood—a temporary calm after the storm.
The darkness from the building’s underside spills onto the next two walls, where four paintings from Maguire’s “Arizona” series are marked by the bright black of decay. In three of the four paintings—”Arizona 8, 14,” and “15”—a human skull anchors the composition. In “Arizona 6” a lifeless body lies face down with limbs splayed on sandy earth. Electric-green grass is scattered across the series. In each painting, this neon hue feels intrusive. It is not the green that killed them, but it’s the green that offends them. It covers their bodies, rots them into memories, and then dissolves those memories, too.
I’ve seen the show twice now and both times I left with a deep discomfort at the thought of a white Irishman traveling to sites of global atrocity to paint. But the thought of the scenes going undocumented, undealt with for many, is much more disturbing. Maguire’s paintings are more than documentation. They are acts of resisting disappearance. While the missing and murdered Indigenous people series and the painting of Aleppo show at least an acknowledgement of life, the “Arizona” series is the exhibit’s closure. Each blade of grass is a punctuation mark on the subject’s life. A period, an exclamation mark, a question mark. It’s a definitive break signaling that something else starts now, something else is on its way. A painter, maybe.
“North and South of the Border” is on view at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, 1711 West Chicago, through October 22.