I’ve been thinking long and hard about “Today’s the Day I Realized.” It’s hanging up in the artist’s alcove at The Hive.
The artist is Vakseen, and he calls his style Vanity Pop. He paints models in a photorealistic collage style, fracturing the facial elements into aggressive, angular segments.
The style is bold and loud. It sizzles with colour and distinctive contours. A bunch of my friends hate it.
We visited the Hive at the 12th anniversary show, April 8, and then went up the street for tacos afterward. “Let’s discuss art,” I said. The first thing they point out is that collages are easy to make.
“But it’s a painting,” I chime in modestly, as though it goes without saying.
I suppose that’s always the trick: making it look like something else, and making it look easy. “All my work is photorealistic,” Vakseen said. “For you to think it’s a collage, it has to be.”
The first thing you see when you look at any of these is the facial features, the eyes and mouths; the long, feminine eyelashes, the glossy lipstick, and the lily-white teeth. It’s the style of physical perfection you’d see in magazine images. The make-up on them accentuates colors and brings out the expressions in the facial features. Beyond that, though, there are design patterns, fashion patterns. A jacket collar right at the face’s neckline; a metonymy suggesting the outfit she’s wearing. Patterns of color show up right at the forehead. They are thought bubbles, expressed with wordless visuals. They are layers of complexity. We all show them in different ways.
“Soulless,” said Britt.
The other women at the table nod in agreement. “And why does he have to paint only women,” someone asks.
The photorealistic facial features are airbrushed and polished, just like you’d find in a mass-market womens magazine. However, the emphasis on moods and on emotion seem to introduce their own critique of this airbrush and polish.
What’s the correct way to present a face, after all?
Britt said it looks very corporate, and easy to commercialize.
What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that the American Dream?
Vakseen isn’t a corporate behemoth. Vakseen is a person. His name is Otha Davis III, and he’s from Athens, GA. The first piece he did in this style was called “Ignorant Butterflies,” and it appeared in 2012. By the third piece, Vakseen said, he knew he was on to something.
I’d definitely hang these on my wall. There’s something highly confrontational in the vivid colors, the sharp angles at the edges of each element; even the very presence of a mouth, front and center, in a portrait, is jarring. Few are willing to admit that mouths express just as much emotion as eyes. Interesting, too, that the confrontational quality is purely visual, as opposed to thematic. He’s not painting fire and blood all over the place; it’s faces, with interesting shapes and bold color.
“You really notice it. There’s a POW factor, Christine says. Christine Rasmussen is a colleague of Vakseen, and once had an alcove near him at The Hive.
And despite the visual complexity, you can usually count the number of segments on one hand. Intriguing, the way he uses these harshly-shaped segments to communicate an impression or an emotion.
“Simplicity is harder to pull off than complexity, because you must make the most impact with the least amount of elements,” Vakseen said.
The man works a lot; he also produces music, which informs his work ethic and marketing style. I ask him directly about the nature of the challenges in visual art and he more or less brushes it off. He says “Today’s the Day…” was his toughest piece so far, and that’s about it. Glancing from “Today’s the Day…” to his other pieces, I can see it’s the most visually complex.
“Derivative,” pronounced Britt. She has been googling collage art and come up with a thing or two.
“This collage-style reminds me of what artists in Miami were doing in the 80s,” she said.
She shows me something collage-like, featuring a face. The features in the face are soft. The colours are soft. The painting she showed me was tepid, done with pastels. Yes it was a collage with a face, but the connection was tenuous; nothing like the active intensity that highlight Vakseen’s style. I’ve been googling for twenty minutes and can’t find it
Over the coming weeks, I couldn’t stop thining about this polarization. These paintings are very brash, visually. The larger they are, the more awe they inspire when I look at them. Lots of critics apparently agree, as Vakseen has been featured in art magazine after art magazine after art magazine. And insofar as he is displayed at dozens of shows a year, other people must like this stuff. I begin pushing Vakseen on my friends, acquaintances, sometimes even people I just met, asking for their opinions. I try to do this in the least obnoxious way possible.
I took Haley to La Luz on July 7 for a show. The first room of the gallery is full of disjointed faces upon daring colous. She loved it. The pow factor is exciting.
“It’s just so punk and glossy and bright,” she said, adding “I love the 80s!” She’s right. Being in a room full of these feels like I’m getting smacked in the face with exuberance every single time I turn my head.
“There is no way I would hang that on my wall,” said Lindy Kirk, a local writer.
I suspect something about having a detailed mouth right in front of your eyes might be the most viscerally off-putting attribute at work here. What do you think?
One night I was sitting next to a drunk guy at a career networking event in Hollywood. The guy was Ell Sanders, head of a fashion and design company. As we talked, I whipped out my phone and showed him Today’s the Day I Realized, naturally.
“It says creativity. It says risk-taking. It says hurt. It says accomplishment. It says a lot of things,” Sanders said.
“Does he do merchandising? He should put that on some motherfucking yoga pants.”