Pepe Mar: Varla TV
December 3 - 8, 2019
Meridians, Art Basel Miami Beach, Miami Beach
Curatorial consultant and writer
David Castillo Gallery presents Varla TV, a monumental installation by Pepe Mar at Meridians, Art Basel Miami Beach's inaugural sector for large-scale works.
Mar approaches his practice as a site for archival mining. Excavating often marginalized and neglected histories through the fashions, ephemera, and symbols of times and subcultures past, Mar recombines his practice into a complex and layered microcosm of the influences from which he and his career have drawn. These historical investigations unravel across vast swathes of custom-printed fabric which feature images of works Mar created throughout his career combined and collaged alongside archival artifacts including snapshots, newspaper clippings, documents, and even the work of other, sometimes overlooked artists who practiced within the context of styles, communities, or eras influential to Mar. Varla TV explores the short-lived career of one such artist. The installation is Mar’s visual research and celebration of the essential, community-building role played by Craig Coleman (b. 1961, San Jose, CA; d. 1994, Miami, FL) and his drag persona Varla in Miami Beach’s queer community during the late 1980s and early 90s.
V-TV (Varla TV) was the name Coleman gave to his unconventional, camp television show which he filmed in his Española Way studio on South Beach. The program, alongside his diaristic weekly column in Wire magazine, culminated the arch humor and rebellious appeal of Varla and the cult following Coleman’s performances achieved in Miami Beach’s queer community and club scene: through a lens of humor, his writings and performances often presented the artist’s own anxieties around his AIDS diagnosis and the life he constructed for himself outside of society’s expectations. Coleman began his drag practice during the time of his relocation to South Florida in 1989. Born in California, Coleman moved to New York in 1981 and came up through the Lower East Side art scene alongside contemporaries Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Finding it difficult to survive financially in New York as an artist, Coleman was lured to Miami’s fledgling art scene. He soon established himself as a staple of local nightlife. Coleman survived in South Beach performing in drag by night and painting by day; his artistic output was prolific. His paintings reflect South Beach’s irreverent, countercultural verve in an era when the neighborhood served as a haven for marginalized HIV-positive and LGBTQ communities. These paintings depict the underworlds and excesses of Miami Beach’s club scenes—portraits of drag queens, go-go dancers, goths, fetish bars, and the city at night—abutting against the social upheavals faced in South Florida. Beach and ocean scenes with boat lifts of Cuban and Haitian migrants as well feature in Coleman’s works, alongside stark, frontal portraits of himself, his friends, and other figures from the local queer community.
The centerpiece of Varla TV is a self-portrait that Coleman painted of himself as Varla in the year before his death. In her blond wig and makeup and set before a flat, black background, Varla stares confrontingly at her viewer. In an emphatic and tragic declaration, Coleman wrote a short phrase in white paint on the lower-left corner of the canvas: I will not die. He died later that year in 1994 due to AIDS-related complications. At the precipice of his passing, Coleman testified through his art to his enduring spirit and to that of larger-than-life Varla.
Drawn to the work without knowledge of its creator or past, Mar purchased this portrait of Varla at a local thrift store with close ties to the LGBTQ community. For Mar, these second-hand stores are sites for historical discovery and the mining of artifacts particular to South Florida’s queer histories; he uncovers objects, clothing, and ephemera to research and use as the material for his works. There is an autobiographical quality to Mar’s reenvisioning of the city’s queer pasts: he came to South Florida in the early 2000s as a young artist, and his life and early career at the time were very much shaped by the cultural milieu of Miami Beach’s queer nightlife. Mar’s own recent introduction to Varla and Coleman’s prolific and multi-hyphenate practice unfolded along direct conversations and in proximity to others who lived in these contexts; local collectors, artists who practiced during the 90s, and Coleman’s old friends provided Mar with announcements for Varla’s performances, club advertisements, and Coleman’s writings as Varla. Within the vast Varla TV installation, these records of Coleman’s broad contributions to the Miami Beach queer community—photographed, transformed, and printed onto textiles—perform the archive of Varla alongside images of Mar’s past works. Accompanying these large-scale fabric collages are assemblage pieces that encapsulate Mar’s methods of working: encased in acrylic display boxes, these works bring together and layer found objects and materials—leather, faux furs, harnesses, and metal hardware—that are emblematic of South Florida’s queer, bondage, and leather scenes both past and present. In conversations between their distinct yet adjoining histories, the installation points towards the affinities shared between Varla and Mar: in a different timeline, under separate circumstances, these two artists might have known each other.
The archival impetus of Mar’s practice brings to popular attention Coleman’s past, his performance of Varla, and the important artistic outputs he produced during his short life. In many ways, Mar questions the formulation of historical narratives, the processes by which these stories are recorded and remembered, and the failures of omission that result in figures—like Coleman—being lost to time. In tactile and visual gestures, the installation illustrates the ways in which underrepresented communities have navigated life within a dominant culture; the work ultimately cautions towards the potential perils and consequences of losing the memory of these histories. Varla TV is both a shrine and an expansive visual study that ushers the past into physical contact with the present.