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Ariel Vargassal uses his portrait series TOTEMS as a means to explore metaphorical themes that impact
modern society, such as mental health issues, political inequities, and emotional states of both cognitive
dissonance and unexpected pleasure.

Drawing from his homeland's rich history of mural art that blossomed into the movement known as "Magic
Naturalism", as well as being influenced by the indigenous belief systems from the Americas, and
elsewhere, that used the spiritual concept of totems in day-to-day life, Vargassal utilizes a minimalist
approach to his work in order to reveal the complex co-existence between the human world and that of
wild life. Another key influence in his work comes from the "Magic Realism" literature that he grew up
reading, novels and stories by the likes of Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez , and Jorge Luis
Borges; as a result--and as opposed to the traditional mythical aspects of totemism--the animals in
Vargassal's paintings live in the same reality as his human subjects, in which a kind of mutual
communion and communication is allowed to be represented.

In approaching his animals in this manner, there is an anthropomorphic aspect involved in the work.
Vargassal explains: "As an artist, I ignored all of the superstitions and symbolisms that are culturally
given to totems and only looked at their aesthetics. Finding what will work visually for my composition and
by making the subject the center of the painting with no background, I aspire to create a narrative that
explores the imagination of the observer. The works humanize as well as contextualize modern animal art
as my own take on figurative art."

The animals, then, become a reflection of either the humans or the world around the humans, portraying
emotional states in a deliberately oblique manner. Each totem painting shows a momentary experience
that depicts the coming together of person and animal. Many of the paintings are highly intimate, though
not sexual; the human subject is nude, exposed and vulnerable, yet, too, there is an element of
empowerment in the subject's nakedness: as though having been stripped bare he or she has returned
to the garden, returning to a natural state in which underlines the fact that we humans are also nothing
more than animals.

Other totem paintings, however, highlight the ravages humans have wrought on different creatures,
inviting the viewer to consider the plight of a now extinct golden frog, or a vanished white rhino in which a
woman represents humanity seducing the animal into oblivion.  These allegorical pieces are indirect in
meaning, and therefore open to interpretation by the viewer, where perhaps the only hint of intended
meaning can be found in a given painting's title. That Vargassal is a Mexican artist and geographically
settled in America plays an important part in how his work addresses contemporary subject matter and
bridges cultural and emotional barriers. His often sensual paintings push against the boundaries of
Vargassal's conservative Catholic background. Moving to the United States in 2002, Vargassal
encountered very different societal attitudes toward the naked body and sexuality, and his response to
these issues has become central to his work. It is not important to Vargassal that his paintings be
understood in only one way, and he acknowledges that his work may be interpreted differently from
person to person.

Vargassal uses his Totem series to push against cultural boundaries, but in painting after painting he
also explores his own curiosity and confusion about the world. Throughout the series we observe
Vargassal touching on one issue and identity at a time. Although the paintings are constructed, the
themes and emotional undercurrents in the work are authentic. We see in his work a man asserting his
own journey on the canvas while using metaphor and allegory to help better define his own unique
viewpoint and personal vision.

Mitch Cullin | Temple City, California | January 2017