José Ibarra Rizo: Depth within a Gaze | MOCA GA, Atlanta, GA 

BY EC Flamming, May 1, 2024

José Ibarra Rizo’s Working Artist Project exhibition Depth within a Gaze, at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, presents portraits of immigrant communities in the American South as a conduit to consider overarching themes of identity, belonging, and place. Characterized by a profound sensitivity to his subjects and their surrounding landscapes, Ibarra Rizo’s portraits are complex in their nuanced, personal narratives and underlying political realities. They are also startlingly direct – “depth within a gaze,” indeed. While the individuals in each portrait may have very different stories, they are united by the common experience of leaving a home country and by Ibarra Rizo’s photographic eye and his signature golden-hour lighting. 

A major theme of the exhibition is labor, specifically as it relates to immigrant communities. Signifiers of labor are everywhere: corn piled in the back of a pick-up truck, a taxi adorned with American and Mexican flags, yellow work boots. In Maria (2024), a woman sells bouquets of flowers, some propped up in a Home Depot bucket, the bright orange contrasting with the dead winter grass in the background. This particular signifier is then brought inside the museum itself, with the buckets and Maria’s actual flowers positioned around the gallery space. Whether direct or indirect, these references to labor act as an acknowledgement of the sacrifices made in search of a better life. 

José Ibarra Rizo, Juanito & Andy, 2023. Courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia

Landscape often plays an important role in Ibarra Rizo’s work. Sometimes the land itself becomes a metaphor. In Untitled (Corn & Complex) (2023), the back of an apartment complex looms mere meters from a corn field. The back façade of the complex is awash with hazy light, which in turns melts into the field, joining the two spaces together. A similar osmosis happens in an adjacent work, Juanito & Andy (2023), in which two young boys pose in front of a soccer goal. The sense of boundaries in the image – where the soccer field begins and the house in the background ends, how much is field and how much is garden – are blurry and loose. The children are playing but not playful, and their expressions, caught mid-game, are remarkably serious.   

Ibarra Rizo’s distinct use of lighting and his ability to capture people’s nuanced emotional complexities give many of the works a dreamy effect. This is put to excellent use in Untitled (Tamale Leaf Preparation) (2023), in which two grown men are sitting around a makeshift outdoor stove drinking Budweiser and looking directly at the camera, their expressions unreadable. A young boy, distracted, looks down into a pot and, due to a trick of perspective, appears to be almost engulfed in smoke and flames. It’s evening, and dappled sunlight glows through the leaves of the surrounding trees. It’s a beautiful and effective portrait. 

José Ibarra Rizo, Eliseo, 2023. Courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia

While the aesthetics of the photographs in Depth within a Gaze are visually attractive, Ibarra Rizo is quick to keep the exhibition from sentimentalizing the immigrant experience. The United States’ attitude toward immigrant communities is marked by xenophobia, racism, and border policies built on violence, dehumanization, and bureaucracy. While references to this reality are often more implicit than explicit in Ibarra Rizo’s work, his inclusion of Virgilio Aguilar Mendez (2024), which shows images taken from body-camera footage of police harassment and violence toward 18-year-old undocumented Virgilio Aguilar Mendez, serves as a stark reminder. Ibarra Rizo’s photographs, with their setting suns and compelling gazes, may be romantic in many ways, but there is no romanticizing the realities of the immigrant experience.