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Michael Wilson on Vargas-Suarez Universal. (First Take).

THE TROUBLE WITH OUTER SPACE IS THAT EVERYBODY wants a piece. The recent Hollywood remake of Solaris provided further evidence of the subject's enduring pancultural appeal but also an alarming reminder of the heavy traffic plying that terrain. It's a brave artist indeed who's willing to go where so many have gone before, but having been raised in the shadow of NASA'S Houston base, Rafael Vargas-Suarez (aka Vargas-Suarez Universal) isn't held back by such earthbound concerns. Space Station Dystopia: 1939/1964/2001, a mural made for the Queens Museum of Art's "Crossing the Line" in 2001, saw him rework building plans from the World's Fairs held on the same site in 1939 and 1964 into a retro-futuristic trip that reanimated the extraterrestrial milieu.

This past September, Universal mounted his first solo show in New York, at Thomas Erben Gallery. Stardust was another intricate wraparound wall work, an angular mesh of lines again derived from floor plans, this time of 10 Fleet Place (the fortresslike Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed office building), Tate Modern in London, and the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. It also made reference to microchip design and Mayan ornamentation (the artist was born in Mexico), as well as to the work of Roberto Matta, Wifredo Lam, and Joaquin Torres-Garcia. Stardust was, despite its stark, graphic look, dense with associative layers. Even its seemingly sterile surface proved on closer inspection to be streaked with a mixture of Jagermeister and the artist's own blood--an organic (though, punningly, iron-rich) counterpart to the artificiality of the structures represented. The inky black background imaged once again a state that Universal considers ideal: boundless, gravity-free, accepting of movement in any and all di rections.

Drawing has always been of primary importance to Universal, but his approach to the discipline is a radically expanded one. Since 1996 he has been producing a series of dreamy "automatic" ballpoint abstractions collectively titled "Blueprints." In 1998, he hooked up with two musician friends to record a series of sound tracks to accompany these and other works. After producing music for A Brief Documentation of Black Holes and Blue Holes, a 1998 installation at the diminutive Brooklyn gallery Holland Tunnel Art Projects, the trio settled on the noise of the artist's pen moving against its support as a basis for the music they would create for the "Blueprints"--a literally handmade sound that mirrors the uneasy, flickering textures of "glitch" electronica.

The transfiguration of technical data into abstract pattern is a consistent trope in Universal's work. He also delights in the commingling and confusion of images found and made. In another series of drawings, "Blackouts," he isolates photographs and diagrams from technical publications by inking out textual or numerical information. Lately he has been engaged with mapping his own peculiar interpretations of the human body's arterial system onto purloined posters announcing subway route changes (making sure, as befits his alias, to use every available translation provided by the MTA). And there is invariably a duality underlying his projects: In Dystopia II, 2002, a wall work for g-module in Paris, plans of Edwards Air Force Base in California and Berlin just before the war are overlaid with flowerlike structures, tempering an agent of destruction, and its target, with the signs of nascent life.

Universal is presently preparing for solo exhibitions at the Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, New York, this month, and at the Jersey City Museum in September. A man of mystery who exploits his semisecret identity to eavesdrop on comments about his work but is entirely unfazed by the necessity of painting over a Sol Le Witt mural (as he was required to do at the Queens Museum) in his hunger for more space to invade, Vargas-Suarez Universal should achieve an entirely appropriate ubiquity in the coming year.

Michael Wilson is a New York-based critic and curator. His latest curatorial project, an exhibition of lens-based and digital art from and about New York, opens at Site Gallery, Sheffield, England, in May.
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Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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