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Old favorites, foo in a comfy-size Neighborhood Sfore! Ay , wheatsville food co-op 3101 Guadalupe 478-2667 installation was a ghostly three-dimensional portrait of loss. Glowing figures surrounded by wings, thorns, and other imagery testified to the continuing presence of the dead in our lives. Like Joel-Peter Witkin, the Albuquerque photographer whose morbid black-and-white pictures of death masks and other paraphernalia are offputting to many people, Vargas is intensely preoccupied by death.Yet her photographs have a completely different cast than his, because she isn’t interested in the grotesque. Some of her images, in fact, are coated in a veneer of prettinessa flowery, greeting-card aestheticthat can feel lightweight. At their most successful, though, her pictures confront death without sentimentalizing it. In a letter to Lippard, quoted in the catalog, Vargas describes a visit to the archaeological site at Palenque, in southeastern Mexico, and contrasts the Mayan view of deathopen and acceptingto our own culture’s denial of it. “Everyone here refused to look at it,” she writes, “wants it clean and sterile and removed, something that isn’t real. I want to shake them and say ‘look at it; it’s a great offense to humanity; stop killing.’ In series like her Valentine’s Day/Day of the Dead pairing, she joins together a skeleton, hearts, and flowers Best of the Old & New! All the lafesf in Organic & Nafural foods and Vargas at her quincealiera with her parents. in a deceptively serene image that offers tribute to two friends who died of AIDS. Of their deaths Vargas says matter-of-factly “We all prayed for a miracle to save their lives, but it never came.” In the early nineties Vargas was invited to participate in a group exhibition called Hospice, organized by the Corcoran Gallery in D.C., along with the noted photographers Jim Goldberg, Nan Goldin, Sally and Jack Radcliffe. “Typically,” writes Lippard, “she decided to concentrate not on the ravages of the illness, but on positive aspects of patients’ lives and deaths, with lace and flowers veiling but not denying the harshness and pain.” These photographs are among the highlights of the book. lage. In the lower left-hand section is a portrait of a man with a moustache, shirtless, leaning back on a chair on his porch, on what looks to be a hot Texas day. On the right side, looming in shadow behind him, is a copy of his death certificate. The conjunction evokes an ordinary and terrible sense of grief. In other photographs Vargas has allowed her political consciousness to speak more directly. For example, she tackled the Alamo, and her own complex feelings toward that monument, in a series of pictures from 1995. “Living all my life in San Antonio, Texas, and being both Chicana and Tejana, I have negotiated that relationship for what seems like an incredibly long time,” she writes. Commenting on the series, which offers up guns and stars together with tableaux of her own ancestors and other figures, she refers to “the racism that is part and parcel of standing before war monuments and thinking oneself to be on one side or another, either by choice or because history gives us no choice.” Her great-great-grandfather, Juan Vargas, was an indigeno who was recruited on the Mexican side in the battle; because he could not be fully trusted, he was armed with a broom instead of a gun. Vargas’s portrait shows him in white, sweeping delicately around the edges of the Alamo. Although the Alamo series is more explicitly political than others, it shares with the rest of Vargas’s work the common thread of looking at the past, and dealing with the emotional aftermath of what came before. Like many contemporary artists, Vargas seems intent on expanding the boundaries of photography by working with collage and by altering photographs both manually and technically. What’s nice about her work is that despite all the alterations, her photographs maintain their personal feeling; they are meant to act as mementos, as something to remember loved ones by. Seeing these photographs in a book is different from seeing them in a museum. Reproduced on small white pages they lose some of their ghostly charisma, especially the three-dimensional impact of an installation environment like ArtPace. What they keep, though, is their photo-album sense of intimacy; looking at them is like flipping through the collective memory of a family you think you once knew That sense of cherished connection makes each photograph into a shrine; as Vargas says of her silver gelatin prints, “the loved body is immortalized by the mediation of a precious metal, silver.” Alix Ohlin is a graduate of UT’s Michener Center for Writers. 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 2/1/02