Julio César Morales works between genres, forms, cultures, nations, and histories-making formally manifest the hybridity of the border spaces that he so often addresses as his subject. His work exposes the uncanny poetry produced at the seams between sites, and pivots between the harsh violence, political negotiations, and cultural slippage that defines and animates the periphery between the United States and Mexico. He strikes a tone of both melancholy and humor, seeking the surreal and sublime that emerges from the notion that “truth is stranger than fiction,” an adage that seems nowhere more present than in the reality of immigration, borders, and transcultural experience.
Morales’s new exhibition comprises a series of explorations in different media that picture and mythologize the literal border between the US and Mexico. We are the Dead (2013) and We are the Dead: Part Two (2018), and Day Dreaming (2017), a suite of photographic prints, form the core of this exhibition, and are complemented by a large four-panel photographic collage and drawings from the artist’s ongoing text-based series Narco Headlines (2014-present). This series, which reproduces headlines relating to failed drug smuggling attempts, exemplifies the intersection at which Morales works. Snippets of decontextualized, almost absurdist text-“Nuns Caught with Cocaine in Habits” and “Bag of Lollipops with Heroin”-while simple in form, convey the desperation and ingenuity that fuels underground economies, and begins to suggest the complexity of the lives lived in the shadow of borderlands.
The experimental landscape images of Day Dreaming and the related Cuatro Caminos (2017) literalize this space using photographic documentation while also obscuring it through digital interventions that conceal and disrupt what is pictured. The 19 works that make up Day Dreaming overlay oblique images of the US/Mexico border with dynamic geometric patterns, their bright palette drawn from the colors of shoes, clothing, and bottles, as well as litter found near the wall. The series abstracts this fraught site, redefining it as a subjective and mutable place. Conveying the overwhelming dominance of the wall-its barbed wire an intimation of power and violence-these works also reveal that this seemingly permanent, hegemonic force is subject to transformation. Morales’s work gestures to the way in which migrants daily engage with, manipulate, and subvert this structure, and as the title-referencing the language of the current US political debate surrounding the DREAM Act-suggests, it opens up the possibility of a monumental reimagining.
We Are the Dead and We are the Dead: Part Two emerge from a body of work begun in 2013 and take as their starting point an apocryphal story of immigration. Functioning at once as an urban legend, cautionary tale, and folk ballad, the story relays the experience of two brothers who crossed into Arizona from Mexico through the Sonoran Desert. Lost and out of water, circling in the desert near an airport but seemingly far from civilization, they decide to split up to seek help; each has with him a bottle of tequila, brought along as intended gifts for family. While one brother finds help at a Circle K convenience store, the other is later found dead in the desert with an empty tequila bottle. Morales has returned to this story in numerous works over the years-an individual tragedy that embodies the unspeakably harsh realities of migration, even as it has taken on shades of the fantastic.
Morales’s first work addressing this subject was an animation that, like Day Dreaming, comprises landscape imagery of the Sonoran Desert overlaid with abstract geometries. This video has a melancholic, hallucinatory effect-long passages of colored shapes forming and dissipating are broken up by texts written by artist Miguel Calderón that explore memory, delirium, and the terror that attends death from the perspective of the dying brother. We Are the Dead: Part Two attends to the brother who survived, imagining his experiences and his inner life following this tragedy. As before, Morales uses an original soundtrack, digital animation, and a dynamic approach to time and composition to abstract his narrative. The landscape remains a critical antagonist; we see it up close, inverted as we try to pass through it, hacking our way among tall, dense grass and brambles. Morales has also now foregrounded the figure in this story, creating an imagined portrait of the surviving brother. We encounter a silhouetted image of a man and see him in profile. His image is reproduced ad nauseam into a grid of silhouettes that suggests at once the specificity of this person and way in which he might stand in for so many others. This same gesture of refracting and multiplying is applied to the landscape throughout the work, creating a surreal visual analog to its harsh conditions. As the imagery of the video becomes increasingly abstract, the man’s voice is heard; he speaks, punctuated only by the sound of alcohol being imbibed from a bottle:
Since my brother is gone I no longer speak Spanish. That world left us, dehydrated. We saw planes taking flight, running away. This world is not for you they were telling us in their liftoff. Do you still believe the world is for you?
His speech-written by historian Moises Medina-simultaneously eulogizes his brother while also binding his journey to that of the colonization of the Americas. Taken alongside the images of place presented in the video and the other works on view in this exhibition, Morales’s project suggests the inextricably linked nature of the contemporary experience of immigration to the long history of conquests that have played out on this landscape. He illuminates the primacy of individual experience in this context through his language and storytelling, and in his interventions into how we might see and understand the landscape, Morales offers the possibility of reimagining its future.
– Written by Diana Nawi, an independent curator and writer based in Los Angeles, who previously served as associate curator at Pérez Art Museum Miami.