VIRGINIA VERGARA: QUANTITY AND FORM OF A SUBSTANCE

Edited by Valeria Federici, Art Editor - valeria.federici@positive-magazine.com
All images courtesy of the artist.
Virginia Inés Vergara was born and raised in NYC. After receiving her 
BFA from Rhode Island School of Design and her MFA in photography from 
Hunter College, she has maintained a studio practice in Brooklyn. Her 
photographic work embodies meditations on light, perception and 
proximity.

How did you encounter photography?

My father is a documentary photographer of poor urban areas and my mother a scholar and teacher of art history. I grew up surrounded by art books, and museum and gallery settings soon became familiar places in which I felt perfectly comfortable. Looking and talking about art has always seemed to me integral to normal life. Making art was a natural activity. I started out, like most toddlers, drawing and painting.

At the age of 17 I took up photography, while pursuing my BFA in painting at RISD, I began to roam the streets of the city with my camera, thus following in my father’s footsteps. His focus is on cityscapes that range from views of individual buildings—even parts of them such as windows, doors, and ornamentation—to panoramas taken from the roofs of tall buildings. His work involves comparisons of American cities. This contrasts with my consistent attraction to close-up shots, but like him I become interested in a motif and shoot many pictures of it wherever I go.

The more pictures you take, the more you have to work with, and the better the yield. I often set rules for myself, such as a requirement to take a certain number of photographs. I make it a rule to take one picture a day, often without explicit subject matter in mind. This exercise gives me great insight into my own artistic practice. That 365, EXTRA, images a year, at least 5 will be interesting. As many photographers admit, I, too, feel a certain power with the camera. The camera gives me a mission—that of collecting images for an audience. The idea of an audience is always present; I am working on a project for others to see, for a display.

The way in which I take these pictures is very important for understanding the work. I move around an urban environment searching for images. These images often appear in museums or other art settings. I know what I am looking for; I just need to find them, and once I do, it gives me pleasure.

During one summer vacation from high school I gave myself the project of photographing the interiors of psychiatrists’ offices on the upper east side of Manhattan. I usually took the pictures through a window whose shades were open. Specifically, I photographed the boxes of tissues next to the couches patients lie on. The idea: the boxes were almost always arranged the same way, and the offices would always be very similar, but were never exactly the same. One likely reason for the differences was that the doctors, all with more or less the same specialty, felt compelled to distinguish themselves from one another through minor decorating decisions.

The tissue boxes would always have a pattern on them, which attracted me, as did seeing each box through the glass of a window, with its unpredictable reflections. The consulting rooms also had to be empty; I was not looking for pictures of the patients and doctors but of the flat-patterned tissue box in a clearly established area. Here, as a photographer, I seemed to be indiscreetly prying. If a receptionist, doctor, or doorman happened to see me, I would get yelled at and questioned, a prospect I hoped to avoid at all costs. So I had to move with a certain amount of speed and always be completely aware of my environment, both its opportunities and dangers. Because of these constraints I was unable to sufficiently plan the images to achieve the formal quality I love and seek in images. Still, the tissue boxes as minimal, formal structures gave the photographs some degree of coherence.

Here I added a performative dimension to my art insofar as I was spying, inevitably taking the risk of putting myself on display in such a guarded atmosphere. I took the precaution of dressing to fit well in these affluent neighborhoods in order to mitigate the fact that I was engaging in an activity that seemed illogical and that was possibly illegal. But at the same time I shaped my appearance to fit the project as a drama.

Later, I discovered the work of Ed Ruscher and was struck with the activities of this artist as he investigated urban landscapes, set rules for himself, and accumulated images tinged with absurdity. But I also found the images formally beautiful. In these respects I find a certain kinship with his work.

Until the second two years of my undergraduate program in art, I had mainly been a painter using an abstract colorful, gestural style. But I was already moving toward loose systems of repetition within individual paintings. When I took up photography, I experimented in many ways, but found myself instinctively drawn toward the principle described at the beginning that I call “Proximity Times Three.” This combination of forms of proximity is closely allied with the flat, patterned style of the paintings that preceded them. At this point it is hard for me to see this basic sensibility changing. I hope to be able to significantly enrich and enliven that aesthetic. And I hope to achieve the same goal through experimenting with ways of printing and otherwise modifying the photographs I take.

My art is less about personal revelations than formal ones; however, I always use myself as a starting point. It is from a need to understand my immediate surroundings that I hope to produce images of formal value.

How do you relate to other mediums?

I was trained as a painter. In the work Shards (image above) the end result is a photographic image but the means I use to achieve this are a combination of constructing sculptural fragments, multiple photographs. I love photography. I felt like I didn’t have much to say with painting. Even when painting, I was working from photos. I used to go to the library and use the photos as sources. Then I started to take photos still with the intention of making them a painting. Then the photo became the painting.

In the above mentioned “Shards“, you use a method of juxtaposing fragment of paper similar to me to collage. Could you explain the process of making your photographs?

I began assembling torn fragments of old illustrations of world art book and photographing them. I constantly add to and re-arrange these fragments, which I think of as shards. I use a variety of source materials for this project, both 2 and 3 dimension. The flat images are from a pre-war folio of images The Louvre produced on heavy weight paper. The sculptural elements are fragments I construct from these images to play with the viewers perception of the space I am creating. Here I use natural light almost like glue. A third medium to even out the other two bodies of work and lend a unifying element to my arrangements. My eye remains on photography in relation to perception. For example, we tend to view the intact illustrations of, say, paintings, as “paintings” before acknowledging them as photographs. In “Shards” one means through which I shatter that perception is by drawing attention to the ragged edges of the ripped illustrations. I am emotionally as well as aesthetically drawn to the original works of art. And I feel similarly about the illustrations as well, with their immediate, touchable accessibility that allows me to make them my own, conceptually and artistically. For example, all the fragments are pictures of stone, and the stone-colored compositions are meant to evoke relationships between artistically wrought human figures from the Greco-Roman and Baroque periods, on the one hand, and rough mineral matter on the other.

Throughout my work a key artistic principle has been proximity. Proximity has three senses here: a look of relative flatness; an actual close-up view of the subject (in this case, my assemblages of paper fragments); and the use of easily accessible motifs—accessible because the number of available reproductions seems almost limitless. “Shards” allows me to pursue revelations that variously emphasize personal, formal, and cultural issues.

Shards” began in 2010. Is the project completed?

No, its an ongoing project… It ends when I have no more shards left, meaning I have ripped the paper and fragmented the three dimensional reliefs to the point where I cannot construct new images.

What is a Glass-scape?

Glass-scape (image above) is what I am working on right now as part of my current exhibition in NYC whose theme is “the model”—specifically how an artwork can function as a model in terms of Hodges’s understanding: “A device that measures out a quantity of a substance also imposes a form on the substance.”

The set-up involves three different cameras, but there is no film in the first two cameras—they function as viewing devices. First, I set up a large-format (4 X 5) camera on a tripod in front of the diorama. Then, I hold a Hasselblad camera in front of the viewfinder of the first camera so that I can see what “it” is seeing. The Hasselblad is positioned to take a picture of what the large-format camera is seeingin other words it is once removed from the diorama, which immediately makes the scene itself appear more two-dimensional. The target feature of the Hasselblad viewfinder is visible at this stage. The crosshairs makes me feel like a hunter, and I wanted that element to remain as part of the final photograph. Thus, I then add a third camera that “looks into” the Hasselblad’s viewfinder (located on top of the camera.) This camera, a digital model, has a swivel screen that can be placed in the viewfinder of the Hasselblad captures the final image.

As gifts from a special friend, the cameras I use have strong personal associations for me. I very much wanted to use the Hasselblad, but quickly found that the film and processing were prohibitively expensive. Still, for a long time I carried it with me in case a subject that was particularly well suited to it happened to appear. Then I realized I could use this camera in another way—as a tool for looking at the world. The “Glass-scapes” series is the result of a combination of circumstances. I was looking for a way to make photographs that had a new, strange look and I hit upon the idea for the three-camera device. I took the contraption to a skateboarding park after it had just rained and no one was there. The resulting photographs were interesting, but still lacked what I was after. Following this experiment, I sought out places that were somehow “out of place.” The best example I found was at the Natural History Museum where a facsimile of, say, the African plains, exists in the middle of New York City.

At the same time that I was photographing the dioramas, I was also using my triple camera to take pictures of period rooms in the decorative arts wings of museums. I found these rooms to be like life-size dollhouses, devoid of inhabitants. In many ways they are very similar to the natural history dioramas. I plan to continue that project this summer in Berlin at Schloss Charlottenburg.

Another camera-invention that I am now working with is a standard front-load washing machine, which I turned into a pinhole camera. It develops the images as well since I use developing agent and fixer instead of detergent. With this camera I have been taking landscape pictures of the beach. It seems to go with the water in the washing machine. The sound the machine makes when it becomes a darkroom is hypnotic!

All this takes place while I am working two jobs. I still take one picture a day for the sake of the gesture of making something and maintaining this part of my artistic life. Then I look for patterns into the work and when I become attracted to one image I follow its pattern to develop a project.

What will be a perfect environment to display your photos?

I really like the white cube. I want to create a panorama in reference to early photography and realize an installation that overcomes the convention of photo as a framed object 16x20inches. I would like to explore the photo as object, thinking about its physicality in a way that it takes ownership over the white cube space.

See also Virginia Vergara’s website – More on her ongoing project “Shards”

Valeria Federici is an independent curator and a freelance editor. She currently works as the Program Coordinator of a non-profit arts organization in North Adams, Massachusetts. Originally from Rome, Italy, in 2006 she moved to Barcelona, Spain and then to the United States. Before relocating to New England, she spent a few years in New York City working for art studios and contemporary art galleries.

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