TV Assaults Izel Vargas, Film at 11
William Anthony Nericcio
SDSU, San Diego State University
1. THE LEAD
Izel Vargas has been molested by a television; comics have assaulted him, leaving their inky trace on everything he touches. There’s more: he is a victim of the nefarious workings of xicanosmosis, born between and within the borders of the United States and Mexico, his work shouts of the alchemical magic to be found within and without these bizarre cultural spaces. You look at a work like “Valley Girls Make Me Cry” or a piece like “Things Can Only Go Wrong” and the you can just hear the smarmy gringa/o art historian in the crowd (dub Thurston Howell’s accent from Gilligan’s Island here): “Ahem, ‘smick-smock,’ of course we see the influence of Roy Lichtenstein here.” And said insufferable Art Historian, would be right—but there’s more.
Where Lichtenstein’s comic book inspired paintings evoked a hyper-perfect, hyper-stylized dimension of control and measured cadences, Vargas’s world is much more ephemeral, much more haunted and haunting. Izel Vargas is like some victim of semiotic abuse, the contours of the border have traced his psyche with bizarre hieroglyphs so that when they emerge from his hand onto the canvas, his ciphered scribblings bring back odd voices from the otherside.
Let’s revise the lead here: Vargas Abducted by Aliens (“Illegal,” extra-terrestrial, take your pick). But instead of probing his organs or dissecting his brain, they’ve plunged a syringe into his eyes and like other artists similarly assaulted (Van Gogh comes to mind, Diane Arbus as well), they will never be the same.
You may have seen a film called Poltergeist (1982) back in the day—if you have not, it features an eerie scene where a serene, pretty blonde girl is sucked up into an otherworld, a netherworld on the other side of a T.V. screen (more recently in fiction, Haruki Murakami has treated with this in After Dark).
Izel Vargas, too, has been to these same lands, like some kind of Alicia in Wonderlandia, he has imbibed from strange bottles and fallen down strange orifices (flash your synapses with some shots from Being John Malkovich here, Spike Jonze’s brilliant Borgesian epic) and come back to our world bowdlerized, discombobulated. In this regard his Dora the Explorer fetish is revealed as an exercise in self-portraiture. When she appears in his work, amputated or re-imagined with anime-eyes, she is Izel, wounded, marked, abused, and alive. And like Izel, she is “Mexican,” with the scare quotes, with the scary scare quotes “”—here punctuation works like a scar or a tattoo showing that even living, sentient beings can be touched forever by their facsimiles on the screen, their simulacra in the pages of a comic book and more.
Amputated eyes, signs that reveal the touch of semiotic pathology, emerge as a motif in Vargas’ oeuvre.
ii. BORDERING FRAMES
I grew up entranced by Warner Brothers cartoons on Saturday mornings in Laredo, Texas; I grew up again with Lorenzo and Sophia, my two children, watching Dora the Explorer, Sponge Bob Squarepants, and the Powerpuff Girls.
I also grew up on the border. So I see things that others may not see and as a critic, I am paid to share the substance of my sightings.
When I look at the uncanny, provocative, comic, violent canvases touched by the eyes and hands of Izel Vargas, the superficial and subterranean workings of Mexican-American border come to life; all the players are there: Jesus, Taco-trucks, La Migra (the border patrol), Santos (saints), los fonnies (comics), elados (popsickles) are all there, clear and recognizable. But they are deformed, deranged, re-visioned, re-purposed, damaged, and perverse.
Izel Vargas canvases come from an othered world, our own and not our own—something more and something else.
Children’s dreams become nightmare and la frontera de la Americas echo round the chambers of our eyes as if retrieved from Edgar Allen Poe and channeled through the corridors of Remedios Varo.
Izel Vargas has been molested by a television; and somehow, we are all the better for it.