Keep Your Faith

There are lots of sexy angel ladies and slabs of cartoonish meat in Richard Vargas' "Large." There're lots of everything, actually: Vargas is positively profligate with his symbolism, passing it out like a cheerleader on prom night. His canvases are dizzy with painted-over photo transfers of skulls, chalices, fish, crowns of thorns and other stuff. And almost every one of the 30 or so works deals with faith (see? That's the fish!) or the lack of it. Or the striving for it. Search me, really. The code to the symbols is easily cracked for a Catholic, but the intent—sarcasm? pain? dismissal? longing?—is a mystery.

The spacious room holding his exhibit in Santa Ana's Empire Building was once a dance studio; now, scattered rows of theater seats line themselves before the walls like benches at the Met. One could spend a lot of time with Vargas' paintings. But trying to interpret said paintings would be about as productive as trying to make sense of what comes out of Supervisor Jim Silva's mouth. They're not essays, easily understood and digested; they're stews of pictures that sometimes clash with one another. And even when you think you've got it sussed, you take a look at Vargas himself and decide you must be wrong. He looks peaceful, not dark; jovial, not raging.

The works are roughly grouped by influences. On some walls, Vargas employs primitive Aztec slatherings of ocher like Francisco Toledo's. In others, he's Dali or Magritte (especially the portrait of the guy with a box for his head), painstakingly realizing realist surrealism. Sometimes, he's Emigdio Vasquez—the gruff old Orange painter whose portraits of the common man Vargas used to see when he was a child. In one, he's Vermeer.

When Earth Listens is a long rectangle, with evil hummingbirds bathed in a satanic red light. At the left, a girl in a nightie has mean, fleshy lips and slutty eyeliner. But though she first looks cruel, soon it just looks as though Vargas has unflatteringly aged her, like Emigdio or F. Scott Hess, warping her wicked brows and highlighting her nose.

On that same wall, works in Dali blue follow. Arid landscapes provide distant backgrounds for wounded women. In Shambles of Lies, a gagged woman standing in a darkened wheat field looks over her shoulder like Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring. In another, a rosary flies overhead, echoing the lines of a far-off mountain range, as a woman stoically endures her crown of thorns.

Titles are an afterthought for Vargas. He has to consult a book to remember what he named each one—and sometimes they're kind of corny. Sparkle of Mystery, for instance, is a really bad title better suited for Dungeons and Dragons geeks, but the piece is a fun bit of evolutionary shtick. There are sparkles—magic sparkles!—and fierce simians straight from Planet of the Apes.

Vargas pelts us with symbols: one painting alone has a pope, a steak, three monkeys, a hatchet, a fish, an Indian and a ship. (The steak is man for those playing at home: Man equals Meat.) But Vargas' popes are always faceless, blackened skulls, and his crosses are invariably upside-down and aflame. People who are neither agnostic nor atheistic but apathetic when it comes to religion don't generally drench themselves in such symbolism (with the possible exception of Patssi Valdez, who paints herself as the Madonna because she "really likes the style"); one has to be either fervent in one's faith or really pissed off by someone else's. But Vargas doesn't seem a pissy, moaning ex-Catholic. So what to make of the grinning pope skulls and the fact that every woman seems ready to weep?

I don't want to believe Vargas has lost his faith, though that's what I make of the exhibit. I want his faith to reawaken mine, to remind me it's possible to believe. But it won't happen this time.

"Large" at Richard Vargas Studio, 204 N. Broadway, Ste. C, Santa Ana, (714) 541-9946. Through Mon. Open by appt. only. Free.


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