Crossing Over: New Video Installations

Willie Varela

Exhibition: Apr 15 – Jul 13, 2003

In the Hudson (Show)Room, Willie Varela presents four new video installations. This Burning World, a double-channel projection, is an exploration of the transitional space where urban environments become something else, be it suburban, rural, or natural.

In Detritus, the Remix, a television monitor is encased in a hollow, white pillar and can be accessed visually, though not physically, and only through a pair of peepholes. Its companion piece, Night Walking, is also presented in this manner. In each, Varela simultaneously enshrines the TV set and makes it taboo; the pillar references both a Catholic confessional and a façade for an X-rated peep show. Business as Usual? Thoughts on the Events of September 11, 2001 explores the terrorist attacks on the U.S that took place in 2001.

The artist’s goal with the four works in this installation is to examine the moving image in ways that broaden the meanings and implications of an all too commonplace medium—one that we all live with but rarely investigate.

A self-taught filmmaker and photographer, Varela began creating images in 1971. In the early 1970s the artist read two essays: an interview with John Lennon in Rolling Stone in which Lennon spoke about the ease of creating 8 mm home movies, and a profile of avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage from the book An Introduction to the American Underground Film by Sheldon Renan. These two separate—and very personal—points of view inspired Varela to pick up a camera to explore and express his own vision.

Varela’s imagery has a personal edge, and his Mexican-American heritage plays into all of his work. He has said that as a young artist he wanted to create a visual language—not a filmic ‘Spanglish,’—but a vernacular that would “acknowledge the reality that a Chicano must always have one eye pointing north and the other pointing south, with the occasional luxury of both eyes actually gazing inward to the personhood that minorities are usually denied, and that we often deny ourselves.”

Willie Varela employs his own history, iconic imagery taken from cemeteries, and source material found in popular culture, television, and advertising media. By exploring what is familiar to him and relating it to the world he lives in—the largest international metroplex in the world (El Paso, TX and Juarez, Mexico), he is able to twist his experiences as a Chicano artist and a lapsed Catholic into universal themes, blending the personal and the political.

Originally presented at The University of Texas at El Paso and the El Paso Museum of Art, Crossing Over is the first major exhibition of Varela’s work to include both video installations and photographs. Crossing Over is accompanied by a four-color publication with essays by independent curator William R. Thompson and by Kate Bonansinga, Director of the Art Galleries at the University of Texas at El Paso. Following the presentation in San Antonio the exhibition will travel to the following venues: McKinney Avenue Contemporary, Dallas, TX September 13-October 26, 2003 and Mexic-Arte Museum, Austin, TX January-March, 2004.

Exhibition sponsors include: Texas Commission on the Arts; El Paso Museum of Art, TX; Main Gallery, Department of Art, The University of Texas at El Paso; College of Liberal Arts, The University of Texas at El Paso; Department of Chicano Studies, The University of Texas at El Paso; Department of Theater and Film, The University of Texas at El Paso; Department of Art, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, NM; and The City of El Paso Arts Resources Department.


Willie Varela

El Paso, Texas, USA

Since the 1970s Willie Varela has worked with photography, film, and video, using source material found in popular culture to recontextualize personal histories. The resulting works convey a sense of emptiness by exposing the overabundance of media images and the potential of consumerism to misdirect human desires.
Recently Varela has turned toward investigations of the moving image and its profound effect on the public. In Detritus, the Remix (1989/2002) viewers are forced to reckon with their intimate relationship to television. The installation requires them to look through a pair of peepholes in order to see Varela’s 1989 film Detritus. The struggle to gain access to the images—which depict death, fire-eaters, wrestlers, violent sections of cartoons, and gruesome scenes from Hollywood movies—symbolizes the consumer’s struggle to escape loneliness, as well as the futile search for fulfillment in goods and services. In this work, as in others, Varela implicates both the consumer and the media industry in perpetuating a system of empty promises.
Willie Varela was born in 1950 in El Paso, TX, where he currently lives and works. He earned a MA in Interdisciplinary Studies in 1996 from The University of Texas at El Paso, where he presently serves as Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre Arts and Film. Solo exhibitions include a mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY (1994) and Crossing Over which originated as a collaborative project between the El Paso Museum of Art, TX and the College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at El Paso and traveled to Artpace and Blue Star Contemporary Art Center, San Antonio, TX (2003). Group exhibitions include The Perfect World: Contemporary Texas Artists, San Antonio Museum of Art, TX (1991); Whitney Biennial, New York, NY (1993, 1995); and Big as Life: An American History of 8mm Film, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY (1998).

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