Clad mostly in black, Vasquez quietly strums his guitar and performs a spoken-word piece as wild, fiery images dance across a wall of projection screens behind him. Multimedia producer Aaron McFarland stands behind a piece of video equipment that allows him to mix his own original animation with other video, including a live feed coming from two remote cameras inside the gallery. Meanwhile, Canvas Gallery owner and curator Dan Allen hangs two large, black-velvet curtains to cover the remaining white gallery walls.
Welcome to hell—or at least an artistic vision of it. Vasquez, McFarland and Allen are prepping for "The Gates of Heck," a performance that'll come to life inside the grungy basement-turned-cutting-edge-art-space at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 28.
Vasquez, a printmaker (part of the duo behind the ubiquitous "Keep on Crossin'" poster of a Mexican man happily stepping over the U.S.-Mexico border), painter and performance artist, began envisioning his new multimedia piece years ago. During the two years it took him to finish his epic painting, "Gates of Heck"—currently on view at Mesa College Art Gallery through Feb. 27—Vasquez would often stand back, stare at the composition and sort of mindlessly play his guitar as he tried to figure out what to do next.
The painting depicts a version of Rodin's "The Gates of Hell," a large-scale bronze sculpture that contains scenes from Dante's "Inferno." In Vasquez's version, the characters are replaced by comic-book heroes and villains. Before Vasquez felt he could complete the painting, though, he went back and read "Inferno."
"The poetry, the language, the Medieval rhetoric and the Christian iconography completely swept me away," he says. "I fell hook, line and sinker for it."
The reading inspired him to write "The Gates of Heck" songs and spoken-word pieces during those moments when he stepped back from his work. While some of those pieces are obviously influenced by "Inferno," others reimagine the U.S.-Mexico border as a real-world hell.
A version of the performance was put on at the San Diego Museum of Art last summer, but the new piece is more polished.
"Last time, we really just run-and-gunned it," McFarland says. "For this one, we were really able to nest in and do it well."