I am always hoping that once finished, the painting will be able to create a strong relationship with the beholder, a deeper, more sensorial, more meaningful relationship than the one they have with the thousands of images that they scroll by on the screen of a phone.
Leonardo Vargas focuses on painting as a process and a form of representation. Questioning the practice, he actively delves into the mechanisms of production of the pictorial image and explores different forms of (re)presentation. The artist often works with found images from various sources such as the canon of art history, photographic archives, fashion magazines, or advertising in order to launch a visual inquiry into how these images were produced and what they represent. Beyond portraying the subject, Vargas' main goal is to establish a dynamic relationship with the viewer through the image.
INTERVIEW WITH THE ARTIST
Q. Did you always want to become an artist?
A. I started drawing when I was a kid, but at that time I never asked myself the question whether it was art, or think about becoming an artist. I drew everywhere, on the walls, on books from the library, on random papers. I just did it as part of the things I did; I always took great pleasure in it and, basically, I never stopped. I took some classes with a local artist in my hometown and it was there that I started to learn about the work of renaissance painters and Picasso as well as the stories behind some of these works. I really loved this, but it was like a hobby. I was a kid. However, all this information stayed with me. Then, one day, while I was in the process of studying graphic design, I decided to devote myself to painting - a decision that was fueled by the art subjects that were part of the curriculum (art history, drawing, visual theory, colour theory). These were introduced to give the students a visual basis for their design work, but to me, those subjects were the real deal. It fascinated me and I didn’t really want to design books or typography, so I changed direction and started to study painting seriously. For me, painting represented the complete freedom to develop my own visual interests as opposed to enforcing the essential communicational aspects of graphic design. I had been reading about a lot of abstract painting at that time as well; the first abstracts: Kandinsky, Kupka, and then the Abstract Expressionists: De Kooning, Pollock, Kline, Motherwell… They blew my mind, and it became clear that it was this direction that I had to take. It was like an epiphany.
Q. You draw a clear distinction between the visual and emotional effect of a painting and a photograph or other forms of digital imagery, how do you think painting is able to achieve another level of experience?
A. Each medium is different. A photograph has a certain group of characteristics that are unique to that format and can’t be found in a sculpture or a drawing. The same goes for painting. Each language has its own specificity, things that are unique to it and can’t be achieved by other forms of visual communication. This makes it interesting to see what happens when you mix them. Painting has a unique and very powerful way of expression, you see this when it shows its true self when it starts to reveal its devices: the trace, the movement… I think that painting offers a more direct, more personal way of producing visual content, in the sense that you are fully involved with it when working. Is not only your mind but also your body that’s there as you move towards the canvas, as you mix a colour and apply it with your own hands. You’re not dealing with lights on a screen but with material pigments that you can actually hold. There’s a stronger physical level of involvement behind the creation of a painting.
On the other hand, a painting itself is dependent on this physical condition as well. It offers an experience that goes beyond the visual, a different presence. When you see a painting hanging in a museum, there’s also a frame, a wall, a space, and the painting itself as a physical object. This haptic condition, the material aspect of it - the thickness of the pigments emerging from the flat surface, a trace, a brushstroke, immediately makes you conscious of the fact that behind all this there was indeed a real person who moved to shape and colour, who put all those forms together. When you see that a brushstroke is the direct result of the movement of a hand carrying a certain emotion it affects you on another level. Sometimes, it makes you want to touch the painting with your own hands. Then, it is your body, the beholder’s body, and not the artist’s body that starts moving towards the canvas. The painting is there as a trace of an action and a certain vision.
Q. You have stated that a good painting is capable to make the invisible visible. Is there something specific you are looking to reveal? And how do you go about this process of revealing and obscuring?
A. That’s something Paul Klee said about art and I believe it‘s essential. Art has to offer something beyond what we see every day. The unseen can be way more important than what we see: thinking, time, reflection, emotion, eternity are things we don’t see as such in themselves. Sometimes you look at a painting and you feel drawn to it, and you say “there’s something about that painting”.. but you don’t really know what it is, you don’t know why you feel that bond and that interest. You may feel intrigued by it, you know there’s something there, something important, maybe very important. It is there, in the painting that you’re seeing, but you cannot grasp it just like that. Well, that part, the unseen part that we cannot figure out is the most important. It is one of the things that make a great piece. It’s just beyond our normal understanding. As for the process - it is kind of the same. Sometimes I’m surprised by my own results. I would look at a finished painting and ask myself: “Where did I take this color from?”, ”How did I come up with that form?” or something like that. I don’t always know the answer to those questions, and I don’t want to know them either. There must be some room for the unexpected. I never know what a painting will look like at the end, it is always a surprise. If I knew, then it would be a different thing entirely. As a painter, you’re somehow contending with the unknown.
Q. You often use found existing media (fashion images, advertising, old photographs, or canonical paintings) as your source material; what are you looking to achieve with re-interpreting these visuals?
A. Many of the images I select as source material happen to have the previously described effect on me; I feel drawn to them. I know there’s something there that I cannot quite grasp. In other cases, is just about a good composition or a good palette of colours. I think it’s not so much about re-interpreting the images as it is about reflecting upon them. It may also be a way for me to process those images. It is as if I am having some kind of conversation with them; I question them. I try to get some information from them. I react and they kind of react as well.
Our relationship to images has changed drastically since the invention of the internet and the digital tools we have now have changed our visual world, maybe as much as photography did when it first appeared or possibly even more. We are now so used to relate to images on a casual, often superficial level that they don’t mean anything anymore. You know, we have Instagram and Pinterest, and we just scroll down hundreds of pieces of visual content in a mechanical way without even realizing what’s really there. There’s no time for stopping and submerging yourself into the world that is being offered there. No time to see, to reflect. So, I take those images and I rework them. They change a lot in the process. They are transformed - sometimes almost to the point of abstraction. I’m not interested in keeping a resemblance, I’m more into establishing a relationship with the image through the act of painting itself. Hopefully, people will establish a link as well with the paintings that result from this process. I hope that the viewer can connect to them and have a more meaningful experience, something like a conversation, with them as well.
Q. How do you imbue those pre-existing subjects with new meaning?
A. It may not be a matter of meaning. I am more interested in creating a connection, an experience that can lead to something else. You can have a certain idea in mind, you may intend a painting to say something, to express something, but at a certain point, you’re not responsible anymore for the emotions or the message a painting conveys. People will start projecting all kinds of things on the artwork: their own experiences, positive and negative, their joys, and their fears as well. It’s as if the painting starts having a life of its own.
Q. You have a Master of Fine Arts. How (if so) do you think your education contributed to your conceptual and perhaps questioning approach to the medium of painting as such?
A. It helps a lot. You have to be aware of certain things. Art History is essential for me. When you work in a medium such as painting, you cannot ignore that you’re dealing with a practice that’s inscribed by a very rich tradition that carries a lot of history and it would be a little naïve to think that you can get rid of this aspect just like that. Some modernist painters tried to do that at some point, and it led to great things, but they couldn’t de-attach from that historical weight of painting completely. You never start from scratch, as your mind is already full of visual information, and that’s part of the struggle. So, you have to be aware… but not too much…not too self-conscious either… Some art schools or universities aim to focus on this academic tradition, and they would expect you to build a theoretical framework for every little thing you do, which means you end up over-conceptualizing. This is dangerous! It was for me at a certain point, and I had to stop doing it.
Q. What would you like your work to evoke in the viewer?
A. One day during an exhibition, there was a guy in front of one of my paintings, he’d been there looking at it for a while. He would step back and forward and get close to it and then back again. I approached him and asked him “Do you like it?” He replied “…huumm… I’m struggling..” I thought this was great. There was a connection there, something that could hold his gaze for a while and kept him in front of the painting long enough to make him wonder and have a conversation with it. I aspire to establish that kind of connection.
Q. Which other creatives have inspired you?
A. I remember the first time I saw the work of Julie Mehretu at the Guggenheim in Berlin. It was amazing to see those big paintings. You’d feel swallowed by the mere space of those works. That was inspiring. It had an influence on my work at that time. I had kind of the same experience with Rubens’ big formats. But long before that, I’d visited a major retrospective exhibition on Alejandro Obregón, one of the greatest modern painters in South America. This just blew me away. At that time, I thought it was beyond any capacity for expression one could achieve. The work of Rauschenberg also kept me busy for a while when I was a student. But you know, this is a very difficult question; the list is very long!! There are so many: De Kooning, Bacon, Caravaggio, Velazquez, Richter, the list goes on and on…
Q. Could you describe your work in three words?
A. I’d prefer to leave that to the people who see my paintings. They have the most interesting answers to that.