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.”

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

Mitch Cullin , is an American writer. He is the author of seven novels, and one short story collection. His books have been translated into over 12 languages, and been adapted to films.

Prelude to ascendency.

Acrylic on canvas. 40 x 30 in.


Acrylic on canvas. 55 x 35 in.

The choice.

Acrylic on canvas. 48 x 96 in.


Faith & fortune.

Acrylic on canvas. 48 x 36 in.

The note.

Acrylic on canvas 48 x 48 in.

Risk taker.

Acrylic on canvas. 36 x 60 in.

The keeper.

Acrylic on canvas. 48 x 24 in.

Leap of faith.

Acrylic on canvas. 48 x 36 in.

With in.

Acrylic on canvas. 48 x 30 in.

Balancing trouble.

Acrylic on canvas. 60 x 36 in.

Saving Hercules.

Acrylic on canvas. 60 x 48 in.

The sign.

Acrylic on canvas. 60 x 48 in.


Acrylic on canvas. 60 x 48 in.


Acrylic on canvas. 60 x 48 in.

Dreaming in color.

Acrylic on canvas. 36 x 36 in.

Black sheep.

Acrylic on canvas. 60 x 36 in.

Truthfull lies.

Acrylic on canvas. 40 x 30 in.

keepers of the golden self

Acrylic on canvas. 48 x 48 in.