Vargas: First, thank you for having me. I was born in McAllen at the infamous haunted hospital that was torn down some time ago. When I was a kid my cousins and I had to find things to do in and around Alamo to keep ourselves out of trouble. So when I think of childhood, I think of baseball. That movie ‘The Sandlot,’ yeah, that was us.
TAOB:Describe your art and tell us your meaning of the word "POCHOLANDIA" ?
Vargas: The foundation for the work I do is based on border politics and the border region itself. As a fronterizo in exile, I often gravitate towards the things that remind me of home. My art allows me to pay homage to home as well as simultaneously address issues relevant to Latinidad in the South/Southeast. Sometimes its about me, sometimes its about random things, but it has always been rooted as being about ‘place’ – wherever that place may be at the time (this explanation, by the way, is just the short version).
Pocholandia was something I was playing with when I was working on my thesis. I thought I could come up with something other than ‘Rio Grande Valley’ that was all at once funny, proud, and self-deprecating. To me it’s the equivalent of saying Tex- Mex, Mexican- American, or Tejano (a liminal identity, is what I’m getting at). Some dig it, some don’t… you can’t please everyone.
TAOB: Other than the Valley where else would you live and why ?
Vargas: I’d like to hop around. To be honest, I don’t have a specific place I want to be…wherever I am at that moment will do.
TAOB: Why do you think art is important and how do you feel your art contributes to that purpose ?
Vargas: Art is important for so many reasons, none of which I will get into right now because Google-ing “Art is important because” instead would probably give you a much better response. Does my art contribute to that purpose? Maybe. I wouldn’t worry about it too much.
TAOB: As a visual artist do you think there is opportunity here in the valley of becoming successful, why or why not ?
Vargas: I’ll say this, art opportunities in the Valley are extremely limited. Thats changing, at a snail’s pace, but I remain optimistic. I can go off on a rant but I’d rather not. All I do know is change is happening- that is evident every time I come home. Success is subjective.
TAOB: Tell us about your education: what schools did you attend and were there any struggles, and perhaps what would you change or do different ?
Vargas: I attended STCC and studied with some great teachers, among them Ed Garcia Richard Smith, Monica (Bitchin’) Camero, and Becky Jones. Moved on to UT- Pan American and worked primarily with Lenard Brown. Brown definitely kicked my ass into shape and got me to take art more seriously. Anyone that worked with Lenard definitely knows what I’m talking about. Back then I was still unsure that it was what I wanted to do as a career, but ultimately I chose to do so. After graduating with my BFA, I worked on my portfolio alongside Chris ‘Leonardski’ Leonard in a studio/storage unit we shared outside of Pharr. In that time I met Paul Valadez and he recommended me to the University of North Carolina. I worked with many great artists and teachers there. With our visiting lecturers I met even more established artists. Soon after earning my Master’s I was selected to be part of an MFA exhibition in Washington D.C. at Irvine Contemporary. I later earned gallery representation with the space. Were there struggles? Oh yes indeed. Was there anything I’d do different? Nope. I’ve met so many great people, friends, artists, and collectors just because of the timing alone.
TAOB: What is one of the struggles you think a local artist of the valley faces on a daily basis ?
Vargas: Ahh, The Struggle. I think that Valley ‘artists’ struggle because they don’t make the effort to change things for themselves. If they did, even a little, it could potentially influence someone else to do something as well. There aren’t enough people who take art seriously in the Valley because these so- called artists don’t step up. No one’s going to give it to them, they themselves have to make it happen. Stop believing that someone is keeping you down, its all on you. If you’re serious about your art, you’ll make it happen for yourself and not just comfortably sit around hoping someone will show you the way.
TAOB: Some of your work resembles in style the spaintings of Rene Garza (ahora y Siempre-Now and Forever) and some of Cande's work (Forge 2006), tell us is there an influence of there works in your art ?
Vargas: Nope. I’m sure they have reasons for their decisions on how they go about making their works, as I have mine. I agree, stylistically there are some similarities, but then again we are from the same place, so I’m sure we have similar sensibilities in those regards. My decisions are informed by situations that have taken place in my immediate surroundings. You mention “ahora y siempre,” an ongoing project piece that addresses the lonchera (taco truck) wars of the (New) South. Upon arriving in North Carolina, as my culture shock set in, loncheras and taquerias became more than just eateries to me, but spaces of familiarity. Somewhere I could go and feel something similar to home (even if the prices were inflated and the tortillas sucked!). They became sites of the new borderland, where Latinidad met Americana, much like back home, just not as synthesized. And with difference came conflict; much of the work I do is based on that conflict.
TAOB: As an artist what can you say you are afraid of?
Vargas: I would say self doubt. The nightly battles with self doubt really can take their toll on someone. Its damn hard enough to do what you take seriously only to find that you’re the one stopping yourself from progressing. I’m also afraid of spiders.
TAOB:Tell us your view on any particular political issue local, state or federal, that is of importance to you?
Vargas: There are a million things that I could go off on, but mainly I’m glad Bush is out and Obama is in.
TAOB: In your opinion from the following list what would you say we need more and which one do we need less of and why: internet websites featuring artist, art critics, art collectors, better classes for high school art teachers, or more venues for artist ?
Vargas: I’ll respond in that order:
Websites- Sure. A weekly half hour TV show that focuses on all arts would be better. Not just Valley art, but art from everywhere. It could be shot on Tim’s Terrace for all I care, just do it already! A Festiva that covers a full week instead of the weekend is also long overdue. If its going to be a website, PLEASE pay someone to maintain it and update it weekly. I’m glad things like the Artwalk have grown, but its still very insulated. We tend to recycle local art and artists in these spaces every month. Sometimes, you can go see the same artist every month at the same place! ¡Que horor! There should be national and international calls for art to bring more flavor to the Valley. Gallerists have to drop their egos and allow guest curators a shot at the wheel.
After reading the “Knock- off City” article in the current issue of South Texas Nation, I was happy to see that McAllen was finally being called out, but sad to see that the situation had come to this. Hopefully more people read that article and start to do something about it.
Art critics – we need scholars, real critics, knowledgeable experts, historians, curators, REAL collectors (not nickel and dimers), SANE museum directors (background checks would be nice), gallerists, and galleries. Why do we need it? To create and foster a new dialogue with the artist and to finally put to rest the ‘señoritas and still lifes’ format we know all too well in the Valley. We need them to talk about and document the unique voice the Valley has. The phrase “Tex-Mex” originated here, that’s got to stand for something. If we can grow our own artists, then we can grow our own scholars/critics who will educate themselves and make the Valley their primary focus.
Unfortunately, we have more restaurants and bars opening than anything else at the moment. Don’t get me wrong, I know that there have been significant steps in the art scene. I’m glad to see one or two independent galleries pop up, but there needs to be more. Folks need to harness that momentum and keep moving forward.
Art Collectors- oh yea. Sometimes I think people go to exhibitions and think they’re at a pulga and will try and talk you into just giving the damn thing away. Carlos Gomez brought up the point in a past issue of the South Texas Nation (well said too), but I fear its something that’s just going to be for a long while. One has to take into consideration the economy of the Valley. The average income for a home there is still extremely low, still one of the lowest in the nation. It shouldn’t be surprising that art isn’t the first thing people are thinking about when they have any kind of money. And the situation with the economic crisis we’re all going through now, olvídate.
Better classes for high school teachers- my friend Jerry would say “Yes please.” Lots of kids grow up thinking art is for playtime. That’s part of the reason why so few take art seriously in the Valley. More attention should be given to up and coming high school art. There are lots of talented kids coming up. It doesn’t have to end there. Artists should go to their local Boys and Girls Clubs and teach a few classes as well. I’d like to see a mural program pop up sometime—that’s community, culture, and art all wrapped into one.
More venues for artists- hell yes. I’m proud to see that there have been more venues popping up and more people attending the artwalk, but the Valley needs more. McAllen can be the jump off…the other bigger Valley cities can also showcase their locals. Some downtown buildings should be renovated and made into affordable artist studios. A residency program could be a good thing too. I’m sure the City would/could foot the bill if it was spun the right way (this is from judging how they’re currently spending the so called ‘arts’ budget).
TAOB: Tell us about your family what do they say about your art?
Vargas: My family is pretty cool. They have been very supportive of me even though I sometimes think they thought I was crazy when I decided to make Art my career. Its had its ups and its downs, but they’ve always been there for me. I can safely say that it was my family that got me to where I’m at. If I’ve had any luck with my career, my abuelita can take the credit because of the endless number of veladoras she’s lit. It always a hard thing for me to visit the Valley because its always going to be difficult leaving again. I can’t say for sure what they say about my work, but they know me better than anyone so if I’m having a good time, they are too.
Thank you for your questions The Art of Brownsville.
"Izel Vargas, thank you for your time and support, your responses are truly appriciated." gt