Gallery: JPS Gallery
Artist(s): Joe Cheetham
Opening / Event Date: 15 Nov, 2023
Closing / End Date: 9 Dec, 2024
Painting is often considered a static art form. A completed canvas with dry paint departs an artist’s creative studio to be seen by the public. For Angel Vergara, the opposite is true. To paint is to act. It’s not a passive practice, it’s an active one. Throughout his long oeuvre, painting has been a form of constant interaction with visible and invisible forces. By bringing his canvases into the world—out of the studio’s confined, safe walls—he allows them to absorb the environment, continuously changing throughout. For this exhibition, Vergara worked in Hong Kong. As Straatman, he ventured into the city’s natural surroundings, and later, into the metropole’s lively core. These interventions are named “Acts & Paintings”, which gives the exhibition its title.
For art to merge with society and culture, the artist needs to plunge. Vergara does so adamantly, by defining the boundaries of his studio as non-existent. Covered in a white sheet, the artist takes on the alter-ego of Straatman (Dutch for “man of the street”), where the here and now becomes his nomadic studio. The senses are physically diminished, yet mentally heightened. Vergara takes up his environment by surrounding himself with it. Straatman made his first appearance in 1988 during the Venice Biennial. In front of the Belgian pavilion, Vergara set up camp in his nomadic studio formed by Straatman’s white sheet. The intervention was a spontaneous one, as he wasn’t officially invited, but this is a bold demonstration of the unconstrained nature of his practice. Above all, by performing as Straatman, he has a place to paint that allows the artist to relate to his environment. Paradoxically, while concealed beneath the white sheet, he can barely see anything outside of it, yet it allows him to uncover the invisible through the creative act.
As a first step of his stay in Hong Kong, Vergara discovered the nature around the city. He set up camp in places like Tai Tam Reservoir, Deep Water Bay Beach, Shek O Beach, Lamma Island or Mount Davis. The canvasses he brought were made in his Brussels studio, with a preconceived yet abstract idea of the Hong Kong landscape. Upon arriving in the actual atmosphere they were based upon, they underwent a metamorphosis: like the biological phenomenon of mimicry, they changed colour and form.
We think of chameleons or octopi changing colour, animals becoming invisible in their habitat or even pretending to look like a predator as a defence mechanism. The shapes and forms of natural mimicry are endless. When discussing the Mimetic Faculty, Walter Benjamin argues however that “the highest capacity for producing similarities is man’s”. It is in art and writing, that the playful game of mimicry takes on a higher form. Vergara is far from invisible as Straatman, quite the contrary. He doesn’t pretend to look like something else. He doesn’t practice mimicry, but the work he produces under the white sheet morphs in such a way that it assimilates and merges with the surrounding environment. Doing so in nature is a calm and peaceful activity, a conscious and active meditation. The resulting series breathes these horizontal, painterly landscapes.
Afterward, Vergara moved from Hong Kong’s serene surroundings to the tumultuous inner city. Straatman appeared in Central District, on the shore of M+, Sheung Wan, Wanchai, Aberdeen, and Flower Market Road. Here, the Acts &Paintings tighten: the direct and oftentimes chaotic presence of the millions of inhabitants moving through the city requires an intense form of concentration. The resulting paintings are more action-driven and sketch-like, capturing fragments of the direct interaction between the artist hidden under his white sheet and the people passing by—looking, talking, or sometimes even stepping on the canvas. The works form an impossible-to-decipher mental map of a singular moment in time and space.
The aesthetic differences between the two bodies of work—one made in nature, the other in the city—reveal a contradiction. They show Hong Kong as a particle accelerator: calm and composed on the outside surrounded by its mountains, beaches, and water, yet charged and interactive on the inside. This is a paradox, however, as at the core of chaos is peace, yet at the core of peace is chaos. The city is composed of man-made structures. While the disorderly patterns are seemingly harder to contain than nature’s apparent serenity, reality shows that they are inherently connected. A social conflict shares the same disruptiveness as a natural disaster, yet society’s organised functionality shows parallels with nature’s homeostasis. Vergara plunges himself into the natural world as well as the human one in a similar fashion. While the aesthetic outcomes are vastly different, the core remains the same: capturing the ever-changing conditions through intuitive strokes of paint, where art moves with its surroundings.
Movement is a crucial element in Vergara’s practice. This becomes apparent in his well-known video paintings, where the artist’s brush follows video footage, creating a painting that’s constantly in motion. In this exhibition, movement plays a crucial role when we look at the central space. Here, we find two works created during a live performance accompanied by local musicians. In the public’s presence, the artist once again as Straatman, was covered under a white sheet. He positioned himself in the gallery space in front of canvasses covered in charcoal. Guided by the music, but equally so by micro stimuli from the visitors and his surroundings, the artist captured his movements by manually erasing the charcoal. What’s left is a trace of the performance, a moment captured in time like an abstract photograph made with a long shutter speed. Perceiving Vergara’s work is like witnessing an event: never still, always shifting, awakening our senses in unexpected ways.
 Walter Benjamin, Selected writings (Vol. II), ed. Michael W. Jenning (et. al), trans. Edmund Jephcott, (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1996), p. 210-213.