There are six canvases in various stages of progress that line the walls of Carlos Vega’s studio, all life-sized females. He calls them his Apostles. It's a quiet space, in the little village of Kinderhook, New York, and the only sound one hears outside its large north facing windows is the sound of the birds.
Yet the studio is simmering with energy from both the unusual brushstrokes in the work and from Vega’s presence. Just like the brushstrokes in the paintings, he is no stranger to exploring different processes or materials in his practice; from postage stamps, to lead, to collage elements, using gemstones or even executing large, site-specific installations. When I visit him, Vega is getting ready for his solo show Correspondences on 2/22 - 3/30, 2019 at Jack Shainman Gallery.
“I have been thinking of how to make my contribution to the world. Since I was born, powerful women, women whom have had an important impact in my personal choices, have surrounded me and I wanted to create an homage to them. I also want to expand on a universal kind of aspiration — to represent all female talents.” His admiration of strong females is evident in his two paintings of Malala Yousafzai, The Eternal, I Am Framed, 2016, and Thoughts of Joy,Words of Truth, Feelings of Love (Malala III), 2016. Malala, the youngest Nobel Prize laureate, took a bullet in an assassination attempt by the Taliban in retaliation for her activism. Vega’s powerful paintings express a deep respect for her.
There is an energy about Vega, a vibrant, exciting energy that draws one in. He is graceful and gentle, and to hear him talk is like dancing with a vocabulary steeped in mythology, history and religion, and underneath it all is a profound love and respect for humanity.
While we chat, there are times where he momentarily drifts away in thought, returning moments later with a broad, irresistible smile — his mind constantly working and contemplative. Vega is not someone who walks the usual path of contemporary art, nor, for that matter, the usual path of life, he seems way ahead of the game, like he’ll lead you to places you want to go but didn't know existed.
“Being alive is your chance to manifest the ultimate level of perfection, of joy and of love — you have to try to make it happen right here and now — and I'm committed to that.”
Vega believes that we are now in a different era — the era of women. “A friend of mine said that the concept of the apostle encompasses the diversity of human kind, the human spectrum, from the good to the bad. And I want to expand on that universal kind of aspiration: I’m drawn to the concept of twelve female apostles, each one of these females is a treasure and, like Judas Iscariot of the Twelve Apostles, the one who sold out Christ, one will be included as the cranky person. “Do you think Judas was cranky?” I ask, never having considered Judas as a grumpy kind of guy. “Yeah, he was too concerned about the things of this world and you shouldn’t be too concerned about the things of this world because these things are already lost. I'm more interested in the soul’s journey and the ultimate frontier; the question of where we are heading. I have always been interested in the metaphysical, in the God concept and in my soul. I have no question that consciousness is timeless and will not die.” His words are delivered with such passion. “I embraced Buddhism probably ten years ago and it was through Buddhist practice that I came back to Christianity. The chanting … the mantras … the repetition ... it all reminded me of the Rosary and prayer in Catholicism. You get to a point of mindless connection, but I'm interested in that aspect. I would love my painting to wake up the senses and the soul of the viewer. Of course the work must also be seductive visually but, in essence, it becomes representative of the observer’s soul. You know, I think that we are living in paradise, this earthly domain is a wonderful place where synchronized magic happens all the time.” I ask if he believes this, despite the suffering in the world.
Without a beat, Vega responds, “Despite everything. All these iconic images of horror in art and the media, like the plague or people burning in purgatory for eternity, have more to do with how we’re all obsessed with tragedy and chaos, because it keeps us busy, it keeps our minds busy. But we are really only picking the bits that create the turmoil — the rest of the world is beautiful. You need to be fully aware that being alive is your chance to manifest the ultimate level of perfection, of joy and of love — you have to try to make it happen right here and now — and I'm committed to that. I’m committed to being in touch with my soul and to making wonderful things happen. I seek out religion like a child, just wanting to find the peace, the comfort and the reward of friendships, a moment of sincerity with somebody that you care about — I think that's Godliness too.”
Vega was born and raised in the small, autonomous Spanish town of Melilla, a former Berber village on the coast of Morocco. Melilla, even the name of the place sounds like a discovery, is an architectural gem of Art Nouveau and Catalan Modernism, featuring the only authentic Gothic structure on the African continent. It must have been dreamy to grow up on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, in such visually rich surroundings — a place where inspiration could run wild and free.
His father, who became a colonel in the Spanish army, had lived as an orphaned street kid after Vega’s grandfather had been executed in the early days of the Spanish Civil War. Their house was burned down and Vega’s grandmother died a few weeks later, at age 29, leaving behind two little children, ages 3 and 5. Food was scarce; Vega’s father knew hunger. These kinds of life-altering experiences stick deeply within. Vega heard these stories growing up, and I suspect they contributed to his humbleness and appreciation for life. “My father didn’t know a mother or a father. So for my father to be a father he needed to discover and learn the role. But he was the most beautiful father, really, the most beautiful,“ he says lovingly. “My mother was a nurse, third generation born and raised, in Melilla. “Since I was a child I have been aware of mortality. I have always tried to find.... to resolve the riddle of life. Of course the riddle has infinite answers and not one answer can satisfy it all, but I’ve come to believe that the riddle of life is to enjoy life.”
Vega makes the analogy that life is like an exquisite china cup with a visible crack running through it, and says, “If we can only accept that our imperfections and our pain are where they belong, then we have already reached another dimension. I think we are on the brink of becoming a synchronized humanity, where we are going to heal all these worldly problems. I think we are in the dawn of that. I really believe that what is ahead is all about the spirit, the soul.” He continues, “Recently, I had an epiphany. I heard someone say, ‘Don’t envy success or pity failure because you don’t know what success or failure is to the business of the soul.’ We don’t know what it is that our souls have come to this world to experience.” Do you see what I mean? Vega takes us places….I ask if nature inspires him, being that he lives surrounded by it. “Nature is the foundation of everything I do, because I find nature's creation, like the human body, is a vocabulary for my communication. So yes, I love nature; nature is fundamental for my work. I also need art to teach me something. It’s not about being religious but about being curious, about what your soul aches for. As artist, I’m here to make the invisible visible.”
In this new series, one of the Apostles is going to be Flora, the goddess representative of the birth of spring, the power of regeneration. In the painting she is watering a tree. “She is inspired by a dear friend of mine, Maria Moreno, an artist and a stewardess of hundreds of acres in Spain. My Flora will represent the care, the farming, that good steward of the land. I grew up in a spiritual family, a dynasty of people who have worked for the service of society. My family have always been social servants; people who are doing their job because of a calling, not because they have to.”
There is no doubt Vega walks in their footsteps, following his calling, perhaps not as a social servant but as an artist communicating an aspiration we are all part of.
Correspondences by Carlos Vega Feb. 22-March.30, 2019 at Jack Shainman Gallery.