Ursula Vargas: Current Practice and beyond…
Following the CVAN South East exhibition at Phoenix Art Space last year I wrote a speculative rumination about Ursula Vargas’ paintings. I say speculative because I have not been able to sit down and talk to her in person, although we have exchanged a few messages via Instagram. The speculation also pertains to the notion of Magical Realism in her work. It’s a labelling that enables a route into the work which might at first appear rather knocked-off, casual or relaxed. There’s a surrealist element too but I am loathe to misrepresent a body of work that essentially derives from her student work – although despite the move to a new studio there is developmental work in eager production. As what might be expected from a ‘mature student’ the work also has an established feel about it rather than the provisionality that can pertain to a younger graduate’s work.
Vargas has now included this writing on her new website and so I print it here, with the addition of a quotation from the artist at the start and finish. I include some recent images too, but for more details do visit her website.
“The road is always been a fascinating place for me… the drone of the tyres against the asphalt… becomes this hypnotic chorus taking me back to places I rarely go… places where my imagination goes wild while having all my senses in that place creating memories… realising that we cannot paint what we don’t see but we can paint the in-between.” (Ursula Vargas)
Vargas’ current engagement with pictorial narrative is clearly contemporary, presenting often eccentric and sometimes bizarre magic-realist scenarios. But the ‘contemporary’ of course is a symptom or consequence of the past and Vargas taps into a rich heritage from her cultural South American routes, plus her own childhood. The carefully selected visual material, assimilating characters, artefacts and landscapes, invented, appropriated, real or mythical from past and present cultures consolidate a pan-historical vision when presented within a story-like visual framework. After all, human societies have thrived on tales and fictions across millennia whether spoken, written or visualised. As a contemporary practitioner with an acute awareness of the challenges that face the planet today her bold visual narratives reference climate change, the human exploitation of natural resources and its effects on populations. In this sense the work is futuristic too, though maybe in the sense of a ticking time bomb given the possible consequences of environmental issues.
Her subject matter is characteristically personal and shared by many. From a family history, which included many extended motorway journeys and recollections of ancient archaeological sites, she is able to utilise various narrative sources into a kind of play for today, where “all the world’s a stage”. Yet the players can include often-humorous visual references to Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons or figures from pre-Columbian art. Landscape scenarios and often-repeated ingredients (mountains, tunnels and roads; San Pedro cactus and road signs) are principal ingredients in Vargas’ neo-surrealist scenes that invite and provoke personal readings and translations from the viewer. But this apparent playfulness, where visual engagement might feel direct, easy and uncomplicated, transforms into a conduit leading to a cinematic, cut and paste, sense of time and place of both experienced and imagined ‘reality’. Vargas is fascinated by and curious about the relation between what we see and what we think we know. Coercing a creative response that may never be settled or certain, her various works often challenge the viewer to suspend routine judgments to allow the imagination to play awhile.
For example, the road motif might represent modernity (albeit now linked with a post-industrial questioning of energy usage and air pollution) but also functions as a prompt to travel imaginatively into the past, present and future. This is a demanding journey where the medium grapples with the message, as paint and collage, or recycled cardboard waste replacing fine canvas, vies with potent imagery. Another motif-type prop is the San Pedro cactus, which the Incas used to drink to connect with their Gods. Nowadays, on a secular level, the placing of a cactus at the doorway of homes throughout Peru and surrounding countries acts as a guardian to protect against intruders. As content in Vargas’ imagery the association is truly more magic-realist, psychedelic even, in invoking rituals of the shaman. Affected by alucinaciones (hallucinations), from drinking mescaline derived from San Pedro, the intensity of the colours of the perceived world may well resemble the colour palette chosen by Vargas.
As a conjurer of such fascinating content in her work, Vargas utilises pictorial tropes as signs (simple instructions) to indicatively become symbols that we might now read as warnings. Spectacle may initially subvert substance but a strong semblance of narrative, however magical or super-real, prompts a desire to make sense of current times and places in which the existential realities of life on an endangered planet inexorably dominates the natural world from urban litter to oil pollution. Such a message could be conveyed subtly or associatively – or even ‘in our faces’ as the use of litter suggests in some works.
The viewer might read Vargas’ staged narratives as demonstrations of a contemporary folk tale, warning or prophecy that even the trickster Coyote would struggle to adapt to, comprehend and accept. For a moral allegory, in what might initially appear to be a linear narrative, turns out, on reflection, to resurrect rather than travel to the past and to conjoin eras initiating a sense of time that is overarching. These apparent flashbacks or hallucinations are repeated, cyclical echoes rather than fragments of memory – only now the end game becomes a reality.
The artist today might be best placed to address the task of leaving room for the viewer to engage and self-question. This goes against the grain of the mass media dominated political and economic terrain that binds us all as consumers to a capitalist system (conjoining the political evils of Left and Right) on the brink of self-destruction. A hopeful interpretation might be that the power and potential of the individual, armed with a fertile imagination, may well succeed in undermining the corporate hegemony that hurtles the planet towards a point of no return.
If you are willing to jump on board Vargas’ time machine, occupy a window view and be prepared to participate in the action. But be proactive, not passive: for only the audience can save the day.
“In my work I kept the same motif, the road trips, but now due to size restriction and sense of confinement, I put myself inside the car, creating these viewings of climate change landscapes from inside of it, bringing this way the viewer into the car and creating a stronger connection with the painting between them.” (Ursula Vargas)
Geoff Hands (Brighton, 2021)
All images © Ursula Vargas