On the second Thursday of every month, the Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk attracts art and culture lovers of all types, who move through the historic district’s numerous galleries, bazaars and street performances. Most visitors are there to observe or purchase novelties, but some like to offer untamed criticism.
“Was the inspiration for your lighting airplane bathrooms?” jabs an old man with a cocky smirk. The young photographer under scrutiny is stunned by the comment, unsure of how to respond.
“Why don’t you take a seat, sir,” says a man with charcoal-covered fingers and a turquoise feathered hat. “I’ll draw you.”
The young photographer grants him a look of thanks and continues prepping his exhibit, hammer in hand.
In a profession fueled by denigration and subjective originality, finding your footing can be a daunting task. But photographer and USC cinema-television student James Marcus Haney and Los Angeles-based artist Robert Vargas continue to strive for innovation.
Their latest endeavor? Combining print with paint.
“The intention is to develop a dialogue between the two mediums by juxtaposing our representations of the models,” Haney said.
Models take turns sitting in Haney’s makeshift studio in front of a white, reflective backdrop with two panel lights on either side of their face. Seventeen inch by 22 inch black-and-white portraits are then printed and passed on to Vargas, who uses the prints as a canvas to paint the models from his own perspective, adding bold flashes of color.
Three 66 inch by 44 inch portraits were also hung on the gallery walls to be painted live at various points in the evening.
Model Isabela Mesquita had very different feelings about the three representations made of her at the event: a digital portrait, a charcoal sketch and a painted print.
“The photo is just me. I’m not posing or anything. That’s pretty much the way I see myself,” she said.
The model and USC international student said that when she saw Vargas’ charcoal depiction of her, “All I could think was, ‘Oh my God, this really looks like my mother.’”
So when Vargas began painting on Haney’s carefully crafted canvas for the first time, Mesquita didn’t know what to expect.
“I didn’t get it. I’m not an artsy person, so I didn’t know what to think of it,” Mesquita admitted.
Emily King, a freshman majoring in business administration and cinema-television, was optimistic about the painting from the beginning.
“Vargas took an objective form and transformed it into a colorful interpretation of human essence,” King said.
Haney intentionally strives for an objective portrayal of his subjects for his part of the collaboration, blowing out and desaturating the images, leaving composition as his chief objective.
“I wanted to shoot the people very simply — without a certain emotion,” Haney said. “That really lends itself to being like a canvas.”
This simplicity means Vargas is free to interpret the photo and model however he wants.
Sometimes he splatters paint in an abstract pattern; other times he uses the paint to accentuate certain features and highlight the diverse range of hues present in the models’ skin; and still other times, he colors in a few odd bits and leaves the rest blank. It’s a process new to both Vargas and Haney, and as such is constantly changing.
“The communication between mediums and artists is always evolving, so it’ll go as far as someone can dream,” Haney said.
It was observer Jennifer Lydic’s first Art Walk experience, but instead of browsing through all the venues, she found herself watching Vargas paint for the majority of the evening.
“It’s [a] really interesting perspective that’s so instinctive,” Lydic said. “The photograph is suddenly reinterpreted, and it’s really fascinating to just watch it all evolve.”
Although there were a few skeptics present at the Rosslyn Loft, the overwhelming consensus from the crowd was one of approval and intrigue. But as for the future of this hybrid medium, Haney admits that it’s still speculative.
“We’re really just looking at art in new ways and expanding the definition of what a portrait can be. We aren’t rewriting what a portrait is — just furthering its context,” Haney said.
Judging by the size of the crowd, which stayed well past 1 a.m. — long after the remaining galleries had closed for the night — the artists responsible for the event will have an audience for their cross-platform communication for many shows to come.