"Bipolar" at Mesa Contemporary Arts: An Artistic Marriage in Psychiatric Hell

Part of "Bipolar" by Alice Leora Briggs
Part of "Bipolar" by Alice Leora Briggs
Kathleen Vanesian

Talk about an artistic marriage made in psychiatric hell. Running until August 11 at Mesa Arts Center's Museum, Texas artist Alice Leora Briggs and Tucson artist Albert Kogel have married their diametrically opposed styles and media in an environmental installation called "Bipolar" to create an all-too-convincing taste of what once was called manic depression.

See also: "Turn Off the Sun" at ASU Art Museum: A Hot Mess, Despite Some Cool Art

A bane to both creatives of every type and those grim homeless people wandering the streets everywhere -- not to mention their family and friends -- untreated bipolar disorder dooms those afflicted to excruciating mental gymnastics ranging from unrestrained, sleep-depriving euphoria, bizarre delusions and outrageous, nonsensical behavior to the darkest heart of paralyzing depression. Tragically, even when treated, bipolar disorder can rear its ugly head and, if severe enough, lead to institutionalization.

Briggs and Kogel's collaboration on "Bipolar" was undertaken to honor José Antonio Galván, the founder of a mental asylum in Juarez, Mexico, who daily provides refuge and care for more than 100 destitute mentally ill people abandoned by society. Also known as El Pastor, Galván just underwent and is currently recovering from open heart surgery.

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Briggs and Kogel have not just "[simulated] the feeling of an observation room in an insane asylum and the alternate realities that shape everyday human experiences," as billed by the museum. They've actually constructed a nightmarish visual metaphor that unceremoniously dumps the viewer into the mind of a bipolar during both manic and depressive states. And it's a convincing re-creation for those of us who have had personal experience with the bipolar personality.

As one enters a darkened passageway that leads to the work, the viewer first experiences a series of strange, garbled structures of birch wood panels by Kogel, painted on every surface with frenzied, expressionistic brush strokes that conflate, then distort and electrify, common objects, designs, and human faces. Kogel's bristly painted pieces, manic and overwrought, seem to scream and shake, sucking the air out of the space they're in and constructing an overwhelmingly claustrophobic ambiance that communicates effectively with the space created by Alice Leora Briggs to the left.  

Part of "Bipolar" by Alice Leora Briggs
Part of "Bipolar" by Alice Leora Briggs
Kathleen Vanesian

Briggs' clearly depressive environment, executed in a leaden palette of gray, white, and black, features steely, hand-riveted panels of metal, ship-like accouterments (a porthole, metal stairs to nowhere, a small house fitted with a nonsensical gauge, and a sign saying "Will Return") and thick metal doors flung open to reveal an almost life-size woodcut print of a person in a fetal position against a backdrop of chaos and destruction. Next to a type of paddle wheel that brings to mind a medieval instrument of torture is a highly detailed

Painting of a headless figure lying on a platform of cogs, wheels, dials and tubing; the patient's chest is opened up to reveal what appears to be upholstery stuffing.

The work of Kogel and Briggs conjoin to create a sense of overwhelming sensory input, desperate desolation and edgy psychic disaster that is violently unsettling at a gut level. I'm just sorry that "Bipolar" has been the victim of light-rail construction in Mesa, which in and of itself is disorienting. Just think of the ripped-up streets and multiple detours you're forced to take to get to the museum as mental preparation for the chaos to come. It only gets worse, in the best possible sense.

"Bipolar" is on view until Sunday, August 11, at Mesa Center for the Arts Museum, 1 East Main Street in downtown Mesa. Call 480-644-6560 for information.

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