In an upstairs hallway at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, a small show of photographs by Maria Teresa Fernandez focuses on the fence along the U.S.-Mexico border that begins a couple of hundred feet out in the Pacific and ends about 60 miles inland, near El Centro, Calif.
That's a lot of territory to cover, and rather than documenting all parts equally or presenting a historical overview of the politically charged barrier, Fernandez zeros in on details: little incidents that might seem insignificant but that accumulate to form a knot of narratives by turns tragic, defiant and touching. Of the 84 color prints that make up the accessible exhibition, all but eight are close-ups -- tightly framed pictures that bring visitors nose to nose with the fence and arm's length from the often poignant mementos left beside it by people whose lives it has affected.
None of Fernandez's photographs are titled, dated or labeled. Four short wall texts provide a bit of background, leaving the snapshot-style pictures, arranged in six loose groups, free to tell their stories. Fernandez is not a sociologist or an activist but a poet, an artist whose goal is to capture various facets of the human drama that unfolds at the fence.
It all begins innocently enough, with nearly abstract shots of the fence's piecemeal patchwork of recycled materials and painted-over portions, which form accidental compositions. Algae, barnacles and rust create a wide range of surface textures. In several images, the crumbling metal, worn thin and turned orange by the salty air and water, contrasts dramatically with the cloudless blue sky it reveals through jagged holes.
The next cluster of pictures is the largest and most forlorn. In it, the Mexico-born, San Diego-based artist documents some of the many memorials that have shown up along the fence's south side.
Some are humble: ad hoc, on-the-run gestures to lost and fallen love ones, such as a pair of old boots hung from the fence or a simple cross marked with a man's name or, more often, "no identificado."
Others are elaborate, resembling altars or shrines festooned with votive candles and overflowing with offerings of fruit and flowers as well as personal treasures. Bold graphics and figurative images -- including piles of skulls, fleeing people and dazzling landscapes -- are painted on the fence as mural-style backdrops. A few, made by anonymous artists armed with spray paint and brushes, turn the surface into a ground for illusionistic paintings of doorways to an Edenic land of freedom and plenty.
The third group of images depicts the remnants of large, well-organized protests: coffin-shaped boxes, hundreds of water bottles, and billboard-style messages decrying the social injustice and economic inequity represented by the fence.
The fourth group of photos turns away from such unofficial, DIY additions to the fence to portray its authoritarian features. Sun-bleached images of steel and concrete reinforcements, military-style border patrols, construction and repair crews, towering light posts and surveillance cameras show a Godforsaken, Orwellian landscape.
The last two groups of pictures return to the heart of Fernandez's project: the anonymous men, women and children whose lives are divided by the fence. One group shows close-ups of hands -- pressed against the fence or clinging to its chain-link sections. They are among the only works that seem posed, and they come off as greeting-card clichés.
In contrast, the last group is haunting. It depicts couples, families and friends gathered on both sides of the fence as if they were all on the front porch or around a picnic table, casually chatting on a weekend afternoon. Many bring folding chairs, coolers and portable stereos and try to pretend that the steel pilings of a 12-foot-tall fence don't separate them. Fernandez captures the absurdity of the situation and the adaptability of the people, giving heart-wrenching form to both, especially in her images of lovers who drape sheets over themselves -- and through the fence -- for a little privacy.
Fernandez's eight panoramic photographs, which reveal the vastness of the fence as it snakes across the land, amplify the absurdity of it all. They provide just enough big-picture context to make the up-close and intimate pictures all the more potent.