The 1887 Gallery is a shadowy chamber made of brick and poured concrete. Part of the CENAC cultural compound in downtown San José, 1887 looks like a converted gunpowder room, sparsely prettified by some track lighting and curtains. The art that belongs in this little grotto should be darkly atmospheric; it is not a place for still-lifes of fruit bowls.
Daniela Vargas Winiker has put the 1887 space to good use with her installation, “Intercambio de Miradas” (“Exchanged Glances”), now on display. The very name is cryptic and enticing – after all, glances are exchanged between lovers, conspirators, and keepers of secrets – and Vargas stays true to that mood. The 14 acrylic portraits she has selected are sometimes colorful, sometimes dignified, but always mysterious. Who is the woman in the heavy coat, carrying a child in a bleak forest? Who is the humorless girl looking at us with morose eyes, her visage evaporating into a watery background? Taken together, the paintings feel gothic and unnerving, as if those faces know something we don’t.
More suggestive still are the piles of crumpled paper, clumped on the floor and in the corners, each white leaf covered in Jeffersonian handwriting. They look like letters, but from whom, and for what purpose? Each missive has the appearance of a love letter, with its elegant penmanship and colored ink. Do the letters link the paintings? Were they written at the desk that is propped in the corner of the room?
What’s relieving about “Glances” is that there is very little printed information on the walls. Instead of drowning her work in artist statements and abstruse titles, Vargas seems to leave the interpretation to us. The result is a series of enigmatic clues, basically just some text and painted faces in a barren little room. You can’t help but try to connect the dots, to build a story out of these fragments. And the more imaginative you are, the more interesting that plot will become.
Vargas has worked for many years as an artist, and “Glances” is her third solo show. She previously showed her work at the Costa Rica Country Club, although I can’t imagine that that show was as provocative or challenging as this one. It takes some skill to turn a musty old hollow into a coherent exhibition, and Vargas has intelligently used the environment to set a scene. When the paintings are one day purchased by private collectors and separated from each other, they will likely decorate brighter rooms, and each portrait will seem less disquieting. But for the moment, they work nicely together, and if you find yourself ambling through Parque España, the series is definitely worth a glance.
“Intercambio de Miradas” continues through Oct. 3 at Galería 1887, CENAC, downtown San José. Free. Mon.-Sat., 8:30 a.m. – 7 p.m. Info: Gallery Facebook page.