Angel Vergara

Angel Vergara, What happens

This exhibition by Vergara is part of a series made for his solo exhibition at MACS Grand-Hornu in 2023 titled Dans l'instant. Conceptually, it’s a continuation of a project he started in 2020 during the preparation of Manifesta 13 in Marseille where he worked with a group of visually impaired children. Together, they created paintings and drawings that became the canvases for different performances in the streets of Marseille and the painting series, Les Belles Idées reçues. From this series from 2021, one painting titled Les Belles Idées reçues (sans titre), jaune can be found in this exhibition. While the participatory element has always been present in his oeuvre, concrete workshops and collaborations would again be an important component in creating the solo exhibition at MACS Grand-Hornu, this time with visually impaired children from Mons.

While the starting point and title refer to Les Belles Idées reçues, the seven paintings presented in this exhibition further examine the relationship between the artist and the outside world, proof of a self-awareness that was been the driving force behind Vergara’s practice. A crucial element in this is Straatman (Dutch for “man of the street”). The outset of each canvas is taking it out to the street to be worked on. Vergara does so covered in a white sheet, which, paradoxically, diminishes his senses: light still passes through, but forms and shapes are reduced to a minimum, making the artist rely on sounds, sensations, and smells to capture what’s going on around him. Straatman made his first appearance during the Venice Biennial in 1988. Belgium was represented that year by Guillaume Bijl, and in front of the Belgian pavilion, Vergara set up camp in his nomadic studio formed by Straatman’s white sheet. It is above all a place to paint that allows the artist to relate to his surroundings.

Straatman often makes for an absurd-looking scene. The painter, unrecognisable beneath his sheet in the street, is vividly working the canvas while passersby are looking, wondering what’s happening, sometimes interacting with the situation. Vergara isn’t prone to using the word “performance” to describe these acts of painting. They are more like happenings: unannounced, existing in the here and now, capturing a temporality. What happens seems incomplete as a title, an adverb is missing. One appears to want to finish it: What happens next, here, now? It speaks to the importance of the moment and how it relates to the past and the future. An open end to an open script.

Vergara’s canvases read like an impossible-to-decipher mind map: shreds of time, fragments of places, and impressions are scattered to create an abstract landscape interconnected by swift lines and markings. All elements of a three-dimensional world are folded open and flattened. In doing so, Vergara does not subscribe to the idea of fences as described by Allan Kaprow in Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life (1993):

Most humans, it seems, still put up fences around their acts and thoughts – even when these are piles of shit – for they have no other way of delimiting them. Contrast Paleolithic cave paintings, in which animals and magical markings are overlayed with no differentiation or sense of framing. But when some of us have worked in natural settings, say in a meadow, woods, or mountain range, our cultural training has been so deeply ingrained that we have simply carried a mental rectangle with us to drop around whatever we were doing. This made us feel at home.

Straatman is always on the move, and thus, he has no home. By positioning himself in the ever-changing public space, he avoids the zone of comfort that allows for mental barriers to be built. This results in an artform that’s purer and closer to an understanding of the human condition. When considering two distinct modes of human activity—action and fabrication—as described by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition (1958), Straatman, even though a happening with a physical outcome, can be tied closer to action: “Action, as distinguished from fabrication, is never possible in isolation; to be isolated is to be deprived of the capacity to act.”

These works would be impossible to create inside of the safe confinement of the studio walls alone. Even though the canvases are afterwards reworked in Vergara’s atelier, it’s the initial moment of inception that marks their shape and form and creates meaningful and spontaneous exchange. It even goes a step further, in that the paintings of Vergara manage to transform the cosmopolitan environment of the city landscapes of Brussels back to an essential, more natural configuration. Although abstract, they capture our unconscious understanding of our everyday surroundings on a direct, human level.

Artists: Angel Vergara

Also happening at Angel Vergara, What happens