Vargas-Suarez Universal: Stardust

by Donald Goddard


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Stardust
Stardust, 2002

Wall drawing with enamel and blood/Júgermeister
31.5" x 31.9".
Murals define a place; they are the place, in the same sense that stained glass windows and architectural sculptures are the places for which they were made. The Parthenon has been stripped of its sculpture, but it is the only place that those figures in the British Museum fit. They inhabit those spaces, even 3169 kilometers away; they were calculated into them. Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel is not a depiction of the Last Judgment--it is the Last Judgment, and if you were in that place it would make no sense not to believe that, simply because the building is good for nothing else except the business of what the mural represents.

Easel paintings are something different, divorced from structure, what Marx might have referred to as alienated objects. They hang in museums, galleries, and homes along with other such objects, where they have, primarily, a kind of trophy existence. Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel is not a depiction of the Last Judgment--it is the Last Judgment, and if you were in that place it would make no sense not to believe that, simply because the building is good for nothing else except the business of what the mural represents. Easel paintings are something different, divorced from structure, what Marx might have referred to as alienated objects. They hang in museums, galleries, and homes along with other such objects, where they have, primarily, a kind of trophy existence.

Jackson Pollock, even more than other soon-to-be Abstract Expressionists, knew something about murals, as a student of Thomas Hart Benton in 1932 and later, as a witness to Diego Rivera working at Rockefeller Center in 1933, and an eager advocate of the other Mexican muralists, David Alfaro Siqueiros, with whom he studied and politically demonstrated, and José Clemente Orozco. Pollock produced his own Mural on canvas in 1943-44 for Peggy Guggenheim's 61st Street townhouse, a strange setting, perhaps, for such ambition, and large-scale canvases became the ideological setting, at least, for American abstract painting. Still, these big paintings remained rectangles hanging on a wall--not the wall itself--without a larger public program. Skyscrapers, corporate headquarters, townhouses, and then museums, had their own programs--of accumulation.


Stardust Fleet
Stardust: Fleet, 2002
Wall drawing with enamel and blood/Júgermeister
11' X 25' East wall (right)

Paradoxically, Vargas-Suarez's murals are made for museums and galleries. It is possible, I suppose, to ignore them, as one might ignore any work of art, to walk into the space, glance around, head, in this case, for the desk at the end, then walk out. The program is obscure, not like the concatenation of politics and history, oppression and privilege in Rivera's mural for the Rockefellers (destroyed by them in 1934, then resurrected and expanded upon by the artist for the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City), or the narrative of immigration celebrated in Reginald Marsh's murals for the Custom House at Bowling Green (in the 1920s), also in New York City. It is only after studying the Stardust murals for a while that their appropriation of the space becomes apparent, and complete. And this completeness is enforced by the very fact that the murals are temporary, that they exist in a space that is temporal, their very nature is definitional, and they are suspended between the time they are put down by the artist and the time they are examined by the viewer. Between these two points they contain, encode, memory, like computer programs and other dematerialized (cosmic?) systems. These murals suit the transparent, interchangeable, anonymous modern architecture for which they are made, just as stained glass suited medieval churches.

The world--the cosmos--or rather human experience of them, is understood as a series of systems, not definitively, but suggestively. Vargas-Suarez's sources are flat--pages from books, architectural plans, cyber programs--perhaps a further or final expression of flatness in modern painting, diagrams of the structure of things. One mural, extending from the north end wall through the long east wall to the short south end wall, links elaborated plans of the Tate Modern and Fleet Bank in London and the Kuala Lumpur Airport, moving from the strict, tightly woven horizontals and verticals of the first (representing art), into the layered, extended diagonals of the second (representing money) through the more organic and stretched-out shapes of the last (representing, movement, flight, space). But there are also reminiscences of, and perhaps references to, Rivera's Rockefeller mural in the Kuala Lumpur section, with its expanding propeller shapes and interlocking segments, as though the extraordinary complications of human thought and planning represented by the architectural diagrams also held within them the history of human struggle for justice and meaning. The work is subversive. It contains more and does more than it appears to, historically and emotionally, just as a motor, in its formal arrangement of intersecting parts reveals nothing of its function.

Extending from each segment of the drawing, into the surrounding blackness, are long thin probes, like the tentacles of a large insect, so that the entire mural image seems like an enormous, single organism making its way through space. All of these human concourses--the museum, the bank, the airport--are connected, tenuously but inevitably, so that it is possible to make some general sense of the whole, but not to discover how it really functions. Even more does the mural along the west wall, Deep Field, appear to be a single organism. The drawing is improvised, based on smaller drawings. There are no specifics of place, and yet one finds oneself moving around every inch of it, as though it were familiar and might reveal something significant. It appears as a map, sometimes literally with coastlines, as grids of streets, as waves of thought, as lakes and rivers and repeated patterns of design. Some lines can be followed for great distances but then end in a confusion of different directions. And yet, like the architectural plans and scientific diagrams from books, all of this pre-existed. It is a given, however eccentric it might be. So when it appears, the artist has drawn it, it is meant to be there; it is the mural that defines the place. Eventually, one would like to know everything that is there and whether there is a logic, but it is not possible. The connections that are made are with the artist's blood, thick arcs of blood drawn between areas of black, not the black that surrounds the whole, but the blacks within the image.

Donald Goddard © 2002


Stardust Tate
Stardust: Tate, 2002
Wall drawing with enamel and blood/Júgermeister
12' x 15' East wall (center)

The exhibition remains through October 26, 2002, at Thomas Erben Gallery, New York, NY.

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