I keep feeling we’re going farther than we’re going, a journey that started in the deep inkwell out of which all our days are written. Nothing is said to indicate a monument, yet I perch on the edge of some new light.
—Naomi Shihab Nye
You are standing in a shrine. Not a church, mind you. A church is a space which—although hallowed by a spiritual presence—is customarily impersonal in its general appeal to embrace a certain universality in its mission to encompass both the secular and the divine.
Rather, a shrine—as Kathy Vargas will remind you, with a clear voice somewhere between whisper and song, and a vision that is at once personal and universal. For a shrine, by its very design and intent, is the personal structure of the individual or family, seeking to encompass ritual and memory in one’s day-to-day life. It derives as much from life experience as it does from an unyielding faith in the light which lies beyond the boundaries of our mere mortality.
The clouds that gather round the setting sun do take a sober colouring from an eye that hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality.
It is important to remember that Vargas’s early experiences with photography came through her family—primarily studying and hand-coloring her uncle’s commercial photographs, an experiential step which goes far beyond most children’s customary activities of snapshooting with the family’s instant camera and glancing through the resulting mass-produced prints. With her total understanding of both photography’s potential “reality” and its subsequently boundless creativity, Vargas has emerged over the last two decades as one of this medium’s most eloquent and imaginative spirits. The true artists of our day are those like Vargas who speed beyond our mere conventional categories—e.g. woman photographer, Latina artist, montagist, activist, etc.—and establish a clarity of vision and voice which are one with the potentials of the medium.
Hence, this shrine—working through the media, through the heart, through life and death themselves—is meant for us all.
At first it may seem odd to have Artpace hand over a major installation space to a photographer. After all, are not photographs rather physically regimented, two-dimensional prints that are meant to be framed identically and spaced at regular intervals around a uniform gallery? Certainly conventional experience and historical tradition have inured us to such a public presentation.
For Kathy Vargas, however, such a previously accepted condition is only a fundamental challenge to be grown through and built upon. For States of Grace, with its dimensionality, variety, elemental forces, and vast range of materials (including photographs, pedestals, hangings, thorns, kites, and colors), becomes the organic shrine through which we are all engaged in experiencing our lives, engaging our mortality, and going for the light that promises to embrace us all. The installation of the artist—arranged in near mystical conjunctivism with Ric Collier—is inspirational in its intention to call upon us all to understand our individual life journeys.
Say it’s a sin
Sinners and angels in boxes of tin
Painted in colors of wind earth and sky
Kissing I love you
Besa te quiero
Luego se va
Consider, for example, the central element of the space—Broken Column: Mother—which centers upon the shrine’s basic heart and celebrates Vargas’s mother, Suzie Vargas, who passed away last year. Besides the sadness which always comes with the loss of one so close, Vargas counterbalances loss with the joy she found in her mother’s eyes and face at that time of passage. The entire piece ascends, from the thorns of life’s passions and the attendance of two angels of earlier friends of the artist already gone ahead, to lift us and the space to the heights that only a shrine may hope attain.
The hard truths, small mercies, and ever-arising hopes of this journey through our mortal coil are to be found throughout the other elements of the installation. Thus, earlier works from her series, Hasta ya no verte/Hasta verte otra vez, are reworked and reappear as we experience the comings and goings of friends, family, lovers, and self that populate all our lives. Assemblages of elements such as Miracle Lives bind artist and viewer alike, by the thread of blood and the rhythms of breathing out and in, into those experiences of living for and with others that so enrich our own selves and experiences. The elementals that form all the alchemy and mysteries of life—land, water, fire, air, and, of course, light itself—are represented and symbolized herein. And they are all reconfirmed in the ascendancy of her Kite Prayer Wall which again carries both through and beyond.
Perhaps Kathy Vargas’s most enduring gift is her willingness to share with us all that most basic attempt to understand the absolutes of light. As we journey through life we come to appreciate once more those universal questions that we all must not ignore. All nations and all histories of humankind—presaged in our journey through this space and through Vargas’s art—do not fear to address such absolutes as family, culture, religion, society, and the puzzle of life itself. The lessons that Suzie Vargas taught her daughter continue to be taught to us as well.
In fact, it is those absolutes of Truth and Light which all photographers and historians of the medium always strive to understand. We never attain them, of course—although a rare few like Vargas brings us close—but they remain our challenges and, in the end, it is that process which makes us all stronger and less vulnerable, as we all continue to go for the light.
Roy Flukinger is Senior Curator of Photography and Film at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.