What makes an image of a man no longer just a man, but Buddha? How do people see the visage of Jesus on bread or in a tree, and why is it such a big deal when they do? When does an elephant stop being an ordinary elephant, but a totem?
These are some of the questions explored in Wilo Vargas's current show up at G Gallery, which also marks the Peruvian artist's Houston debut. The title, "Hierophany and Pareidolia," refers to two psychological states -- one being the manifestation of the sacred in objects (hierophany), wherein objects are given significance or sacred meaning, the other being the act of unconsciously recognizing these objects (pareidolia) -- for example, seeing Christ's face on a slice of toast.
Vargas plays with these notions by using iconography in his paintings. There are images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Buddha and Christ, as well as totemic animals like elephants, eagles and lions. But the catch is that their likenesses aren't all that apparent at first. Like a gigantic "Magic Eye," you have to pull away from the painting for these hidden images to become clear. It's an unnerving, exhilarating effect; just when you think you've seen all that you can, you're able to see the paintings in a whole new light that gives it a completely new meaning and resonance.
These images within images are actually better seen through a photograph of the painting, funny enough. That's when they are best defined. Though of course these paintings are meant to be seen not through an iPhone screen but close up. Only then can you get a sense of the immense work Vargas puts into each of his massive paintings. The obsessive layering of his neon doodles, like a controlled, psychedelic Pollock, become almost textured. It's a painting technique apparently inspired by hallucinations the artist had following a spider bite. There were no spiders present in the paintings as far as I could tell, but that doesn't mean they aren't there. These paintings take time and patience to fully reveal themselves.
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"Wilo Vargas: Hierophany and Pareidolia" at G Gallery, 301 East 11th Street, runs now through February 24. For more information, call 713-869-4770 or visit www.ggalleryhouston.com.