For as long as artists have been producing art, religious iconography has been a mainstay. From the prehistoric cave paintings in Lascaux, France, to the contemporary works of artists such as Aleksandar Todorovic and Nadia Waheed, the practice of art as a means of representing spiritual devotion is as old as the practice itself.
Standing in front of one of her paintings, local artist Vanessa Rishel, whose pronouns are she/they, does their best to explain what it was that inspired them to produce it. The painting in question, “Our Actions are Orchestrated from Above (Our Strings Entwined),” is hanging at their studio space in Bread & Salt, where they just finished a multi-month residency. In stark black-and-white oils and acrylics, the painting depicts crass marionettes of various religious icons including an angel, a Mexican-inspired calaca and, in the background, what appears to be Joseph speaking to a pregnant Mary.
“I think the root of all my work is trying to find a sense of reality, so there is a lot of iconography,” says Rishel, who says that a lot of their work from the past two years had a lot to do with living in the Church Lofts apartments in Downtown. “It used to be a Baptist church in the early 1900s, so being quarantined there was a really interesting experience.”
As is the case with the other pieces in Rishel’s studio, “Our Actions are Orchestrated from Above” is surrounded by a frenzy of notes and doodles written out on crumpled pieces of paper and receipts. Some are conceptual blueprints of the work itself, but some of the notes are broad, existential musings on life itself.
“A flood unleashed by an angry god.”
“God calls out taken to an extreme order becomes tyranny.”
“Hallucination: uncontrolled perception. Perception: controlled hallucination. Reality: agreed hallucination.”
Rishel admits these notes might sound “pretty neurotic,” but when viewed with the piece, they offer a more vulnerable glimpse into the mind of one of San Diego’s most promising young artists.
“It was weird for me to be non-religious and basically trapped in a church, reflecting on these things,” says Rishel, contemplating their time living at the Church Lofts. “I’m fascinated by marionettes. This idea that if there is a higher power, then we are all marionettes. So I wanted to portray that — the idea of destiny and fate.”
Influenced as much by Renaissance masters as they are by pop-surrealism and manga comic books, Rishel nimbly explores those ineffable gray areas between fatalism and free will, worshipfulness and reverence. Such is the case with “Rogación de Cabeza (Surrender and Santería),” an oil piece that incorporates the classical gold leaf technique perfected by Renaissance painters. She describes the piece as “a tribute to an experience of surrendered control, healing, acceptance, and love,” but could also be seen as a reflection of her familial roots and San Ysidro upbringing.
“The root of all them is a search for an identity, which may be why there are a lot of those religious elements,” Rishel says. “I’m not particularly religious, but my family is into Santería, so I do rituals with them. Well, they do a lot of rituals on me. I think it’s really beautiful. Part Catholicism and part African hoodoo. It’s a very intensive religion, but it does come up in my work a lot.”
Rishel has wanted to be an artist since they were 6 years old when they won an elementary school drawing contest. Growing up in San Ysidro in a working-class, but nonetheless creative household, Rishel credits their father for their artistic skills, but says it was their mother who provided “a safe space for me” and to “pursue anything I was curious about.” And while Rishel doesn’t identify as an introvert, they’re quick to point out that much of what they know is self-taught and influenced primarily by deep dives on the Internet.
“I think originally, I just never really had any intentions of being a part of art shows,” Rishel says. “I think I just honestly wanted to be one of those Internet artists who just put their work up there and who are always at home by themselves.”
Once they were out of high school, Rishel briefly took art classes at Southwestern College, and while they were drawn to the graffiti artists around San Ysidro, they are reluctant to call them influences or inspirations. Rather, Rishel says they were more drawn to finding kindred creatives and artists online.
“I would find a lot of artist blogs and try to mimic their styles,” Rishel says. “I would just find these weird, random blogs, but it wasn’t until college that I found a lot of other individuals like me.”
In this way, Rishel is emblematic of what it might mean to be a Gen Z artist. Whereas creatives in the past had no choice but to seek out pockets of other creative people or go to school to learn how to paint, Rishel’s generation can first curate their tastes on the Internet and, what’s more, learn how to do it via the many tutorials on social media and YouTube.
That’s not to imply that Rishel’s generation has it better or doesn’t have to work as hard. Rather, it’s more indicative of an economic reality: that if they have an artist’s heart, they will make it happen. And given that an entirely new generation of young artists has spent two years either in isolation or in remote learning, it’s not that difficult to speculate that this may be something of a new norm. A sort of distillation of artistic auto-didacticism via the Internet. The difference with Rishel is that they’ve been able to take what they’ve learned from the Internet and, in addition to persevering and trying to perfect their techniques, they have made a name for themselves despite not conforming to institutional artistic norms. What’s more, they use their art and platforms to support causes they care about.
“I just think that art and mutual aid go hand in hand,” says Rishel, who has created prints of their paintings to help raise funds for causes such as Border Angels and the Otay Mesa Detention Resistance. “I love the idea of ‘what can I do to give back to the things I care about,’ and this is my only talent.”
Even though they’re proud of their accomplishments so far, Rishel plans on returning to school soon, this time at Mesa College. With their first residency at Bread & Salt wrapped up, they will have their first solo gallery exhibition this summer at Hill Street Country Club in Oceanside. They’ve also recently been tapped by local nonprofit Casa Familiar to produce a mural in San Ysidro.
“I used to walk around the neighborhood and there would be some murals up, but they were untouched for years and never updated,” says Rishel, who recently moved back to the neighborhood she grew up in. “But it’s interesting to see this new generation of artists throwing up their work down there. I’m so hyped at the idea of doing work in my neighborhood that I grew up in. The same streets and alleys I used to walk down holding hands with my boyfriend or smoking shitty weed with my friends. Yeah, I’ve come full circle.”
Birthplace: Los Angeles
Fun fact: In addition to the spiritual elements in their work, Rishel says Japanese anime and manga comic books have been a huge influence on her work, citing Yoshitomo Nara and Inio Asano as two of her favorite artists. “I’m shifting away from realism and I want to play more with cartoonish characters,” Rishel says.
Combs is a freelance writer.