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Robert Vargas: High Art, Low Ground

Robert Vargas

Gazing from the expansive windows of his corner loft at 7th and Spring downtown, Robert Vargas appears like a sovereign looking down on a kingdom he was destined to nurture, and that would nurture him as well.

Vargas moved to his new place just as downtown started popping six years ago, but he was hardly a stranger to the area. He grew up less than a mile away, in Boyle Heights, and his mother worked at Clifton's Cafeteria on Broadway.

He's had several shows in Downtown Art District galleries over the years, and painted murals around town, but he didn't become downtown L.A.'s best-known artist until he took to the streets during Art Walk, using the community's many characters as his subjects and the sidewalk as his mode of display.

The once-small mix of exhibits and events that was L.A. Art Walk has become more of a frenzied free-for-all these days, crowded by bar-hoppers, food trucks and party seekers. But Vargas' familiar presence on the streets has helped it retain its essence.

Using mainly black oil bars and large white paper placed on the ground, Vargas turns "the street into my studio," starting at 6 p.m. and painting nonstop until well after 1 a.m. during the monthly Art Walk. Hundreds surround him as he works, some standing in line for hours hoping to be one of his subjects — taking their portrait home for $200-$500 or destined to become archived in his collection.

"I sort of credit my native ancestry [Vargas is Mexican and Native American] to the experience," he says. "Someone likened what I do to the sand painters of the Southwest. It's true. It's a very basic instinct. There's a physicality to it, and a language when I'm on the ground that's much different than working upright."

Though art has always been his first love, Vargas veered from it after college. He got involved in the music biz, working for Universal Music's tropical subdivision, which led to a position as head talent buyer at the Conga Room on Wilshire Boulevard. He excelled there for a few years, bringing in new acts and genres, but something was always missing.

Vargas quit that gig and put energy into his artwork full time when he moved downtown. He also has made a mark on L.A. Fashion Week, painting garments on models live on the runway, and he throws a monthly event, Red Zebra, a flamboyant fusion of art, fashion, music and comedy inside the Crocker Club. For many, that first-Thursday-of-the-month party has become an alternative to Art Walk's chaotic, commerce-focused cluster on the second Thursday.

Downtown gentrification has its supporters and detractors, but Vargas seems to see value in the disparities, and to be inspired by them. Planning is under way for a major solo gallery show that will showcase his more labor-intensive studio work.

Many of his pieces feature homeless wanderers and drug dealers who roam just below his windows. "Even with the gentrification and the redevelopment of this area, the history is still here and many of the same people are still here," he says.

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