Everton is Not Vital’s most recent series of drawings and was executed in February of 2014 in Rio de Janeiro. Vital has been travelling to Rio every year since 2011, yet in order to understand how he came to be there we must go back further. Vital was born in 1948 in Sent, a small village in the Engadin valley of Eastern Switzerland. At the age of 18 he moved to Paris, two years later to Rome, and in 1976 to New York. Since then he has been travelling incessantly to all corners of the world – living and working periodically in Agadez (Niger), Lucca, Beijing, Patagonia (Chile), and most recently in Rio and Flores (Indonesia). This nomadic life took him to Rio five years ago, not to find a house but simply en route to build a house in Patagonia. The latter constitutes his latest, and largest, architectural endeavor – the island NotOna, a work that took six years for dozens of construction workers to complete. Although Vital’s intention was to build a house on the solid marble island, he soon became convinced that it was too beautiful for that, so he decided to excavate a 50-metre tunnel and then polish its floor to create the ‘house’ – one continuous piece within the marble. Thus he created a hidden, monolithic sculpture, which frames the spectacular sunsets. As Vital was spending time in South America, Rio seemed a natural stopover. On one such stop he saw a house that was for sale in the Santa Teresa district, and spontaneously decided to buy it.
I asked Vital for three years whenever he returned from Brazil if he had made any work there, and found it strange that the answer was always ‘no’. This struck me as unusual because in each place where he had spent repeated or extended periods of time Vital began to engage with local craft or materials very quickly, if he had not (such as in the case of Italy) already gone specifically for the materials and workmanship. Examples of such site-specificity in Vital’s making process are: the glass-blowers in Murano, papermakers in Bhutan, silversmiths in Niger, marble carvers in Pietrasanta, steel welders in Beijing, and bronze casters in Milan. When earlier this year Vital called to tell me he had spent one of the best months of his life in Rio, making not one but sometimes a dozen drawings per day, every day, I was intrigued. These drawings are all full-frontal portraits of a new sitter, a young man named Everton. This is the first time that Vital has had such a regular sitter (apart from himself!), and the opportunity produced an unforeseen and incredibly energetic output. Applied with oil sticks and occasionally tape, these drawings adopt a largely monochromatic palette, presenting floating heads with no necks or clear features. The painterly gestures range from furtive to rough, hesitating to deliberate. There are copious fingerprints, which hint at his passion for print-making, and add another layer of mark-making and technique to the works. The identifying feature of each drawing is often the placement of the head on the page: this is sometimes in the centre and other times veering off to certain corners, creating a sense of imbalance, especially when viewed in series. This perhaps illuminates what a ‘sculptor’s approach to drawing’ might be, in that the conscious placement of the head implies a concern with weight, gravity and volume, rather than surface or optical effects. These sculptural concerns bring to the fore the notion of space and the ‘void’, which I would argue is at the heart of these representations of Everton. I am using the word void to describe the particular airless darkness expressed by the most heavily-worked of Everton’s heads, as well as to evoke our emotional associations of the concept of a void or deep emptiness.
The outlines, or lack thereof, of the heads are arguably the most prominent feature of the drawings. They are sometimes sharply delineated with tape, and other times scumbled into seeming ephemera. By focusing the viewer’s eye on the outlines, Vital is able to present each head as a unified mass, rather than a group of lines or volumes that make up a face, which further reinforces the works’ sculptural, tangible presence. The density of the heads and sparse descriptive details seem to subvert the traditions of representational portraiture, yet upon closer inspection they evoke the darkness associated with Spanish Old Master painting. The drawings, particularly in their deep tones and indistinct appearance, have a strong affinity with the portrait paintings that Vital has been making since 2009 (first in Beijing, and now also in Sent). Indeed, it is important to contextualise Everton within the series’ precedents. In this light, I will discuss Vital’s aforementioned paintings, and the towering, steel HEADs that he has been producing in Beijing since 2013. The Everton series is in many ways a synthesis of the portrait paintings and HEADs; and a culmination of Vital’s obsession with looking at faces.
When Vital started painting portraits (oil on canvas) in his Beijing studio his sitters were friends, family, assistants, teachers, poets and fellow artists. His work until 2008 was primarily focused on encounters with the natural world and animals – clearly portraits depart from this. Perhaps this change can be explained by the impact of Beijing, a place where there are few glimpses of rural life or wild animals. The paintings are composed of short staccato brushstrokes contrasted with looser, longer strokes. This approach to mark-making is also present in certain passages of the Everton drawings. While figurative in essence, the oil portraits embrace abstraction in their gestural use of line and through the artist’s evident love of form for the sake of form, and these qualities permeate Everton too.
In 2013 Vital made a trip to Laos where he saw an oversize Buddha head that was placed directly on the floor, exuding concentrated spirituality and remarkable beauty. This inspired him to begin the series of HEADs, using his singular sculptural language to challenge what the concept of portraiture can encompass. HEADs are portraits and self-portraits as tall or taller than a human, and simplified to the utmost. Thus far Vital has produced a number of these elegant and evasive HEADs. They are sprayed with a patina whereby reflections are muted and distorted. The polished, reflective surfaces render the form and content fluid, and reliant on the audience. There is a combination of not only reflection but also inflection; the ensuing push-pull visual effect can be likened to Noguchi’s iconic chrome-plated bronze bust of Buckminster Fuller (of whom Vital is a great admirer). Interestingly, the reflective quality of the sculptures, and the glass that Vital insists on having over his paintings, are closely connected in that they both force the viewer to catch a glimpse of themselves literally ‘in someone else’. Vital blurs the lines between the self and others, and indeed between interiority and exteriority. This self-reflexive situation relates to the Everton drawings as they could also be discussed as self-portraits, if we follow the line of questioning: Do they describe a daily mood of the artist more than an objective depiction of the sitter? And is the artist consciously using the sitter’s face as a vehicle for this?
When what can by now call Vital’s ‘motif’ of the head is translated onto the Everton series, we see the size of the head reduced (a necessity when drawing on 17 x 14 inch paper). Needless to say, depicting a head smaller than life-size impacts the way that a viewer will tally themselves up to it and engage with it. In some ways, the head is becoming a measuring device for Vital – in a similar way to how he has used the cow’s tongue (since 1987) as his artistic yardstick. After casting the tongue in silver and bronze, he began to enlarge it to various heights and scales, while observing the increasing abstraction and the potential of pure form.
Vital has used adhesive tape – both transparent and opaque – in numerous drawings since the 1980s, perhaps most evocatively as a representation of melting snow in Light Snow (2004). The way he uses tape for Everton is distinctive as it is sometimes over the face, and other times around it (like a framing device). The tape creates partly reflective areas, while obscuring others, producing a hide-and-seek effect of layers and meanings, while the graphic effect of the opaque tape is unexpectedly playful when painted over or under. This adds depth and perspective to the work, while paradoxically bringing our attention to the two-dimensional surface of the work. Ultimately, the gestural use of tape endows the work a tactile and sculptural dimension.
Helping Vital unwrap one of the drawings after another until 100 or more had been viewed and spread across a large table made me feel dizzy, as the heads have the vacuum-like intensity of black holes, deeply concentrated within themselves, but each with beautifully subtle differences. There is something profoundly moving about this – the idea of series, of a mass looking the same but each element being different. This has political and social undertones, as can be seen in “Let One Hundred Flowers Bloom” (2006), where each of the 100 stainless steel lotuses are unique, while borrowing the title from a Mao propaganda slogan of the same name. Seriality, and the differences within, is also a defining feature of nature. One could say that a poetic re-interpretation of seriality (that questions Minimalism’s cold uniformity) informs the representations of Everton. For example, a differentiating element in the Everton series, aside from the previously discussed placement of head on paper, is the occasional use of purple, yellow and white oil-stick to draw a head. This use of bright colour is extremely unusual in Vital’s practice. One could argue that the reason for this insertion of colour is because of the influence of the colours of Brazil, and indeed he was there during the carnival. Vital himself has always maintained that probably if he had not been born somewhere like the Engadin his work would not be so monochromatic.
Since 1976 Vital has used the same size sketchbooks (17 x 14 inches). The drawings’ subject matter ranges from 5 days after my dog was conceived (1998) to Strong wind from the West (2004) to My noise in the room (2005). Despite the variety of themes, they always convey a documentary purpose, which is often clarified by their titles, written directly on the front of the paper. This text often has a formal importance in anchoring the composition, which can range from abstract to representational, but most often rests somewhere in-between. The prominence of text in his work also hints at Vital’s interest in writing both poetry and prose. This passion has been with Vital for decades, possibly first manifesting itself when he translated Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Le Petit Prince (1943) from French into Romansch at the age of 16.
The fact that the paper on which Everton is depicted comes out of a sketchbook, which artists traditionally use as a form of documentation, shows Vital, an artist who is radical in so many ways, continuing a long-established tradition. We must ask what is he documenting in the drawings of Everton? I would argue that Vital is documenting the notion of familiarity vs. unfamiliarity. That is to say, so that we have the feeling of looking at someone and being on the brink between recognizing them and not.
The full-frontal pose and bold handling of materials in the Everton series emphasize the physical confrontation coming from the proximity between artist and sitter. This intimacy is heightened by the lack of background description, serving to focus the viewer’s eye solely on the figure. Yet despite this, the Everton drawings give little away. We cannot discern any emotion from Everton, or even what he ‘really’ looks like. The drawings, although bursting with contained energy, embody a peculiar formlessness, a notion that is deeply imbued in Vital’s oeuvre. While there are sections of the drawings that are sharp and focused, there are larger areas where a curtain seems to be drawn across them. In addition to this, these drawings are so dark that most of the time one can only make out a dim suggestion of a drooping eyelid, the outline of two small ears, or the square of a jawline. It seems to me that Vital thus presents a visualization of an uncomfortable reality: that one can never truly know or understand another. As a response to this reality, Vital is making portraits of heads, as emotionally inaccessible objects, and not as individual people anymore.
- Alma Zevi, 2014