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Printmaker captures horror of drug war

Nancy Flores
For the pieces in his 'Fractured Memories, Assembled Trauma' exhibit at Mexic-Arte Museum, printmaker Miguel Aragón used tools such as laser cutters and power drills to augment his art. 'Miguel is a new school of printmaking,' says Claudia Zapata, Mexic-Arte's director of programs. 'He's changing the medium.'

Violence had been brewing in the border town of Ciudad Juárez long before the tentacles of today's drug war took hold of Mexican villages and metropolises on a wider scale. Printmaker Miguel Aragón, like others who grew up in Juárez, remembers bodies discovered inside car trunks or dumped in empty lots since the late 1990s. He was living in the epicenter of it all, and has carried those experiences long after leaving a hometown considered one of the world's most dangerous cities.

Influenced by the ongoing violence, the University of Texas graduate is among a wave of Mexican artists responding to the drug war's effects the best way they know how — through art that spurs change, instills hope, or simply prompts reflection. Aragón's current exhibit, "Fractured Memories, Assembled Trauma" at Mexic-Arte Museum, grabs attention not only for its strong subject matter, but for how Aragón is redefining printmaking by pushing its boundaries with experimental techniques that have refreshed an age-old process.

When looking for a young, local printmaker to complement an exhibit featuring the works of master printmaker Arturo García Bustos, Claudia Zapata, Mexic-Arte's director of programs, remembered how a previous Aragón print displayed at the museum always made visitors stop in their tracks.

"Miguel is a new school of printmaking," Zapata said. "He's changing the medium, and (he) pushes those boundaries more so than a lot of printmakers. In Miguel's case, the process is just as important as the print because it's a holistic interpretation."

Inventing new techniques and experimenting with technology have helped Aragón, who just won the Outstanding Artist award from the Austin Critics' Table, pave his own printmaking path. Sometimes that means using a commercial laser cutter to create a burned look or using a power drill as a drawing tool. In "Fractured Memories, Assembled Trauma," Aragón enhanced portraits of drug war casualties from newspaper clippings and photographs. Aragón used his power drill to manipulate the images and blur parts of them.

"Traumatic memories make such an impact; we always want to erase them because we don't want them in our head," Aragón, 33, said on a recent afternoon at a South Austin coffee shop. "We tend to bury those images, but there's always something that kind of lingers, always something that we see or hear or smell, and it will trigger that memory. It's not an exact memory of it, but it is a residue of it, and that's how I was seeing this body of work."

Aragón's prints come to life with a three-dimensional quality unique to printmaking. His sculpture-like prints compel museum visitors to feel the texture, see the work up close and search for clues about Aragón's process.

A close-up look of one piece reveals Aragón enlarged the faces of each person, just enough to see the image's pixels or halftones. Stacking about five to seven layers of fine art paper, or sometimes tar paper, he then drills through each pixel, leaving hundreds of little holes that form the face of a person.

The visceral quality of the prints, at first glance, doesn't hit most people. It's only after taking a step back that the scary, ghostlike figures begin to take shape. Keeping the anonymity of each victim was intentional. "I'm not interested in making distinctions between bad guys or good guys," he said. "I'm interested in portraying the loss of human beings. It's like they are becoming numbers, not people anymore."

Aragón said he constantly seeks to expand the medium of printmaking to make his own artistic mark. While he always felt the need to experiment creatively, he credits UT's multi-disciplinary graduate school studio art program and faculty with pushing him take risks. When he arrived at UT, Aragón decided to take a break from the drug war-related prints he had been inspired to create while living on the border.

"I guess I was thinking that I didn't want to be encapsulated in doing just one thing. As an artist, I want to be diverse, be able to move from medium and ideas. It wasn't that I was leaving (the drug-war theme) behind, it was more like putting it on hold," he said.

He started fresh, took advantage of new opportunities, but then the violence escalated. Aragón couldn't shake what was happening in his hometown and beyond. He felt he had seen the drug violence grow into a raging war, and though he has left the border area, the experiences of a cross-cultural upbringing are ingrained in him forever.

"I'm a hybrid," he said. "I don't feel 100 percent Mexican or American. And I feel this way about making art. I'm a printmaker, but I also see myself as an artist as well."

Aragon was not that kid who was always caught drawing in class. In fact, he said, he had no talent for drawing, but he did love well-designed things and had a knack for physics. He received his bachelor's degree from the University of Texas at El Paso, where he double majored in graphic design and printmaking. He remembers a professor preparing a still life set up for them to draw.

"I was scared, and didn't know where to begin," he said. "I told (the professor) I've never drawn before. So I just went for it. The drawing was pretty bad, but I survived."

Aragón has since delved into researching and responding to the drug war's effects through his prints, but he sees his work as more of a reflection of the times, not a direct call to action. "I know there are other artists who play the role of activists," he said. "It's not something that I'm interested in, at least not yet, because I don't feel ready. I'm just reflecting on what I have experienced or what I'm seeing."

Aragón doesn't have a solution to ending the violence. But with every print, he hopes to inform people and shine a light on some dark places.

"For me, it would be great if all of us dealing with this subject matter could expose it so much that people who are involved in this war would reflect on what is happening in the country," he said. "Hopefully (they would) feel a sense of catharsis or something and realize that it's something that needs to stop to make a better Mexico."

Contact Nancy Flores at 912-2559.

‘Fractured Memories, Assembled Trauma'