Paula Lee on White Light

By: Paula Lee / Sept. 21, 2015

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In White Light (2015), a young Cuban-American painter, Veronica Gonzales, wrestles with her father’s death and her own uncertain future as an artist. For Veronica, the life of a painter is not a glamorous fizz of creativity and hobnobbing, but a struggle to come to terms with reality and its many representations. The debut novel by Cuban-American writer/multimedia artist Vanessa Garcia, White Light could easily have been titled Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman, as it offers an utterly specific yet universal account of every woman who has ever struggled to fully claim her creativity.

In this novel, “white light” is a metaphor for art, life, and death, as well as a clever structuring device that takes the physical properties of color and uses them as a narrative prism. The novel opens with what might be called a case of mistaken identity, shameful for its implications regarding fear and racism, yet utterly human and hence forgivable as well. Again and again, Veronica is forced to recognize the real consequences of misinterpretation and attempts to repair the damage through art, making it clear that others aren’t necessarily as we see them, even those we love the most.

The name, “Veronica,” comes from the Latin, “vera icons,” true image. Veronica Gonzales paints in order to understand a collapsing emotional universe and replace it with an ambitious series of works for a solo show named “Cathedral: Remnants and Ruins,” through which she implicitly hopes to create a true portrait of her dying father. The saint named Veronica had handed a veil to Christ on the via Dolorosa, so that he might wipe the sweat off his brow. When Christ returned the veil, the image of his face had been miraculously transferred to the fine white cloth.

Subsequently, the “veil of Veronica” became known as an example of pure mimesis: the creation of a perfect likeness in the most literal fashion possible. Today, the same trick of transference is performed through photography, with light itself as the instrument transferring the image of the subject onto a flat substrate. Yet Veronica insists on the clunky slowness of painting. Why? Even as she paints in vibrant hues and thinks about “dyeing,” her dying father snores in his hospital bed-- “numerically, and without color.” Gradually, she transfers her rage and bafflement into strokes of crisis red, spiritual blue, obvious yellow, and finally pure white light as she comes to terms with his death. For her exhibition, she plans on using remnants of her father. His shoes. His shirts. The fabric of his life.

Amid these grand and melancholic themes, true and funny little details stand out: “You shouldn’t live with boyfriends.” “Don’t trust banks.” “Chicken is boring.” These observations ring true, as do her insecurities and approaches to the canvas. By the end, Veronica notes, “Dad’s wallet is starting to lose its smell.” Following his death, she has been carrying it around because she required its contents--chiefly the social security card with his number, that dull series of digits that confers legal identity. “Cathedral” is Veronica Gonzales’s response to that banal humiliation. White Light is Vanessa Garcia’s glorious revenge.

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About Vanessa Garcia

Vanessa Garcia is a writer and mulit-media artist