Angel Vergara

Gallery Vera Van Laer

Imagine one day entering your favorite gallery, only to find it has been transformed into a bistro differing from a typical SoHo café only in that the service is better and the place seems to have been there for centuries. You have probably walked into an installation by the artist Angel Vergara, one of Belgium’s best-kept secrets. Vergara may appear at first glance to be a practical joker, yet his work is never as obvious as it seems. In the café projects recently presented in Brussels, Antwerp, and Tokyo, or in the stylish ice-cream parlor he created in Aachen, Germany, one could sit and have a beer; but by consulting a hand-painted price list, one could also order and consume art à la carte, tax included—even pay to hear the story behind this faked reality.

Calling his alter ego Straatman (Streetman), Vergara travels widely with a white tablecloth he calls his “portable studio,” from which he can observe, reflect, even try to change the world. Rather than passing judgment from the margins of society, he invites the spectator’s direct collaboration; in Revin, France, this resulted in a spectacular action involving the participation of half a provincial town when Vergara printed his own currency, the “Nanard,” which could be cashed at a dozen local shops.

In relation to these earlier, more interactive projects, Vergara’s recent show, entitled “Fonteyne & Paradys” (Fountain & paradise), took a more traditional approach. On entering the gallery, one was welcomed by Maison Belge, (Belgian house, 1996), a vitrine displaying sliced apples sculpted from white clay. Their seeds resembled tears, as though the fruit bore witness, in an inoffensive yet powerful fashion, to something rotten in the state of Belgium. Vergara feels very much at home in this landscape, the homeland of Marcel Broodthaers and René Magritte, in which the real and the surreal are often interchangeable. In his paintings he depicts a multitude of images dealing with the economics or art of Belgium, or even his own history. In this show three paintings—Café del Ano (Café of the year, 1996), Atlas économique de la Belgique (Economic map of Belgium, 1996), and Fonteyne & Paradys, 1996—formed a triptych that seemed at first glance to reveal a wealth of factual information, but instead turned out to follow a more poetic kind of logic.

The most striking work in the show was Cathédrale Elixir d’Anvers—Lustre (Elixir d’Anvers Cathedral—chandelier, 1996). A famous joke about the Antwerp skyline has it that the first buildings you see when you come into the city from the direction of Holland are symbols of money, power, and religion: a skyscraper owned by a bank, a large police building, and the cathedral. In his chandelier installation, Vergara rebuilt the latter ancient, never-completed edifice using empty bottles of a locally produced liqueur called Elixir d’Anvers. “Completing” the church while making tongue-in-cheek reference to a hedonistic lifestyle, this piece was the best possible gift to the city.

Jos Van den Bergh