Only a few of the works that make up "Ni Una Mas: The Juarez Murders" can be said to be grim or gruesome. But go prepared for some powerfully disturbing images and stories.
The exhibition, at Drexel University's Leonard Pearlstein Gallery, is intended to raise awareness of violence against women - in particular the unsolved killings of more than 700 young women in Juarez since 1993 - and at this it unflinchingly succeeds. You leave "Ni Una Mas" ("Not One More") more informed about such violence than transported by the art you've just seen.
The Juarez killings are most explicitly examined in the works of Frank Bender, a Philadelphia forensic and fine artist who traveled to Juarez in 2003 and made plaster forensic reconstructions of the heads of six slain women, and in Luis Javier M. Henaine's 2005 film, Deserted Crosses.
Looking at the color photographs of Bender's plaster heads of women without knowing their history, you might think of them as a contemporary-art project of some kind. Girl With Crooked Nose, the one actual plaster bust displayed here, in front of the photographs, only adds to that impression. Bender's work as a fine artist, represented by three watercolors on an opposite wall titled Impressions of Juarez, is as swirlingly expressionistic as his heads are solid and unmoving.
Henaine's Deserted Crosses, the story of a woman who moves to Juarez with her daughter and granddaughter so the daughter can find work in a factory, is a short, haunting film that perfectly captures the hellishness of Juarez life.
There are several multipart installations in the exhibition that are too much alike. Yoko Ono's participatory Heal (2010) is the most successful of these, although its materials immediately bring to mind sewn works by Louise Bourgeois. Viewers are invited to make cuts into and sew on a mural-size piece of linen hanging from a steel cable, using the scissors, needles, and thread arranged by Ono on a nearby desk (there are also buttons on the desk printed with the word "Heal" - a signature Ono touch - that passersby have pinned to the linen). Ono's is one of the few pieces in "Ni Una Mas" that evokes the process of recovering from violence.
And there are works here that seem to undercut the exhibition's message. Celia Alvarez Munoz's revisions of women's clothing - especially her almost pornographic cutoff jeans with sequined crotches - seem to eroticize violence, as does Andrea Marshall's photograph of a masked, bound woman caressing bananas.
Interestingly, some of the shows's earliest works contain the most painful images of violence.
Arlene Love, the Philadelphia-based sculptor and photographer, is represented by one of the exhibition's more unforgettable pieces, a life-size armless female figure posed as if walking. The inspiration behind Love's Armless Victim (1979), explained in a wall label, was a newspaper account of a woman raped by a man who then cut her arms off. She was found alive, walking in the woods. In Love's interpretation, the woman is an archaic figure with the facial features of an ancient Greek statue, but her eyes express unspeakable horror.
The torture of women, one of the late Nancy Spero's best-known subjects, has rarely been portrayed in art, let alone as unambiguously as Spero did in her paintings and printed scrolls. On view here, her hand-printed Crawling Woman (1994) and Burnt Mother and Child (1987), rough, monochromatic images that seem to have been almost branded into their respective pieces of paper, communicate the message of "Ni Una Mas" instantly.
If you think you've seen the work of Frantz Zephirin, one of Haiti's best-known contemporary artists, before, you're probably right.
A painting of his graced the cover of Bob Shacochis' memorable book about Haiti, The Immaculate Invasion, in 1999. Much more recently, Zephirin's doleful The Resurrection of the Dead, a painting of ravaged voodoo figures in a doorway looking out at a flooded street bearing a bobbing coffin, was on the cover of the New Yorker's Jan. 25 issue. And his works were included in the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History's groundbreaking traveling exhibition of 1995, "Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou." But until now, you have never seen an exhibition of Zephirin's work in Philadelphia.
The mostly new paintings that make up Zephirin's one-person show at Indigo Arts Gallery show off the artist's singular visionary style of nature and voodoo figures intertwined in patterns, but are also remarkable for their foreshadowing of cataclysmic events. Though many of the works here were painted in the aftermath of the January earthquake, earlier works, such as "The Passage of the Gedes in the Cemetery" (c. 2007), seem eerily prescient of things to come.