Gris-Gris, an online journal of literature, culture & the arts

Whirlwind: A Conversation with R.R. Vagnini

Jay Udall: Tell us about the genesis of the Cardboard Jungle. When did you start on this project, and what was your initial idea or vision for the series?

R.R. Vagnini: I first began the Cardboard Jungle in the eighties. I was living in Monterey, sharing an apartment with my brother and another guy we called “The Goat” because he could chew gum and drink beer at the same time. He loved Reagan, I didn’t. I used to tease him by leaving crudely made collages on his door. Most were simple creations on scrap cardboard, but they attracted a fan base almost immediately from visitors and such for the vitality the work embodied. After they were unceremoniously ripped down, I began to collect them in a box. One day I decided it would be interesting to try and make a series out of them. My initial thoughts were justified when a gallery approached me about showing them. What started as a joke, ended up being a serious body of work (usually the other way around in life), and I am beginning my third book.

R.R. Vagnini

R.R. Vagnini

My vision was to try and create an all-encompassing body of work that is free from the constraints of painting (I was tired of painting), able to reach into any subject–be it nature, politics, or social commentary, and based on completely recycled materials. It is akin to putting my thoughts, all of them, on pizza box cardboard, without any edit…and of course it had to be visually striking and funny at times…like me (laughs)…I wanted to create art for everyone…vast scope, relevant subjects, portraits, complaints, ideas, jokes, jabs, everything…and because I work with Frank Zappa’s idea of conceptual continuity, my paintings link to this series in some ways.

You know, one factor to keep in mind is the financial aspect of me starting the Cardboard Jungle. I was really poor at the time, with little or no money to put towards supplies. Any artist worth their salt wouldn’t let that slow him or her down, so cardboard, and specifically discarded stuff, was my choice. The images I pilfered from magazines and such, and I’m also careful to alter them, because the photos are sometimes someone’s “Art” as well. Sampling–snipping tiny portions of other people’s music to make your own–has become quite popular in modern music today. I may be one of the first “samplers” in visual art. I guess I kind of did the same thing with imagery.

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JU: It’s fitting that you bring up the metaphor of sampling, and music, which seems to surface again and again in your work. I’m thinking of the series of jazz “portraits” you did of folks like Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, and Milt Jackson as well as those of Zappa and Jimi Hendrix, among others. You’ve also said that you often work with music playing in the background, and you’re a musician yourself. Music is obviously an entirely different language, but do you see any connections between your musical pursuits and the visual stuff?

R.R. Vagnini Working

R.R. Vagnini Working

RRV: To me, there is a direct connection between visual and musical art, although, in reference to Zappa, I have to in all honesty defer to him on his claim, music is the best. Here’s why: it’s more immediate…all you need is your voice. Not so with visual art, where there’s the “materials” factor. So in that regard, music is more immediately expressive. But, I’ve seen several people cry before my paintings, and in a good way, so if you paint with emotion, it can show through. As for their similarities, both have frequencies that can be manipulated to create something. This is how I approach music: I hear it as visual paintings. It’s hard for some folks to grasp, but once you enlighten them to the possibilities, it really turns them on. Coltrane, Miles Davis, all these cats knew that, too. “Kinda Blue” IS kind of blue, you know. I plan to compose some work that does just that, expresses color through music, and the connection may be strictly emotional, but it works; it can remind you of stuff, thus planting an image in your head, or even sound can trigger some deep resonating feeling that will produce some mental imagery, so it’s interesting to hear other people’s thoughts when observing my work. Some say they “hear” waves.

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JU: Tell us about the image of Howlin’ Wolf.

RRV: Wolf (I believe his real name was Chester Burnett) to me is the greatest Bluesman that ever lived. His aura was one of deep-southern tinged mystery, almost voodoo-like.

His voice was so gnarly, at once reassuring yet deeply unsettling. His growl could frighten a bear. My collage of him is a simple but effective piece, a tribute, albeit a simple one, the skeleton reflecting that voodoo quality I mentioned. The postcard of him sits sliced up, adding to the dynamics. It is a simple thank you to a legendary figure. Many of my small simple pieces are just that, a little thank you to someone whose art, or gift to humankind, I enjoyed or benefited from. It’s the least I can do.

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JU: You’re making me remember this quote by Sam Phillips, the man who helped discover both Elvis and Wolf. When he first heard Wolf sing, Phillips said to himself, “This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.”

Looking through the Jungle, it’s clear to me that you don’t buy the argument that art and politics shouldn’t mix. Can you tell us about the piece, “November“?

RRV:November” is one of my more powerful works, at least from my perspective. It represents the time left before we as humans find ourselves in deep trouble, environmentally speaking, November being the second to last month in a calendar year. It is also equivalent to 11 o’clock. Time is running out for us to change our ways. The crying baby represents the youth of this country, to which we have left so many problems to deal with–global warming, fractured economies, wars, etc. The flag of course represents the U.S., to which many of these problems can be attributed. The pile of debris is representative of our hubris. Side story–a woman once tore me a new one for putting a baby on this piece. Her question was, “Why drag babies into the fray?” My response was “it is the duty of artists to bring these issues to light, regardless of how shocking some of the images may be”.

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JU: So “December” is obviously the apocalyptic follow-up to “November.” Yet “Sophie the Mutant Chicken” might save us all! What about “The Core of Us“? What are you up to there?

RRV: Yes, “December” is a further warning. “Sophie the Mutant Chicken” IS saving us all: from ourselves. Kind of a Frankenchicken, she is the result of man’s willingness to alter and remake nature to suit himself. She’s pissed. “The Core of Us All” may be a tad pessimistic on my part. I must have been in a negative mood, but ultimately, when you think of humans in a realistic and truthful way, you realize we do have a dark core. Look at how we have treated the planet, its life forms, its oceans, etc. You paint a picture that gets uglier by the second. That is also why I celebrate ‘creators’ in the Cardboard Jungle, people that have improved our existence in some ways, be it large or small.

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JU: I can see that sense of celebration in the images of Wolf, Mark Twain, and George Plimpton, for example. The style is much more lyrical here. The pieces in the Cardboard Jungle range so widely–there’s an unpredictability that keeps us off balance.

What about “Nude Laura”?

RRV: It represents a young woman’s ability to become “naked” at fairs. In their giddy state, they show off, scream, or otherwise exhibit behavior they normally wouldn’t. For instance, my wife and I would occasionally attend the State Fair in Paso Robles. There we would see hundreds of teen girls, my step-daughter included, go ape-shit. Too much sugar and raging hormones, to boot. They’d generally run rampant over the place, with teen boys in tow. It also represents the blind patriotic fever I’ve seen in these settings. Not that the piece directly represents any particular event, rather it mainly is just an absurd view of the age (although admittedly Laura doesn’t look very teen-like) and the Ultra-Americanism that fairs generally promote. Not that I’m really against it, although it does worry me. I just observe.

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JU: Earlier you mentioned that you compose the Jungle pieces without editing, and I’m wondering if improvisation is important to you, and if so, how important. When I’m teaching poetry writing, I often have students work with exercises that allow them to improvise freely and tap into that spontaneous energy, and we’re always startled by what comes up–it’s like opening all the windows and doors. Here’s a quote from Robert Motherwell: “In the brush doing what it’s doing, it will stumble on what one couldn’t do by oneself.” Do you identify with that at all? What roles do spontaneity and improvisation play in your process?

RRV: I agree 100% with what my man Motherwell said. It plays a very important part in ALL my work. If you’ll notice “The Lonely Lovely Bull,” I started the piece without the intent of painting a bull, but there it is. It was certainly a spontaneous creation. On another note, I think it’s great you allow and indeed encourage your students to “open doors and windows.” My instructor in ceramics, American master Joe Hysong, told me to look to Asia for the root of improvising. Japanese Zen masters accepted mistakes as beautiful events. Indeed, the term “Fujo” means beautiful ugliness. Isn’t improvisation just going with the flow, so to speak?

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JU: Looking through The Great Unknown, the print retrospective that offers a glimpse into thirty years of your work, I’m struck by the amazing variety of styles, techniques, media, and subjects. How do you explain this? Some artists seem to fasten onto one style or subject, and then proceed to milk it forever. Then there are those who seem more restless, more driven to try out different paths. What makes you one of the latter? What drives your exploration?

RRV: I see so many interesting subjects, have so many ideas, that to limit myself to a particular style would be like limiting your thinking, and that’s not something I can abide by. For one, it stifles creativity to have such a narrow field of vision. Secondly, and this happens frequently although you almost never hear of it, the artist begins to hate doing art; bored and unchallenged, he or she becomes resentful, and as a result the artist and the work suffers. They also become difficult human beings. Variety challenges us to seek out new “things”, so in closing, I think it’s ultimately suicide to sit on your haunches and milk it. Not for me. A Christian mystic once told me that after many hours of meditation, he asked God what his nickname was for me. It was “Whirlwind.”

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