It’s a brightly lit Tuesday afternoon and I’m sipping on an iced mocha at LA Café, chatting with downtown resident artist Robert Vargas for the second time. The painter is having lunch while flipping through a book of Albert Moore’s languorous nudes, feeling inspired by some of his favorite romantic compositions between nibbles of salad. We’re talking about his first solo show currently at the Edgar Varela Gallery, which opened this weekend.
The scene is all very pleasant and professional; as I said, this was our second meeting. The first meeting makes for a much better story, though. So let’s rewind the tape a bit, all the way back to Friday evening, round-a-bout midnight, when Robert walked passed his living room window and saw something funny.
Two women were standing on the corner across the street—one of whom had her index finger aimed right at him. Who was this person pointing rudely at his apartment window?
It was me of course. I was on my way to 7/11, on a quest for Clove cigarettes and Barefoot Bubbly, when a half finished painted design around a molded light fixture on someone’s ceiling caught my eye. We were admiring it curiously when he spotted us.
Robert waved. We waved back. He opened the window and asked if we would like to come up and take a closer look at whatever we’d been looking at?
No thanks, I told the dark haired man leaning out of his window. What kind of tart would accept an invitation from a street corner to some stranger’s apartment to look at his etchings…er, artwork? What kind of girl do you think I am? What was your apartment number again?
We’re giggling as we recount the story; I suck on my mocha to cover my embarrassment and squint in the daylight. Wait a minute, I say, what kind of guy would drag two strangers off the street to come up to his apartment and look at his artwork?
You’re a total show off, right? I mean that’s why you do the public display thing? That explains these big crowds of people around you all the time?
Robert smiles, “It’s always been like that. I’ve always had an audience, but I’m not an exhibitionist. You know, it’s not like…”
“The Big Lebowski,” I offer. “You don’t come flying in, naked in a harness, with brushes and paint flying all over the place?”
“Yeah, that’s the scene I was thinking of,” he says, chuckling. “Not like that, no.”
Robert says he likes to work in public because it helps force himself out of his comfort zone. He loves to takes risks while people are watching. Especially for the reward of being able to completely lose control of a drawing, then pull it back.
Every Tuesday night the artist draws portraits at 7 Grand, with a live jazz band and bar full of whiskey sipping patrons in the backdrop. Then there are his infamous and highly attended second Thursday Art Walk shows, where Vargas can be found crouched at the foot of various nude figures, his charcoal stained fingers flying across reams of soft white paper as if possessed.
Some of Robert’s neighbors pass our table, and each waves hello. Everyone seems to recognize him. Vargas tells me he was born and raised just a mile and a half from the café where we’re tarrying this afternoon. He has fond memories of downtown.
It’s not that he’s showing off; it’s that he’s proud to be part of the canon that is launching the downtown Los Angeles art scene. He lives here, he’s accessible. Unlike the NY scene, where he lived while finishing a degree on full scholarship at Pratt, Los Angeles is truly his home.
“But I don’t want to be confined to geographic boundaries,” Robert says. “I’m a world artist.”
Judging by the contents of his living room, Robert Vargas is indeed worldly. Buddhist figurines, Chinese royal military statues, antique Japanese etchings, all displayed comfortably along with the stacks of canvases and piles of oil bars that decorate the corners of his loft.
His travels have given him the chance to indulge in one of his favorite hobbies, collecting antiques and artwork. He tells me his first piece was a Chinese demi-lune table from the Chang Dynasty, that he bought it when he was 16. “This is what I was saving my money for when I was a kid,” he laughs.
“You know, it’s like the Dalai Lama,” he says. “When they are choosing the Dalai Lama, they give the young boy these object tests to make sure he’s the reincarnation of the previous Lama. They set objects in front of him and he chooses which ones were his in the former lifetime.”
“These are my glasses, this is my book…,” Robert says, pretending to pick something up with his hand each time. “I feel like I’m choosing objects that I have a personal connection to, but unlike the Lama, they’re not my possessions. I’m just the caretaker. I’m keeping them for the next generation.”
I ask if he’s Buddhist? Robert tells me he does a lot of meditating, but he’s not tied to any particular religion. He has his own blend of spirituality closely linked with his heritage, Lakota Indian and indigenous Mexican.
Robert reassures me that he loved our serendipitous meeting; he lives for moments like those. It was a similar chance encounter that brought him his favorite art model, Miyoko, a woman who once modeled for the figure drawing class he attended in high school.
Years later, he spotted her walking across the street downtown, and grabbed his chance to reconnect with the 84 year old Japan native. Now she often models for him when he teaches figure drawing classes.
“She’s the high priestess of models. She was trained in tea ceremony, and every single gesture has meaning. It’s very precise. It’s like living feng shui, the way the poses flow from one to the next.”
Robert mentions another favorite model, whom he says is just shy of 400 lbs. He doesn’t want to draw what society says is pleasing to the eyes. This year Vargas is focusing on larger surfaces, getting back to traditional figure drawing, finding an authentic voice, and producing more higher caliber work. He demonstrates what a confident stroke should look like, pushing his fingers across the surface of the café table forcefully.
He tells me he likes to extract the essence from the person he’s painting. “Sometimes people look at my work when I’m done sketching, and see their mother, or their father.”
“I like to draw out the hidden things,” Robert says. “But at the same time, I’m careful with their soul.”
With that, the artist cups his hands carefully and holds them out across the table. Leaving me with the lasting feeling that he’s given the world an open invitation to drop something precious into them.
Robert Vargas’s solo show, will be running through May 31st at:
Edgar Varela Fine Arts Gallery
542 S. Alameda Street
For more information about the artist, please visit: vargaspresents.com