We first fell in love with Lathan Vargason when his art appeared in Issue Seven of Adroit. But even after Lathan has spent over a year on staff, our honeymoon phase hasn’t ended. I mean, he has a drag alter-ego named Potato – how could we fall out of love?
Amanda Silberling, Blog Editor: You’re a student at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) – what exactly do you study there? What projects have you been working on lately?
Lathan Vargason, Art Correspondent: I entered MICA in 2012 as a Painting major, and studied that for two years. I found the department to not be the best fit for me. I really wasn’t a “painter’s painter” so it was hard to get into shows, get attention, or get money. I switched over to a department called “General Fine Arts”, so now I’m doing pretty much whatever I want as I prepare for my senior year. My latest projects have been miniature replicas of 1950-70s appliances and bathroom fixtures, and I am currently building a 1:12 scale model of my grandmother’s 1956 house in Owensboro, Kentucky, where I was born.
Did you find it difficult to switch from medium to medium?
I really enjoyed painting; I was making a lot of color-field paintings that would have small detailed drawings on them. I relied heavily on negative space for a reaction from my viewer. But after I did so many of those it just became boring. Being around 1,000 visual artists, 200 of whom are doing paintings, I just became overstimulated by painting and really needed to switch it up. Now I’ve just been teaching myself different techniques and tools, like 3-D Printing. It was actually pretty easy to go from my style of painting to the miniature work. It felt like the perfect next step
How does 3D printing work with the scale model project? Also, what inspired you to build your grandmother’s house?
For the miniatures, I either model pieces or pull manufacturer’s CAD files and convert them into workable files so that I can print them on my printer. I then have to sand, prime, and paint them for weeks to achieve the desired surface. It’s really fun to dissect appliances and model each piece. For my miniature stove I modeled like 30 different pieces and did the process of preparing the surface, and then had to painstakingly put them together so that the stove door would open, the drawer would pull out, and the knobs would turn. My grandmother’s house was always so interesting to me. It was built in the 50s, which has become a really interesting era for me. The house had a turquoise bathroom and hand-built kitchen cabinets, and it just seemed like a really good vessel to play with and create a conceptual environment related to domesticity. It’s a very personal project steeped with my history, but it’s also something I think can speak to an audience.
What intrigues you about the 50s? Does art from that era influence your art at all?
It’s kind of expanded from the 50s up to the 70s. It was such a colorful time; Venetian pink, harvest gold, avocado. All of these whimsical names and bright colors, and then when you examine the era there’s so much wrong. These colorful homes were often facades for troubled marriages, closeted queer identities, etc. I’m also fascinated by my experience of seeing these facades ripped out and “modernized” in today’s culture.
I’d say I’m very influenced by art of this time period, 50’s Edward Hopper, but I’m even more influenced by the design of the time period. Wall mount dishwashers, crane sinks, hide-a-way toothbrush holders… It was such an industrious and bustling time for invention. In my work I’m constantly toying between two extremes, the “beautiful and the lethal” as artist Laurie Simmons puts it. I often draw from imagery from the whimsical side of the 50s/70s and try to incorporate what I see as “lethal,” symbolism related to gay culture, HIV-positive status, mental illness, suicide.
Before joining staff, you had art appear in Issue 7, which also dealt with aspects of gay culture. Describe those pieces, and what your process of creating them was.
Oh boy, Throwback Thursday. Those pieces were my first works after moving from a town of 500 in Kentucky. It was very much a sexual awakening of sorts in my work. I was overusing gay sexual positions and phallic forms. “Perfect Match” was a drawing of me with my legs up in the air, in happy baby pose, with the caption “enjoys long walks on the beach.” It was a response to my newfound sexual exploration, with the anticipation of a lasting relationship. I’ve always been interested in having my work be inviting, so I drew it very delicately and wrote the caption playfully. The colors of those works were pastel-y and subdued, very nursery rhyme-esque. I think the work I’m doing now relates directly to those pieces, especially “Map,” which was a literal map of my town in Kentucky, with imagery of tombstones, penises, and angels. It even had a 50s diner hiding in one of the corners. I think I’m just now refining the technique of creating inviting work that has a deeper connotation, which I see as being very in line with the 50-70s era. The pieces were fun for me because they served as my coming out, and gave me a lot of inspirational reactions from audiences including certain family members who decided they couldn’t be associated with a sexual deviant. Sorry, Aunt Kim.
A year after those works when I created a series of paintings using imagery of a family member named JoAnn, I actually had people email me to threaten me and demand that I remove her image from my website. They thought I was desecrating her memory by placing her in the same web browser as my previous work.
How does that make you feel about censorship and art?
I’ve had a lot of experience with censorship, mostly in my freshman year, when I was denied from a couple of shows for the imagery in my work. My opinion is kind of weird. I like censorship because it gives me a challenge and forces me to find ways to expand my work beyond the “shock” imagery, or include the imagery in an even more subtle way. Though I definitely don’t believe in censorship, famous examples like Robert Mapplethorpe, it is something that exists when you’re dealing with the public, and I’ve learned to embrace and incorporate it into my work.
What’s your biggest challenge as an artist?
It’s such a cliché, but balancing real life with studio practice is exceedingly difficult. I work three jobs and go to school full time, so I’m always struggling to find time to sit down and create.
My biggest challenge when creating is dealing with my obsessive nature. It took me two months to finish the miniature stove because I am constantly redoing things. I have anxiety about how my work looks, how I present it, etc., and it is sometimes difficult to overcome that and just go full force with the pieces. I had a lot of success towards the end of high school with Presidential Scholar, and I always set way too high of standards for myself.
I do set aside time for fun projects, like my drag alter ego “Potato” which had mild Youtube success, and I have a passion for interior design and home restoration. So I just have to balance the serious “fine art” with “fun projects”
Elaborate on your drag alter ego.
Potato was the result of a film class I took where I was really struggling to create “serious” films, so I was like fuck it, and since I am a huge fan of “Rupauls Drag Race,” I thought it would be a good starting point to parody an audition tape. I made an audition tape as Potato and it got like 7,000 views on Youtube within a couple weeks. It was fun, and I’m working on part two now. Potato is a really awful drag queen who wants to be on reality TV more than anything.
What are Potato’s deepest fears, hopes, and dreams?
Her deepest fear is rejection, but she’s getting over that. She wants to be on Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, and her ultimate dream is to host her own interior design show on HGTV. She shares some qualities with myself.
She also wouldn’t mind judging an episode of Top Chef.
What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to you on Adroit staff?
I don’t think anything weird has happened to me on Adroit staff, but the submissions by artist Andrew Wilson (Poetry Reader) always brightened my day. He used to just submit really obscene hilarious comics, about poop or something else. He is a really hilarious artist.
Lathan Vargason (1994 – ) is a visual artist from Lewisport, Kentucky. Influenced by a rural background and employing that personal history into his work, Lathan works to create engaging conversations with his audience. Often the work challenges traditional viewpoints and creates a new visual experience related to complex ideas, sexuality and unfamiliar subcultures.
A variety of technique and materials are present in Lathan’s work. Ranging from delicate drawings on expansive plains of solid color to molded and designed miniature replicas of vintage appliances and bathroom fixtures.
Lathan has shown nationally and been recognized by President Barack Obama as the first U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts from the state of Kentucky. His work has been on display at the Miami Art Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and included in group shows in New York City at the Flomenhaft Gallery, BravinLee Programs and Salon94 Freemans with a solo exhibition at the Carnegie Center in Covington, Kentucky in 2011. His work sits in collections in San Francisco, New York City, Cincinnati and Kalamazoo, Michigan.