Michael Vasquez : Rites of Passage

Rites of Passage was the third solo exhibition by Miami based artist Michael Vasquez. Inspired by personal experience, Vasquez explores and recreates the danger and allure of a neighborhood street gang through the perspective of a growing boy who lacks a father figure. In search of ideals of masculinity and community, the protagonist experiences his rite of passage, the “transitional phase between childhood and full inclusion into a tribe or social group” (Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage) in this case, his ritualistic initiation into a gang. Vasquez’s unique interpretation of Gennep’s three phases of the rite of passage– separation, transition, and reincorporation–is the connective premise of his collaged installation.

What was your approach to your current installation exhibit?

With this show, I first created a very long, almost narrative in orientation, panoramic collage using elements clipped from 75 4×6” photographs. Its imagery explores the idea of the gang being constructed by a group of friends, symbolized through images of teenagers building boxes and forts amidst the interiors of wrecked construction sites. Within all that, there seems to be a main character that is going through some sort of initiation, or rite of passage. I have been thinking about the title “Rites of Passage” for this show. A rite of passage is considered to be a ritualistic event that “marks the transitional phase between childhood and full inclusion into a tribe or social group,” as quoted by Arnold van Gennep in his book The Rites of Passage. Arnold van Gennep described rites of passage as having three phases: separation, transition, and reincorporation; all of which seem to play out in the collage.

Once I made the decision that this collage was going to be the basis of my show, I began thinking about the images being scaled way up, printed, then re-collaged onto the wall of the gallery. I created a scale model of the space to see what this looked like on the wall ‘in the gallery.’ When I was collaging onto the model’s walls, I had some sort of epiphany about addressing the *space* of the gallery by collaging the elements in *space* rather than flat on the wall. Almost like a relief photo sculpture—an installation. Some elements are on the wall, some are reliefs, some lean, some are on the floor, some break plains, et cetera.

I want this installation to have evidence of a heavy hand which relates back to the nature of the imagery and original collage. I want the viewer to know that it was constructed with minimal tools and know-how. The massive images have all been cut and tiled by hand using 13×19” photos printed with a consumer level desktop HP inkjet printer. They are mounted on ½” foam core and in some cases braced or framed from behind using raw wood 1×2”s. It is aggressive in both construction and the way it occupies and intrudes the space. It has an attitude that resonates through content, imagery, materials, and execution.

Do you have any major influences when it comes to your personal art style?

This list seems to change all the time but there are a few in here that always make the list:

  • Chuck Close and Jenny Saville — both for figurative/portrait painting and mark making
  • Hernan Bas — for his eclectic painting approaches and his use of the narrative
  • Bert Rodriguez — for his meaningful work about the human experience
  •  Red Grooms — for his collages, reliefs, and installations
  • David Hockney — for his photo collages

Being that your work’s focal point is street gangs, what’s the message you want your viewers to perceive from your work?

My work is inspired by my personal experience growing as an only child of a single parent mother. While sometimes things are translated verbatim from my own personal story, there are also times when things are exaggerated or down played to better communicate what I’m trying to express. This is one of the liberties we have as artists; we can control and alter things to better suit our needs and intent within the work. I think, to some degree, art needs to be inspired by personal experiences. This creates authenticity and emotion in the work.

Ultimately, I investigate the allure of a neighborhood street gang through the perspective of a boy growing up without a father figure, which is basically my childhood story. I didn’t have siblings either, so when I became old enough to ‘venture’ out into the neighborhood, I latched on to the relationships I had formed with kids who happened to be affiliated, in, and/or connected to a local gang. The idea of a ‘gang’ and its accompanying set of values seemed to offer everything I was looking for. It was like an extended family that embodied a level of masculinity and toughness far beyond my mother’s capability.

Exactly what does it take for you to get into your element? Do you get immersed in music, or it’s something you can just tap into at random?

When I think of myself as being ‘in my element,’ I think about when I’m working really hard for months and months and at a certain point things in the studio just become easy. It’s a point of being in that zone. And I don’t mean the zone like ‘I just heard my favorite song’ zone, or ‘you’re drunk or stoned’ zone. I mean like the ‘practice makes perfect’ zone—the ‘I do this all day every day, that’s why I’m this good’ zone. I’m talking about the being ‘on fire’ zone. Remember NBA Jam? If you made 3 shots in a row you became ‘on fire,’ and after that it was almost hard to miss a shot. I think this kind of thing happens in real life, the very same way—through hard work and doing. So I would say working itself is what gets me in my working element. But I do like many types of rap music and iced coffee too, amongst other things.

The installations at your exhibit were pretty massive and comprehensive. Out of curiosity, how long did it take for you to complete your installations?

I have been working on different phases of this for about 8 months. There was *a lot* of planning and preparatory work involved, not to mention the final building and execution of the work at such a grand scale.




Corey Knight

Founder of A&H Group.