Two Dallas art exhibitions humanize immigration controversies


There is a long American history of demonizing and exploiting immigrants, from Chinese workers in the 19th century, to influxes of Irish and Italian newcomers in the early 20th century, to Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. . The most recent victims of hostility have been immigrants from Muslim countries and, following what some have called “the Chinese virus,” Asian Americans.

The hottest immigration flashpoint in recent years has been the southern border of the United States, where overwhelming numbers of Mexicans, Central and South America are fleeing poverty, corruption and drug wars for a land of greater opportunity. Against the condescension and outright hostility directed at these potential new Americans, as well as established Mexican-Americans, two current exhibitions of realistic paintings personalize their struggles, hard work, play, down-to-earth humanity. -terre, and even a certain unassuming nobility.

At the Dallas Contemporary, large paintings, smaller studies, and photos by Chinese artist Liu Xiaodong were co-curated by museum executive director Peter Doroshenko and the artist. The Talley Dunn Gallery features works by Mexican-American painter Arely Morales.

Liu Xiaodong: Borders

On two visits in 2019, Liu explored life on both sides of the Rio Grande. His status as an outsider, detached from current border controversies, gives him – and us – new perspectives. He sees his working class characters not as “others” but as human beings whose lives of work and play, of challenges and at least of modest and fleeting pleasures, we can see as our own.

Trained in Beijing and Madrid, Liu became a member of a 1990s neorealist movement in China. Influenced by Lucian Freud, he favors earthy representations in oils that are suddenly caressed and stamped. There is something of Van Gogh in the vegetation rendered with vivid parallel brushstrokes.

Liu Xiaodong, “Tom, His Family and Friends, 2020; oil on canvas at the” Liu Xiaodong: Borders “exhibition at Dallas Contemporary.

A room of small sketches and photographs illustrates the planning that goes into the paintings. But in a 40-minute documentary video on Yang Bo, we also see Liu outside, painting in detail a large scene of a Mexican-American sheriff, his family, and his deputies.

Turn left into the gallery and the first painting you see shows the controversial wall extended across the US-Mexico border during the Trump administration. In plates of oxidized steel the color of dried blood, it separates the tumultuous waters in the foreground from a distant blue mountain ridge.

On the other side, we also see young men shirtless. Next to the wall are two lattice guards. Has the stunted column of the fence on the far right ever been sawn off by determined migrants?

Alienation is represented more subtly in the so-called carefree Boundary River. As three generations wade and fish in the shallows of rivers on the opposite bank, they are watched from a police car barely hidden in the vegetation.

Liu Xiaodong, "Boundary River," 2019;  oil on canvas
Liu Xiaodong, “Boundary River”, 2019; oil on canvas(Kevin Todora)

Police and border guards haunt other scenes. As Liu explains in the documentary, the ubiquity of law enforcement was a familiar experience from his life in the People’s Republic. But so was the warm “mi casa, su casa” hospitality he found among Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.

This is especially tangible in the video segments of Liu speaking with Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber. In a decidedly energetic painting, Schmerber sits with family members at a table outside his house, with deputies spread out, one on horseback. Smoke rises from steaks cooked on a grill. Dramatis personae look in different directions, feeding their own thoughts.

Artist Liu Xiaodong
Artist Liu Xiaodong

A Mexican family, the Martinez brings together six members of at least four generations, variously perplexed, distracted and amused, on a green plot outside. In the background, modest houses – and a policeman. A giant pairing of two canvases depicts potential immigrants spread over and around two sofas in a Juárez casa del migrante. Is the figure simply depicted in black and white as the ghost of someone who hasn’t gotten this far?

In Chat, we don’t know anything about the man and woman somewhere in front of us, outside a small, worn out trailer in a dusty place nowhere. Celebrating the scene, a flowered cross in the foreground commemorates an unnamed person lost in time.

There is hope, however, in the cool, half-smiling face Girl on the border, with his backpack and neck pillow. Are the pastels layered beyond the fence a sunrise or a sunset?

These are the people who gave Liu – and us – a glimpse into their lives and their world. They are not swarming masses but individuals, their faces revealing diverse ethnic tensions as well as varied aspirations and struggles, sometimes pleasures in the simplest things. Are they that different from the rest of us?

Arely Morales: Paintings

Arely Morales portrays the lives of immigrants from their personal experience. Born in Mexico, she moved to Texas at the age of 14. Through photography, she became interested in painting, earning a BFA from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches and an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle. She now lives in Nacogdoches and teaches her alma mater.

Artist Arely Morales with his painting 'Maria', 2017, oil on canvas.  Photograph by Nan Coulter / Special Contributor.
Artist Arely Morales with his painting ‘Maria’, 2017, oil on canvas. Photograph by Nan Coulter / Special Contributor.

Unlike the robustness of Liu’s paintings, Morales’s are smoother and more intimate. In paintings identified by the names of their subjects, it even allows decorative touches: the brightly colored patterns behind Guadalupe and on her dress, the pale purple of RosaT-shirt.

But what catches our attention the most is faces – faces lined, gathered and soaked in sweat from hard work. Including Morales’ friends as role models, they are maids and farm workers who do dirty work to make life possible for others.

Unlike Liu’s faces, these look at us fairly consistently, forcing us to look back, to confront them in a shared humanity. We see the vulnerability and the pain, but also the determination. We don’t know their citizenship status and it doesn’t matter.

In Una por Una, three housekeepers stop to mop and scrub. You almost reach a confused smile through your exhaustion; another seems mentally far away; a third faces us with almost provocative resolution. If it weren’t for her inner strength, drenched in sweat Guadalupe it looks like she might burst into tears.

Arely Morales, "Una por Una (One by one)," 2019;  oil on canvas
Arely Morales, “Una por Una (One by One)”, 2019; oil on canvas

Maria her basket of green apples next to a lush tree laden with fruit, the bruises of her sweater and scarf in colouristic counterpoint. His gaze is not engaged, but his bloody, bandaged wrist reminds us of the physical dangers that workers face, usually without sick leave or medical insurance.

There is a softer touch to the portrait of Morales of his father, in a garage workshop. Wearing a Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt, shorts and sneakers, with a cooler in one hand and a plastic bag in the other, he goes to work in the chicken hatchery or comes home. We see long hours on his face, but also a tired affection.

Arely Morales, "Mi apa (my father)," 2018;  oil on canvas
Arely Morales, “Mi apa (my father)”, 2018; oil on canvas

“There’s a lot of negativity towards immigrants, people get yelled at in the store,” says Morales. “I wanted to do a portrait that would show my appreciation for all the hard work he had done for his family.”


“Liu Xiaodong: Borders” runs until May 30. Tuesday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m. at Dallas Contemporary, 161 Glass St. 214-821-2522,

“Arely Morales: Paintings” runs until May 8. Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., by appointment only, at the Talley Dunn Gallery, 5020 Tracy St. 214-521-9898,

Scott Cantrell was The News classical music critic for 16 years, sometimes writing about art and architecture as well. He continues to contribute as a freelance writer.

CORRECTION, April 21, 5:10 p.m .: An earlier version of this review misidentified artist Liu Xiaodong’s last name. In Chinese usage, his last name is Liu.

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