Jamie Martinez: It was a pleasure meeting you and seeing your new work last month at your show in The Lower East Side during Armory week. What is your background in the arts and what inspires you to make it?
Vargas-Suarez Universal: Thanks Jamie, likewise. My background is very different than the typical trajectory most artists experience. I grew up as a child of the NASA space program in Houston, TX to very open-minded parents. I have come to realize that my first real art education was regular visits to the Menil Collection, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Contemporary Arts Museum and regular trips to Mexico City with all its cultural treasures. I studied science not art in college and when I moved to NYC in 1997, I immersed myself in everything happening artwise in the city. The late Dennis Oppenheim once told me that living and working in NYC is better than an MFA and Ph.D. for a young artist.
I’ve never felt “inspired”, instead I feel curious and very motivated to make something that never existed before. My overall creative process is much akin to the scientific method. Observation, hypothesis, experiments, results, and conclusions propel work to work forward with evolving tropes, logics and concepts.
JM: What is the motivation behind the work I saw and what is the process behind this specific work?
VSU: One of the primary motives of the new textile works is to make something that utilizes an ancient medium and technique with very contemporary subject matter such as Mars exploration, geometry based on architectural and microchip logic and to see what results one gets. I’m more and more attracted to indigenous techniques with a futuristic subject in mind. The process of the pieces in the “Celestial Vectors” series is the use of three ancient techniques from Kyrgyzstan called shyrdak, aka-kiyiz and saima. Wool felt is the oldest textile in the world, it’s approximately 9,000 years old, and in Kyrgyzstan it’s still used basically the same way as it was first used by nomadic people in the Central Asian steppe. What I’m basically doing is employing my designs and images to a 9,000-year-old technique. Working with the best masters is an education that continues to open up my eyes and ways of approaching future works.
JM: How would you describe your regular working day within your studio environment?
VSU: I don’t really have a regular working day because I’m quite nomadic and I work from the studios, an office, traveling, site visits and research time. The studio is the best place to be as much as possible. I like a great conversation with everyone I’m working with, I like learning from others. When working with assistants I sometimes get into the mindset that we’re not working on my work, but someone else’s instead. This helps me distance myself from the work in a very relativistic manner. Other times I’m alone for hours or days and it’s very quiet and I try not to think, it’s my meditation. Some constant procedures are necessary, despite the medium or place. Proper documentation of the process for each work and project is important for my practice. Discipline is key.
JM: Do you have any shows or projects coming up?
VSU: Yes, quite a few. I have a solo project with IFAC arts at The Yard in the Lower East Side, curated by Lee Wells. It’ll open April 17 and be up till June 25th. Then I’m currently in a group show at Jacob Karpio Galeria in Bogota, Colombia titled “Encubierto” (“Enclosed”). Plus, I am currently included in a group show titled “Culture and The People: El Museo del Barrio, 1969 – 2019 Part I | Selections from the Permanent Collection” at El Museo del Barrio, New York. That exhibition will include a painting I was commissioned by El Museo back in 2003. It’s been shown many times in other institutions and this will be the second time it will be shown at El Museo. Otherwise, there are other shows are in the planning stages in India, South Korea, and here in New York. All Summer I will be working in my studio in Kyrgyzstan producing more silk paintings, oil on linen paintings and more wool carpets and tapestries with my editions publishing company A.K.A. Editions. We will launch new pieces of mine as well as with artists including Saint Clair Cemin, Jose Bedia, Fabian Burgos, and a few more artists we are approaching. The idea is to commission artists to design wool carpets and or tapestries that are handmade by master artisans in Kyrgyzstan. It’s a very exciting project that I quickly realized is too good for me to do by myself. I really want to give other artists opportunities to experiment and to work with traditions and techniques they’ve never tried before. It’s all about experimentation and exploration.
Interview with Carla Stellgweg
Jamie Martinez: It was a pleasure meeting you also at the opening you had for Vargas-Suarez Universal in the Lower East Side. How did you meet VSU and what draws you to his work?
Carla Stellweg: Vargas-Suarez Universal and I met in 1997 at the University of Texas, Austin, where I went to do research for the Rockefeller Fellowship in the Humanities I had been awarded. The UT Austin libraries are fabulous and very ad hoc for my topic of research leading to an unpublished text titled If Money Talks Who Does the Exhibition Talking, a case study of 5 Latin American & Latino (today Latinx) exhibitions done in the US that traveled South and 5 Latin American exhibitions that traveled from the South to the US, during the 1980s.
VSU was finishing his Astronomy and Art History studies and we were introduced at an opening at the Mexic-Arte Museum where he was employed as a student worker. Being part of the student body, he came to the art events Henry Estrada, whom I shared a little house with (today a director of San Antonio’s Public Art Program) organized. The event I recall was the first exhibition we staged inside of a Texas-size huge freezer/refrigerator, inaugurating what we titled our “Signature Series” (the name of the Kenmore appliance) with a one-person exhibit of Tex-Mex Latino artist Franco Mondini-Ruiz.
It was there in Austin, TX that VSU and I began a conversation that has lasted over 2 decades and continues to evolve, grows and takes us into always surprising new directions, ranging from technology, space exploration, literature, philosophy, anthropology, arts & crafts, architecture, photography and of course to our current worldwide social alienation and violence.
Over the years, I have come to realize that Rafael’s artist name Vargas-Suarez UNIVERSAL (VSU) makes his work stand out as being not so much about the abstraction of the “universal in contemporary art”, but rather referencing his subject matter as being about the endless Universe we all float around in, looking for answers to some of the basic issues regarding our existence and place in the Universe.
Those interests make VSU a true 21st Century Latin American and Latin artist, one has forged some of the most arresting and memorable imagery in contemporary art. Having been born in Mexico and raised in Houston, TX, in close proximity to NASA, it follows that he first studied Astronomy to then employ Art History to spotlight our planet Earth in relationship to the Universe, by following the ongoing space explorations in its findings, all of which continue to motivate and animate his eponymous work and his signature style which is based on vectors carrying information about magnitude and direction of physical quantity. The power and strength of his public works are also one of the aspects that have drawn me into his “Universe”, those in New York City as well as around the world are outstanding examples of VSU’s usage and transformation of data as well as his ease with different scales, ranging from the smallest detailed ink drawings on rice paper to his large murals. In the murals, as well as the related series of paintings, I am fascinated by his sourcing of data and visual information which derive from site visits to places such as the Vehicle Assembly Building in Cape Canaveral, FL; the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA; the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX; The Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico; Korolyov, Russia which is the cradle of Soviet Space Exploration in Moscow; Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Russian spaceport in Kazakhstan; and to top it all his travels through Central Asia visiting Bishkek, Barskoon and Jeti-Oguz, in Kyrgyzstan.
All in all, I am very proud and honored to have hosted his recent production of another “cosmos” of spectacular tapestries in Kyrgyzstan at my space, and needless to say, to have been a close friend for over 2 decades!
JM: I am also a big fan of the cosmic universe and was intrigued when I spoke to him at the opening about the source and process behind the work. Are you working on any other future projects with VSU? And what other art related projects are you working on now?
CS: I am certain that another VSU project will emerge on the horizon sooner than later, however, right now we don’t have anything ‘etched in stone’ as we keep on having our conversation, exchanging ideas leading to other projects – it has been and is an organic process. At present, I am working in Mexico on a large retrospective of Francisco Icaza at the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Icaza, who in 1963 was a Co-founder of the Nueva Presencia (or Interioristas) group of figurative artists that broke with the prior Mexican government-sanctioned cultural policies of muralism=social realism. Over our 50-year friendship and working together we were also involved in the Salón Independiente, another group endeavor of that emerged in response to the 1968 Tlatelolco-Nonoalco student massacre. At any rate, since 1963 when we first met, we continued to and, in some shape, or form, create projects together.
In addition to the exhibition and catalog of Icaza’s work, I hope to begin writing the book many colleagues have urged me to do and which will cover my 45-year career as a curator, editor and art writer of numerous published texts on contemporary visual art and artists of the Americas since co-founding, directing, and editing the first bilingual contemporary arts journal in Latin America, Artes Visuales starting in the early 1970’s. This publication is the first and pioneering magazine to focus on the fostering of a hemispheric dialogue on the idea of Latin American – and what is today Latinx- art and art history. The book will contain not only what I have witnessed, but also actively demonstrate how I was able to help shape and promote, from the late 1960s onward, a field that today is well known in academic circles – work that has opened the doors for following generations and current scholars and curators, who aim to critically map the field of contemporary Latin American and Latinx art as has it developed from the multiple platforms New York has opened up.