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The Picasso of the Rio Grande Valley (Wait, or is That Foucault?): Pondering the Wickedly Ciphered, Frontera-Inflected Paintings of Izel Vargas, Artist/Painter & Television Kidnap Victim!
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The Picasso of the Rio Grande Valley (Wait, or is That Foucault?):
Pondering the Wickedly Ciphered, Frontera-Inflected Paintings of Izel Vargas, Artist/Painter & Television Kidnap Victim!

One can dream or speculate about the geo-techno-logical shocks which would have made the landscape of the psychoanalytic archive unrecognizable for the past century if, to limit myself to these indications, Freud, his contemporaries, collaborators and immediate disciples, instead of writing thousands of letters by hand, had had access to MCI or AT&T telephonic credit cards, portable tape recorders, computers, printers, faxes, televisions, teleconferences, and above all E-mail.

I would have liked to devote my whole lecture to this retrospective science fiction. I would have liked to imagine with you the scene of that other archive after the earthquake and after the “après-coups” of its aftershocks. This is indeed where we are.

Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever1

We begin at the border, the U.S./Mexico border—a land filled with quaint and tragic histories.2

[End Page 183]

Figure 1. Quote from Carlos Fuentes, The Death of Artemio Cruz (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1962), 7.
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Figure 1.

Quote from Carlos Fuentes, The Death of Artemio Cruz (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1962), 7.

And we turn at once to a Texas ex-patriot, the artist Izel Vargas, born in Alamo, Texas (did that cognomen happenstance augur something about Vargas’s future as well?) whose wondrous coded tapestries (ok, they are paintings) retell the semiotic, cultural, and political histories of the borderlands with color, wit, vision, and cunning.3 One could speak of Izel’s work as hieroglyphic and could come real close to the soul of his oeuvre. But perhaps that phraseology, the metaphorics of unreadable orientalist texts, renders his symbols and ciphers too precious, too exotic. He’s ‘merican after all, albeit a Tejano, which, in my view, is as American as you can get. In any event, there are certain things you have to understand to begin the hermeneutic adventure that awaits you if you are new to Vargas’s work. And the first stop on our semiotic expedition takes us to the land of children’s animated entertainment and to the figure of Dora the Explorer.

DORA, NOT FREUD’S “DORA,” AT LEAST NOT TOTALLY

The man has a thing for Dora the Explorer. Izel Vargas, the painter, from Tejas, has a repetition compulsion, populating multiple canvases over the years with the tiny, bilingual animated television star. These repeated sightings are true, obvious, and unavoidable—but ultimately their greatest value is that they are curious. Peculiar. Even disturbing.

So here in the opening movements of this brief cultural studies odyssey, this fragment from the pages of American art history, we instigate an enquiry that must be grappled with owing to a peculiar motif in the body of Izel Vargas’s paintings: why does Dora turn up time and again in the paintings of an artist from Texas’s lower Rio Grande Valley?

Dora is there in Vargas’s P.F.D. (Fig. 2), recast as a handless (demanitated?) border patrol-costumed figure, uncanny and haunting with a melting Fudgsicle™ head—the ghostly outline of saintly hands clasped (some forgotten Catholic martyr no doubt—the ghosts of her castrated ones?) praying for something or someone unseen.

And there she is again, in his mixed media piece from 2008, The Business of Illusion (Fig. 3), where she once again materializes: her arms now cut off mid-elbow, her face now elided-become-screen for a Roy Lichtenstein-esque comic book purloin/tip-in all grafted onto the canvas with seeming random intent (but nothing is random in our Vargasian universe—think Borges, with cartoons).

Figure 2. Izel Vargas, P.F.D. 2014. Mixed media. Image courtesy of the artist.
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Figure 2.

Izel Vargas, P.F.D. 2014. Mixed media. Image courtesy of the artist.

And finally, in Estados Jodidos (Fig. 4), his masterwork from 2007 that I am lucky enough to have collected and own, Dora turns up again: this time as some Jesus-in-metamorphosis figure, the Son of God recast, the sacred heart of Jesus [End Page 185] reimagined, with that same Dora Fudgsicle™ face that haunts over a decade of the Tejano artist’s canvases.

Figure 3. Izel Vargas, The Business of Illusion, 2008. Mixed media. Image courtesy of the artist.
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