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Composing Murals: an interview with artist Vargas-Suarez Universal

Published on
October 11

Artist Vargas-Suarez Universal talks with The Arts Initiative about his site-specific wall drawing Vector Composition No. 1. Commissioned by Miller Theater at Columbia University in collaboration with The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, it marks the first collaborative project between Columbia's two major artistic presenting spaces.


Vargas-Suarez Universal installing at the Miller Theatre. Photo by Gerald Sampson.


Your installation is transforming the theater's lobby. What is the artwork about?

I am very influenced in my studio practice by music, I love music in general, but I had never directly referenced music in my work before. This is the first time that I am composing a mural based on musical notations. Vector Composition No 1 is a visual reference to the idea of a composer sitting down with pen and paper and composing a musical structure. When I started thinking about this project I thought about this idea of writing music. The type of drawing that I do is an automatic-vector-based geometry and when I see musical notation I see it as as a very similar kind of writing, like an abstract code, so I wanted to reference those concepts in this installation. Miller Theater saw a connection between the abstract nature of my work and the music they are programming now and later in the spring from composers such as Georg Friedrich Haas and John Cage. To me it makes sense and I agree with that connection. I am lucky when that happens.

As a visual artist, what has been your experience working with music?

My experience hasn’t been so much with music but more with sound: the sounds of nature, of scientific phenomenon. Vibration and sound are really interruptions of air pressure, so I have worked a little bit with these scientific concepts of sound. Most recently I am collaborating with a composer named Stephen Barber who is helping me make paintings that vibrate using subsonic frequencies like those used by whales and dolphins. These sounds waves cannot be heard by humans but you can feel them. So we are trying to develop sounds, again not music per se, that make paintings and artworks vibrate so they have their own energy.  Barber has asked me if he could look at this installation, at The Miller, to start talking about the idea of arranging my drawings into sounds and designate a musical composition to it, maybe, we will see.

Where the intriguing geometrical shapes come from? 

One of the first moments I started drawing this way came from when I was looking at microchip architecture. My interests in architecture, from churches to pyramids and temples, led me to the architecture of microchips. I was fascinated by the idea of something mathematical and technically very complex in such a small space. You can build very big things that are simple and you can make very complex things that are small. I was looking a lot of pictures of microchips that started to look like big cities, buildings, and I got fascinated by this type of geometry and thought, why not start to make my own version of that.


What is your creative process?

It’s partially an improvisation. I have learned that the faster the murals happen the better it all looks. If I take too much time or there is any hesitation or too many pauses, my work doesn’t look smooth. When all these geometry happen very quickly, there is just a natural flow. I have paintings in the studio that takes me months and I see a lot of problems in those paintings. This drawing of the installation at the Miller Theater took me one-day from noon to 6pm. The other part of the process is that for me is external and is about sharing. One of the benefits of murals is that you get to share these things in different places, with different people, and everybody gets to enjoy some part of it. The murals are not just for me to enjoy making. I feel like everyone is invited to enjoy any part of it as they wish.


What are the particulars of working in a site-specific installation?

It is different in each place. Usually if the space is in a gallery or a museum it is very simple procedure to understand the space but sometimes there are spaces that are more public say here a theater, or it could be a hospital, or an outdoor space. Those spaces challenge you, they present problems and you have to find the best solutions. In general, I feel very comfortable working in large-scale spaces. I think it has to do with my understanding of architectural space, and that comes from a long interest in architecture. I think that most of my work lends itself to expansion into a space. Some processes are very different and are about the materials. For instance, in 2008 curator Dr. Kate Bonansinga from the Rubin Center for Visual Art (UTEP) in El Paso, TX was researching how artists deal with border issues, and asked me if I was interested in creating an artwork that somehow would incorporate that. At that time I was looking at 360-panoramic images of Mars and thinking that it looked like any desert in southwestern United States. I went online and started looking at pictures of the Chihuahua desert partially in Southwestern Texas and they both looked pretty much the same. I wanted to make a big panoramic mural of the Martian desert and I used mud from the Rio Grande that has a lot of red clay, iron oxide and a little bit of copper. I went to El Paso and literally got in the river and dug out the mud while there were border patrol agents and people crossing the border illegally, very strange. It was a very special project because it raised issues that maybe our borders are not just political barriers but also can mental barriers. The border I was referring to was planetary not just socio-political, or local. 


Now that you mention other planets, what is the influence of Astronomy in your work?

I was raised in Clear Lake, a suburb of Houston, TX where the Johnson Space Center of NASA is located. I literally grew up with children of astronauts, and people that went to the moon. I ended up studying astronomy in college because it’s what I wanted my artwork to be about. If you ask me how this has influenced my work, it is what my work is about. More recently the work based on space program operations from USA, Russian, European, Canadian and Japanese space agencies. For instance, in the studio we are projecting live images of the earth from the camera broadcasts on astronaut’s helmets, robotic cranes, and rocket cams, etc. In space, astronauts go around the earth once every 90 minutes so they see a lot of sunsets and sun rises in a 24 hour period. From a visual perspective I am very interested in trying to capture these type of atmospheric and changes of light and color that looks like a contemporary version of impressionism into art works, paintings, and mural installations.