Remember when “cut and paste” involved scissors and glue? Local artist Perry Vasquez extends the genre of collage toward something akin to school-room activity.
Vasquez often sits in a large empty classroom at Southwestern College surrounded by stacks of thick reference books, hundreds of loose photocopied pages and tiny, intricate, black-and-white, cut-up pieces of paper. He is in the midst of creating a series of collage “amalgams” for an upcoming exhibition of work he calls Mythologies that will be held at the Luis De Jesus Seminal Projects gallery in May.
Each of Vasquez's amalgams involves days of rigorous research, weeks of collecting and creating and months from the beginning of an idea to the final creation. He gathers images for his elaborate works from comic books, encyclopedias, personal photographs, Internet image searches and any place else he can find an illustration to fit the particular themes he's exploring. After he collects, photocopies, resizes and studies his images, he then arranges them in a carefully thought-out puzzle to be interpreted by his audience.
“The Gates of Heck,” for example, is Vasquez's homage to the early-20th-century bronze masterpiece “The Gates of Hell” by Auguste Rodin. The characters in Rodin's piece were inspired by classical literature, biblical texts and Dante's Inferno. But in “The Gates of Heck” Vasquez has re-created this legend with a cast of modern-day characters.“I thought it would be a fun idea to update the figures using contemporary comic-book superheroes,” Vasquez said. “Anybody can immediately see the similarity between Rodin's figures and the classic comic-book superheroes. Nothing is ever seen from straight on. But every figure is twisted into an extreme pose of agony or ecstasy, and there's always tension between stillness and motion. That mythic style just refuses to go out of fashion.”
At the time of this interview, “The Gates of Heck” was composed of a collection of black and white pictures, but the process had only just started. After the complicated re-sizing and arranging of the appropriated images, Vasquez scans his work into a computer, digitally cleans up the lines and sends it to be screen-printed onto canvas. After that, he paints over the top of the print to create a “silkscreen painting.”
Although the final work is very polished, its influences go back to the Xerox-art culture of Vasquez's college years.Vasquez moved to San Diego from San Francisco in 1987. He spent his college years at Stanford, and during that time he worked with the school humor magazine, the Stanford Chaparral, where he had to literally cut and paste (with scissors and glue) the graphic layout of the magazine. It was during another part-time job that he first gained unrestricted access to a copy machine.
“I used to work in a science lab at night,” he said. “During my break, I would wander around and see these copy machines. No one was around, so I used to go crazy copying myself, my face, my hands, my body. Also, Xerox art was part of the culture, the 1970s, 1980s.”
This kinship with the photocopier continued through Vasquez's artistic career and into his current work, but today he can certainly be described as a multimedia artist. He blends the boundaries and works in a variety of mediums—from collage, painting, silk-screening and performance art to sculpture, photography and conceptual work. One might remember Vasquez from the ongoing “Keep on Crossin'” project created with another local artist, Victor Payan.
Vasquez and Payan created a cartoonish Mexican character with a big sombrero, a big moustache, big shoes, and a big important slogan: “Keep on Crossin'.” The character became a popular icon for many artists and activists, displayed on T-shirts, patches, candles, statues and stickers.
Recently, Vasquez has moved into film and video. His first major project, Fotoaktion!, was completed in 2008 with the help of art director Akira Chan and video editor Andi Brandenburg. The film is a documentary about Doris “Boris” Berman, the performance artist, former pop star and founder of what Berman dubbed “fotoaktion”—best described as a reaction to candid “street” photography in which subjects have no control over how they're captured on film. In fotoaktion, on the other hand, the subject has control of the camera, via a remote. The end result, in Berman's ideal, is all about spontaneous expression.
“It was purely a work of love,” Vasquez said about the doc, which includes footage from the San Francisco art scene of the 1980s, inter-cut with present-day interviews.
“I'm very happy to have been able to do it,” he said. “I love and admire Doris' work, and I was very concerned that her work might not be properly documented.”
The film was screened recently at the San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts and will be again at the San Diego Latino Film Festival next month.
Back at Southwestern College, the recently tenured Vasquez is teaching courses in design and art foundations. But it's in his spare time that he thrives, where you'll find him perusing the libraries and encyclopedias, looking for that perfect image—or perhaps even playing with the photocopier. Fotoaktion! will screen at the San Diego Latino Film Festival, March 12 through 22, at the UltraStar Cinemas Hazard Center, 7510 Hazard Center Drive in Mission Valley.Mythologies will be on display May 8 through June 13 at Seminal Projects, 2040 India St. in Little Italy.