Rogue Featured Artist: Ray Vargas

On September 17, 2014 by Evan Senn


Ray Vargas  has been making and exhibiting evocative and gorgeous artwork throughout the Los Angeles and Orange Counties for over 10 years. His work has shown up in nearly every group show we have fallen in love with. His style ranges from graphic based stickers, t-shirts and prints, to more painterly styled fully-rendered portraits, scenes and narratives. Vargas’ work often references comic book illustrations, graphic novels and cinematography, but his narratives are more unique and locally tied into his life and geography. An East L.A. native, Vargas is empowered and addicted to the unique lifestyles of this area. Much of his work reflects a feeling of isolation, but is juxtaposed by the subject’s placement in an subdued urban environment, crowded and full of the bustling energy of a city. His focus on his subjects bring an insightful glance at a person, and an intimate portrait of emotion and experience. He creates a personal space for each of his subjects, not so much as portraits, but an all-encompassing intimate look at their lives. He is a featured artist at many local East L.A. galleries and businesses, and recently was featured in the Los Angeles Latino Heritage Calendar and Cultural Guide. We got a chance to pick Vargas’ brain about his work, and see the latest series he is working on.


Can you tell me some basics about yourself—where you are from, where you live/work?

I’m from Boyle Heights, in Los Angeles, which is also where I live. I’m an artist and a teacher.

Who inspires you?

I’m inspired by film, comic books, and classic American illustration. In particular: movies by David Fincher &  Alfonso Cuarón; comics by Mike Mignola & Paul Pope; and illustrators like Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth, & Dean Cornwell. I’m also inspired by my upbringing in urban Los Angeles, specifically in regards to Mexican American culture.

Much of your work involves figure and a narrative. What’s the significance of these aspects for you?

Growing up I was a huge comic book geek, and I always saw myself making a career as a comic book artist. As I got older and my focus shifted from comics to film, I realized that what I really wanted to do was tell stories. I feel like that is reflected in my paintings. I approach each piece like a still frame that tells it’s own story, like a moment taken from a larger narrative.

Where did that come from?

As I said, I’ve been obsessed with comics and movies for most of my life (not so much with novels, although I do enjoy reading, which I think is significant because it’s not a visual medium like the other two). I really enjoy committing myself to the emotional manipulation that takes place when you’re experiencing a good story that is well-told. I love scaring the shit out of myself with a good horror movie, or going through the highs and lows of a dramatic experience.


Tell me about your process in starting a new piece. From conception to completion, what’s the method to the madness?

Every piece is different, but generally I like to focus on developing a strong concept first. My training is in illustration and I instinctively treat almost everything I make as an editorial assignment. I like to describe artists as visual problem solvers; every idea presents a puzzle in how it can be best communicated in a visual medium. Once I have a concept I like, I sketch out some thumbnails in order to work out the composition, while at the same time deciding which medium is best suited for this particular idea.

Mural at Guisados Tacos in Echo Park

Mural at Guisados Tacos in Echo Park

What relationship does your design work have with your paintings?

I feel like my sense of design carries through in anything I make; whether it’s an oil painting, a silkscreen image, or a piece of furniture for my studio. But that wasn’t always the case. When I was younger I treated each very differently. I’ve learned that as my identity as an artist has become more focused, my design aesthetic is much more present in my paintings.

What’s your background in art?

I’ve been drawing since I was six years old. I taught myself by copying superhero comics as a teenager. I’d never painted until my first semester of art school–Laguna College of Art & Design. And then it was all over. I worked as a freelance illustrator for years after earning my degree. I took every job I could get, including: tattoo design, children’s book illustration, storyboarding, conceptual painting, character design, etc. I learned a lot about technique and professionalism in the process, but I burned out after years of bringing other’s ideas to life. That’s when I decided to pursue more personal work.


Do you come from a family of creatives?

No. I’m only the second person in my family to earn a college degree (and like an asshole, I chose to go to art school). My father did own his own commercial print shop for 20 years. Looking back, it’s hard to deny that that had an influence.

How do you title a piece?

I tend to do a lot of research for my pieces, so usually a title is not hard to come by. I have a list of titles for pieces I haven’t painted. Some are already worked out compositionally  in my head or in a sketchbook somewhere. Others are nothing more than a combination of words that I like and will probably get around to using someday.

Sometimes the title is the concept. Sometimes I want to evoke a theme, while leaving it open to personal interpretation. If I’m painting someone I know, I’ll often pull a quote directly from a text conversation we’ve shared in the past. I like that because if they recognize it or remember the conversation, it adds a layer to the piece as a sort of inside joke between us. And even people that are not in on the joke will read the title and be drawn in by wondering what it means, because everyone wants to be in on the joke; it’s human nature.


In your most recent series, you use a more developed foreground or subject with a less developed but colorful background. What’s the relationship at play here?

I used to watch movies when I was a kid, and sometimes I would zone out on an extra in the background (especially if it was a bad movie). Of course the camera would follow the protagonist and eventually the extra would disappear. But I always wondered what their story was. I used to daydream about those characters in the background going on and living their lives while we focused on the main character of the story at hand. Or I’d see someone at the gas station or grocery store with my parents and wonder about how different their life was compared to mine, and marvel at how little their experience mattered to me when compared to my own. But that was also true the other way around, for everyone, everywhere. Each one of us is the main character in our own movie.


What are you working on now? Do you have any upcoming shows/projects you’d like to share?

This year I have numerous works featured in the Latino Heritage Calendar and Cultural Guide. My work is also featured on the cover. It’s a comprehensive calendar and cultural guide showcasing quality Latino artists from across Los Angeles and listing the numerous events, exhibitions, lectures, festivals, and cultural programs related to this annual celebration of Hispanic traditions and culture. This guide is created by the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, in conjunction with Mayor Garcetti, the LA City Council, and the Cultural Affairs Commission.

I’m also working on expanding this current series and experimenting with how this visual approach can be applied to different themes, subjects, and narratives. I’m also gearing up for Dia De Los Muertos with a bunch of new work centering on themes of death and renewal, which I’d count as the other major component of my art practice, seeing as how it connects to my identity as an artist and my Mexican American culture.




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