Week Fifty Two

Bart Vargas, One Man’s Trash, Bemis Underground

Posted in 2007 Archives by sarahbakerhansen on 7 February 2007



By Sarah Baker

For Bart Vargas, the future lies inside a big, computer-key covered egg. At least that’s how he answered a little girl who asked him the most obvious question that comes to mind when looking at his large-scale work, “Nest,” the first piece that viewers see when entering his show, One Man’s Trash, at the Bemis Underground.

“She asked me what was inside the egg sitting in the nest and I paused for a minute,” he said. “I told her, ‘The future is in that egg.’ I don’t know if she got it, but she seemed satisfied.”

It’s an appropriate sentiment — viewers may not “get” all the work in Vargas’ show, but visually, they’ll more than likely leave satisfied.

In a way, the show is a survey of the work Vargas has done during the past few years. He focuses on a few key types: paintings, sculptural spheres, installations and his newest edition, dolls. He threw a few wild card elements into the show, which were the highlights for this viewer.

“Nest” is just what it sounds like — a giant nest of coiled keyboards, cordless phones, cables, wires and other old electronic junk that Vargas spent more than three years collecting. In the center sits a huge egg covered with discarded keyboard keys all in a muted shade of grayish white.

Vargas, who has been labeled an “eco-artist” and environmentalist, said his art doesn’t come from such lofty places. As a student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, he was short on money and long on ideas, so he started dumpster diving, realizing that he could find just about anything he wanted in other people’s garbage.

“It didn’t start out to be noble,” he said, “It started out because it was economical.”
His honesty is refreshing, and his straightforward process makes his work easy to approach.

Sphere sculptures are scattered throughout the gallery and all have the same basic internal construction of chicken wire, inflatable toys and plastic soda bottles, Vargas said. One of his earliest works, called “The Sphere of Education,” looks like a basketball and is covered with soda bottles turned upside down, revealing the names of universities underneath. Another is made of socks, and a third has a shiny gold finish studded with staples. Newer spheres, “Nest Egg I” and “Nest Egg II,” have morphed into egg-like shapes and are covered with money photocopied in the negative.

The wall pieces come in a few different forms; some are woven pieces made of materials like sliced paintings, strips of fabric or nylon, and other found materials, like measuring tape. The majority, though, are paintings cut into multi-sided shapes and covered with repeating patterns of stars and circles, the two shapes that it’s fair to say drive much of Vargas’ work.

Vargas can talk about his work and explain what’s behind it well, but when things aren’t as easily explainable it gets interesting.

“Nuclear Winter” is one of the newest works in the show and it’s one that Vargas struggled with. Originally his thesis project, he abandoned the piece after deciding he didn’t like it, eventually creating “Nest” for his thesis.

The piece consists of 111 paintings, all the same shape — hexagons — but of varying thickness and sizes. A friend gave Vargas a bunch of paper snowflakes from a grocery store Christmas display and the artist used them as stencils. The resulting paintings, which he sees as an installation of one large piece, are intricately layered with stenciled flakes. The paint in some cases is carefully applied; in others, it was clearly sloshed, splattered or sprayed on. Approached as a whole, the piece is like visual candy. Even singularly, the works are a feast for the eyes.

The original installation featured wood backgrounds of varying sizes; when Vargas rethought the piece for this show, he unified the backgrounds, giving them all six sides — just like a snowflake.

The departure from Vargas’ normal focus on the minute is what makes this piece so intriguing. It’s the same sort of feeling that surrounds his newly made dolls, which are creepily engaging and, in some cases, just plain creepy.

Vargas still relies on trash as his medium of choice, and though he does buy paint and selected other materials, he still makes dumpster diving a regular habit.

“I take advantage of other people’s consumption,” Vargas said. “There is no mythological place that we throw things called ‘away.’ I take that stuff and I try to make an art career out of it.”

One Man’s Trash continues at the Bemis Underground, 12th and Leavenworth, through Feb. 24. Vargas will give a gallery talk each Saturday at 1 p.m. For more information, visit bemisunderground.org.

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