Portfolio > Essays/Press

Boundaries of Un/Belonging
Claudia Milian
Duke University

Whether written in perfect-bound form––or in episodic Twitter or Facebook nuggets––ours is the autobiography generation. It all depends, of course, on how such stories are told. Under Izel Vargas’s splendid oeuvre, an updated, retold life exceeds individuality. Here, the avatars of a fragmented humanity proffer a foundational structure for bodies in multiple contexts and worlds. Let there be no doubt, no inimical authorization is necessary to cross and recross. Consider, for a moment, his evocation of stairs (cf., “Ascend” and “Have in Mind”). These certainly remind us of daily transversals––in effect, the quotidian repetition of simply going up and down. But more than that, Vargas’s unmechanical––and richly unpatented––Stairmaster equips us with a way to access, though by no means superficially, some of the lost and found items in his palate: a singular, knowing eye, disembodied rib cage, and teeth that impart human decay, possible whitening cosmetic processes, and/or human devices preparing to attack in defense of a mobile entity. The dissected, faceless body, stripped to insalubrious organs––a human “menudo,” one might say––is far from discardable. It is the human archive that attaches itself––speaks and lives through––other cultural and sociopolitical things. It is at this intersection of the anonymous human and the representation of commodities fomenting first world life that we find, as Manny Farber, a film critic, put it, “termite art.” That is, an art that eats––indeed, devours––its own borders vis-à-vis Vargas’s protean milieu: a palimpsistic unraveling of authenticity and origins; contact, differences, and conflict; irony, alienation, and objectification; national boundaries and cultural fluidity; and creative practices that work alongside and against the simultaneous speed of all that demands our attention.
Vargas’s cultural and intellectual production engages with the outsourcing of Latin American bodies, while drawing our attention to the usurping of Latina and Latino differences. Traced or washed out words in English or Spanish provide clues for how to think through and articulate the meanings of deracination and consumption. Vargas’s words are a response, a brief conversation further pronounced by the image––illuminatingly seeking, as comedian Bill Santiago calls it, “greater Spanglishicity.” We can reassemble this concept to mean a City of Spanglish––a City in Spanglish¬¬––a dwelling quarter that echoes Colson Whitehead’s wonderfully poetic contribution to supermodernity, one in which “the city knows you better than any living person because it has seen you when you are alone.” But the traveling body is not alone. Our companion––witness––is Vargas. The existential solitude we encounter productively renders an association that spreads “a lo loco” and urges us to find our own language. Vargas’s visual grammar, if not itinerant marks––migrant footnotes, we might as well call them––come to us, as Santiago prompts, in “Inglesñol, Mexicali Esperanto, Bodega-bonics, Chipotle-chat, the Queen’s Pocho, La Raza 2.0, Casteyanqui, Illegalese, or Spic-speak.”
From Dora Márquez’s animated world of exploratory “Latin” travel and corporate offerings of cultural lineage to the violence of Western exclusion––evinced through his appropriation of the term “ICE” as a bilingual commentary on the much dreaded acronym post-911, a potent sign for our own manufactured ice age, our post-Cold War period of mass deportations––Vargas’s compositions remind us of the circuitous routes that dreams are made of. Soñar es gratis, a well-worn Spanish saying goes, though Vargas interrupts this colloquial flow by inviting critical reflection on how certain fantasies have been inherited, recycled, and by whom. The world of signification seemingly belongs to contemporary viral culture, but it is how we rethink, recreate, and re-represent ourselves that matters. Recall, for instance, Vargas’s pink house (cf., “A Handle on the Past” and “Cicatriz”). In the 1980s, John Mellencamp immortalized little pink houses for Middle America. Contrary to what his lyrics intended, however, these structures were not for you and me, even as MTV democratized access to this version of the American Dream by giving away one literal pink house, in 1984, as part of that network’s Party House Contest. And yet Vargas incisively revisits our popular cultural canon––broadening, in this process, the meanings of standard renditions of U.S. Americanness. Vargas’s creative knowledge––what Charles Johnson designates as “Aleph consciousness,” a Borgean-influenced space necessitating an expansive vision––thus takes to task José Martí’s call, more than a century ago, that those from the Americas need to name and industriously work toward the hemisphere’s own reference points. “Create is this generation’s password,” he announced in his monumental essay, “Nuestra América,” directing those from the Hispanophone world to turn inward in the development of an Americas-based discourse. The idea of––and the people who comprise––the U.S.-centered term America expands, underscoring the following point by historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto that “the more inclusive we make the name America, the frailer its unity becomes; the valid generalizations diminish, the anomalies multiply.”
With Vargas’s optic, the pejorative wetback is soaked not so much from the transgressive act of crossing the Rio Grande. Rather, the wetback is covered with metaphorical and material wetness precisely because of the continuous labor such a classed and racialized body must perform for recognition as well as to simply be present. Present, grateful, and hopeful, as ever, Vargas’s vision of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is constitutive of human existence and dreams. Sacred places and other worlds are a resource for our innermost selves, healing powers amidst what Carlos Vélez Ibáñez has called the “distribution of sadness.” How do we live, how do we dream, and can we believe, are questions that this body of work provocatively incites. The dialogue between the artist and his public extends, for one is compelled to briefly transfer from Vargas’s paintings to the charting of one’s self. His work alluringly inquires: what is your story? Note that story here drifts into history, becoming what Michaeline Crichlow and Patricia Northover keenly call “hi/stories.” This is to say human identification stories carving out new relations and thereby spoiling––tearing––identification papers and definitions. In this way, Vargas encourages us, like poet and playwright Pedro Pietri, to bring our histories out of focus, away from “the indestructible verbal forest of lost revelations recovered recalling the magic of a darkness so great that equality prevails.”

Boundaries of Un/Belonging