On display through July 31 at Garden of the Zodiac Gallery, The Passageway in the Old Market, 1042 Howard Street, Omaha
“I’ve Lost Who I Was.” - Bart Vargas
With a wink, a smile, a firm middle finger, and maybe an ‘I told you so’ shrug, Council Bluffs/ Omaha-based, internationally exhibiting Bart Vargas is asking America to reexamine its birth certificate.
It’s important to remember, when looking at politically themed artwork talking about and attempting to reveal the idea and reality of a well defined American character, that America, as a country and culture, is young and still transitioning. Since the 19th century, following the
trauma of the Civil War, America has been moving slowly towards a great synthesis. In A Year of Lies and Other Stories..., the reality of America in flux, searching for itself, is the core theme. America is still asking - who I’m I and how did I get here?
Vargas, a military veteran, uses his individuality as a multicultural man, who once followed the patriotic road, as source material to illuminate undercurrents in American culture. His overarching message is that the center of American life is the unfulfilled hope of financial security and equality for all people. To present his message he’s created a collection of cohesive political statements, each one complementing the other, relating a solid articulate narrative that reads as cultural critique and story of personal experiences.
A Year of Lies and Other Stories... features 28 beautifully thick latex paintings depicting slang labels, word-text sentence fragments, statements and exclamations such as Murica!, Fuck Yeah!, Crazy Pants, Mixed Use, The Worst Existential Hangover I Ever Had, Corporate Malfeasance, Everybody Competes With A Ghost, The Reclamation of An Identity and Sometimes I Feel Like An Immigrant to My Own Culture against fields of organized paint points, or a type of large-scale pointillism, arranged clearly to represent identifiable symbols. The most prominent background symbol being the stars and stripes, red, white and blue of the American flag as central motif. Other important color arrangements reference the Mexican national flag as well as the Rainbow flag of cultural and gender diversity.
The formal style is, as expected from Vargas, a refined and sophisticated form of street-outsider aesthetic. To highlight the convergence of high and low culture some of the pointillist latex text paintings are framed in gold and black decorative-baroque and salon-conservative frames.
What’s fascinating about the paintings is that they evoke the Ishihara Color Blindness Test, a diagnostic tool consisting of circles of dots in a pattern used to determine visual abnormalities. It’s not clear if Vargas intended to reference Ishihara, but his pseudo-pointillist paintings, layered with text, do honor the form and present as a set of unique messages encouraging deeper investigation into belief systems and cultural illusions. The compositions examine how words and rhetoric are constructed into various forms of propaganda to control and manipulate our perception. Vargas is reminding us that what we see is influenced by what we’ve been taught to be true, or our deficiencies.
It is obvious that the exhibition is his reaction and challenge to nationalism, capitalism and damaging forms of American patriotism. To add weight to his lesson, the latex surfaces are bombastically compacted with color, in strata format, showing us visually that there’s more to explore deep beneath the surface. The paint itself acts as metaphor for America’s communication style, which is characterized by firm general optimistic messages stressing
opportunity and equality while hiding the deeper reality of racism, greed, discrimination, theft, violence and lies.
The painting that best articulates Vargas’ message depicts a text phrase question: “Sometimes I wonder why I have to prove or explain that I’m from here.” This painting is explained by its label which reads: “Having to Prove Your Citizenship to The University of Nebraska at Kearney In Order to Sell Them a Painting, But You Already Work for the University At Omaha.”
For some works, Vargas uses the exhibition labels as an important form of footnoting to elucidate the meaning of the text paintings. To understand the overall content the label text must be considered with the painting text as one message. Using the labels as another holding
place for idea and object, the artist is telling us to study multiple sources of information before determining truth.
Another excellent example of the painting-label combo is the painting We Are All Willing To Sell Our Souls For Something, accompanied by the label reading “...But You Don’t Have to Tell Us, We Know You Know.”
Outside of the pointillist paintings, Vargas presents two works that break from the text format that serve as bookends to his narrative. Both pieces hold a similar off-center explosive burst design pattern. The first, Not My County, is a wall-sculpture construction, cutout of America’s legal national borders built up of cut thin triangular pieces of wood assembled so that the points focus in on the center of the country where Nebraska/Great Plains region is located. In this one piece Vargas demonstrates his brilliance as a thinker. His ‘American Map’ cutout wall-sculpture in wood rests on the edge of fine-art and craft. It’s the type of work that would be popular at an ‘All-American’ craft show made by a gifted woodworker. It’s an egalitarian piece, referencing landscape, created with common materials pulled from the land by hand. It would be something a true American patriot would proudly hang in their home. But, here’s the Vargas twist: the East-West orientation is flipped/placed backward, and the use of high gloss resin over the cut wood gives the appearance of shattered glass. In this construction, Vargas is saying, again, that the nation is broken; it has taken a blow, a hit, it’s busted.
Not My County is a genius work of political art.
The other power piece is Governed by Representation depicting two hogs copulating against a burst of red, white and blue. This piece is more obvious as it immediately brings to mind the term ‘fucking pigs,’ the insult projected towards various authority groups, government officials, corporate executives, police officers and military personnel. It also has another connotation pointing to Americans as greedy white trash.
Throughout the exhibition the idea of economic and cultural class strings the work together. In a triad of rectangular paintings, Vargas deals with the complexity of economic equality and the American Flag as the symbol and icon of economic status. Each painting has the same red, white, blue background pattern while the text on each is different: “Lower Class Status Symbol” “Middle Class Symbol” and “Upper Class Status Symbol.” The accompanying label reads, “The American Class System 1, 2, 3.”
Bart Vargas has created an absolutely strong, focused, mature, playful and insightful series. The exhibition A Year of Lies and Other Stories...” is, without doubt, the most important and relevant presentation happening in Nebraska today. Very few artists are addressing the reality of economic insecurity and fear. In one painting he says it all, “If You Take God You Can Take Me,” explained on the label with “...But Only in My Ass or Mouth. I’m Saving Myself For Marriage.”