By Natalie Willis
The onslaught of colour and organic masses of shape in Natascha Vazquez’ current body of work hides just that: a particular kind of body and experience. Her thesis exhibition “In A Space That Glows” is a distorted, shifting, chaotic visceral mass of body parts. When you look closely enough: a rib cage here and there, trickles and splashes of fluid, the flare of a hip bone, the fleshy, squashy intestinal quality to some of the shapes bombard you. Vazquez takes us to the guts of painting in her journey during her Masters programme at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). While she may be dealing with the ‘rebel-turned-canon’ that is abstraction in regards to how this particular genre of painting rejects our need for visual meaning-making, she gives us these beautiful and grotesque colours and shapes that are as familiar as they are abstract.
“Art is a matter strictly of experience, not of principles, and what counts first and last in art is quality; all other things are secondary.” - Clement Greenberg (“Late Writings”, 2003)
Greenberg (1909-1994) has been lauded as the most important and influential art critic of the 20th century, particularly in relation to his influence on American Modernism. He was very much concerned with the formal qualities of painting, believing that the work should contain within itself all that is necessary to understanding it, and - as we can see from his words - he valued quality above all. His work continues to influence many artists today, and in conversation with Vazquez it isn’t long before his name crops up. It is apparent in the sleek and smooth flatness of the larger, vinyl-painted shapes in the works, with their crisp and scalpel-sharp edges that she too believes in the quality of having things executed impeccably in work despite the thin, runny and free-flowing underpainting.
A formalist at heart perhaps, it is clear in the meticulous and regimented layering and process, and the way she situates herself and speaks to the history of the medium and genre, that this painting practice is more at home in research-based work. A bit of getting to the heart of what makes painting ‘work’, a question we’ve not quite got to the bottom of yet, despite the millennia of painting history we have to draw on and the years of study dedicated to it. It is a 40,000 year old history and we feel and see the weight of it every day in the art world.
The series of works on canvas that comprise the collection exemplify Vazquez’ serious study and love of the medium and history and process of painting. By mixing batches of colour, numbering them, and then painting with them in ascending and then descending order, she is able to generate a real depth to the work that is quite interesting for abstraction. Often thought of as a flat surface with various focal points, it feels like she is trying to stun you with colour and then draw you in slowly. The structured patterning paired with the looser underpainting all help to give the competing points of interest that are thought of as typical for the genre, but the depth created gives each of them a sort of tunnel to peer through that draws us into these caverns. She plays with the history, with the process, in a very knowing and wry kind of way that shows both her love of formal qualities and her desire to push what paintings means - for her and for this space. With Netherlandish artist Jan Van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfini Portrait’ (1434) as an unlikely influence for someone so rooted in modern and contemporary abstraction, she takes this early Renaissance work and its method of using perspective to draw the viewer deep into the work, and crafts this sucking and pulling in to function for her in her abstract practice.
Though Greenberg and Vazquez both value formalist interpretations of work, the beauty of artwork today lies in the way that work is not autonomous and its meaning does not exist purely within the work itself. French semiotician Julia Kristeva offered us the possibility of this freedom through her groundbreaking work on literary theory and the idea of ‘intertextuality’. Intertextuality predicates on this idea that everything in a text (or work) is part of an intertext of the texts before it, the author’s (artist’s) life, all the influences within the field and the maker and the reader (viewer) of the piece itself. This is much more true to our experience of art today, and speaks to how the artist’s life context and experiences and cultural influences shape the work itself. Whereas formalism implies an idea of objectivity in artwork, intertextuality is deeply rooted in acknowledging the specificity of our individual subjectivities and how they inform the meaning produced in the work - at these intersections of aesthetics, culture, and experience.
This genre, that began in its rejection of meaning and formalism, and its development help us to see how the application of these ideas over the years have informed such an interesting practice not just for Vazquez, but for Bahamian art as we make sense of the emergence of abstraction in our context. One of our ‘founding fathers’ of abstraction in The Bahamas, Kendal Hanna, has dedicated his life’s work to painting practice, and Vazquez comes into the fold she stands on those shoulders and builds. In a region that is still sifting through the muck and mess of the weight of Western art history in relation to Caribbean history itself, Caribbean practices are not quite about translating that visual language at times so much as building out our own.
Vazquez’s works are a play on the intertext of her life - growing up here in The Bahamas to a Caribbean father and European mother and studying abroad for the past four years, it all shows in the work. From her tongue-in-cheek use of the hyper-tropicalised colours so ‘trendy’ in much of Western art practice, Vazquez dissects and reassembles in Frankenstein-fashion with the history of painting to delightful and discombobulating effect. And she does so because she can. Given her history as both a Caribbean and European subject, she can shift and move where she wishes, choosing whether to play to that overbearing weight of Western art history or the daunting, exciting, and terrifying openness of possibility in our young (by comparison) Bahamian and Caribbean art history. That freedom and dedication to play and experimentation shines through. “In A Space That Glows” is testament not just to the particularities of light and colour in this space, but to the resonating light of potential that young creatives in the region have and take unabashed ownership of. The exhibition will be on view at The Island House on Friday, December 1st from 6:00pm to 9:00pm and will run for one night only.