Ariel Vargassal: Self-Made Myths
To be immortal is commonplace; except for man, all creatures are immortal, for they are ignorant of death. --Jorge Luis Borges
Painter Ariel Vargassal renders vignettes culled from an esoteric plane of consciousness, a hybrid world of being and nothingness, externalizing the human psyche in jewel-like portraiture augmented by symbolism. With touches of hyper-stylized post-Pop beauty and the gravitas of modern-day mythology, Vargassal’s humans are young and vital, of diverse race and gender, nude or else evocatively dressed, stood against unblemished white space. In each tableaux they -- we, really -- are joined by animal companions, striking counterparts whose presence signals a deeper meaning.
The way Vargassal renders the figure is sensual, but not sexualized; even with nudes, he’s more classics-inflected than flirty. And they are very often costumed, with garments that are chosen to function as expressive clues to the “story” as well as passages of color and shape in the balanced asymmetry of the compositions. Their poses and body language and the vectors of penetrating stares and far-off gazes interact with the narrative tether of the props -- crowns, melting ice cream, smashed birthday cake, pink flamingos and gold-star balloons, umbrellas, books, chairs, toys -- they wear and wield.
But it’s the animal -- cow, wolf, penguin, cat, scarab beetle, octopus, whale, songbird, piglet, zebra, duckling, dog -- that activates each image, leaving the door of interpretation ajar through cognitive juxtaposition. The creatures have personalities and body language of their own. The relationships with their humans are not about domestication, but they aren’t feral either; it’s more like an uneasy but empathetic co-existence. But still, animals perennially enact the reflection of human emotional states in everything from Jung to global folklore, mythology, poetry, fairy tales, and films.
Not quite storytelling, the breathless, delicate, almost enamel-like style and precise technique sets the emotional tenor of the pictures, a mood of cheeky surreality. Ambient light caresses skin, single hairs or feathers pop, color is crisp and luminous as though radiating a life force, and every detail is handled with reverence. Narrative is unavoidable but remains stubbornly open-ended; not really dream-like because there’s no context or setting, everything rests on the character of relational dynamics; that’s why he calls them “totems,” they are singular, eccentric scenes born of need, imagination, strength and vulnerability. “Incredible,” wrote the novelist Carlos Fuentes, “the animal that first dreamed of another animal.”
--Shana Nys Dambrot
Los Angeles, 2018