Debra Barrera: Kissing in Cars, Driving Alone
Moody Gallery, Houston
Through November 21
by Rachel Hooper
Debra Barrera’s drawings have been haunting my dreams. They are nothing short of beautiful, with deep dark marks of graphite on barren white sheets of paper outlining automobiles that seem to be trapped behind the glass of the frames, frozen in suspended moments, and caught in a sort of cold, car purgatory. Their beauty is tinged with loneliness and longing as if the cars were containers for some sort of ineffable emotions. On the most practical level, cars get you from point A to point B. Barrera’s vehicles, mostly nostalgic models from the thirty or forty years ago, are up to something different. Driverless cars sit parked on the moon, suspended in free fall off the side of a cliff, or lined up next to each other as if in a race. They are not filling their typical function of driving, but still have some sense of personality and tinges of a soul.
The inspiration for Barrera’s series came from a trip to the junkyard, where the artist found various items left in discarded cars—a precious moments bible, melted deflated balloons, a tiara, and a Mr. Goodbar pencil. She photographed these items individually against white backgrounds and hung them as a set of small inkjet prints in white frames at the entrance to the exhibition. Without the materiality of seeing the actual objects on display, the things exist only as images, lose specificity, and have more cryptic meanings. The photographs are not explained in the context of the gallery, and only by asking the artist or reading her website does one learn the backstory of her retrieval of the items. For Barrera, these objects signify a “moment of surrender” when the car they were found in stopped carrying people or their memories, and only these artifacts remain to hint at a past life. Her study of this surrender has taken her in a number of directions: making drawings, writing poems, assembling sculptures from found objects, and reenacting a story of a car and its parallel life.
For the past two years, Barrera has shown mostly sculptural work. Given her past successes, it is curious that the three-dimensional objects in this exhibition mostly fall flat. A round suitcase painted with automotive paint and filled with mementos is too literal a simile for the idea of cars as containers of memories. Her plexiglass boxes filled with tree air fresheners are an interesting concept, as the little trees are deprived of their utility when their scent trapped in the boxes, but they lack visual appeal. The strongest sculptural works in this exhibition are two humble found objects that play with light—a silver windshield sunshade mounted on the ceiling under gallery lights to cast reflections in an aurora borealis pattern and a rearview mirror from a Pontiac firebird placed under a spotlight. The abstract shapes and patterns of light cast on the wall relate poignantly to what Barrera is getting at in her drawings and photographs—that physical objects can reflect and magnify the intangible. Just as light can only be seen when it hits a surface, so too can memories only be visible outside the body when they leave traces on things like bibles, balloons, and cars.
A video on a flat screen tucked away in the corner of the gallery shows a model rocket on a launch pad. By picking up a remote control launcher and pressing the ignition button the rocket sets off and flies into the air. The footage is a straightforward shot of a rocket being launched in a field, but it evokes a sense of play and excitement. A wall label explains that the video records an action by the artist where she drove to see the Saturn V rocket and then, at the Challenger Memorial Park, set off the model rocket in its memory. Barrera has a Blaffer Art Museum “Window into Houston” project that opens Wednesday November 7 that will also relate to this project. The installation, which will involve a 1986 Firebird, promises to be visually exciting, and one looks forward to seeing where this vector of the artist’s research will take her.
Rachel Hooper is a PhD student in art history at Rice University in Houston, Texas.