Meet Artist Vanessa Rishel: Channeling religious iconography and anime influences into a unique style
For as long as artists have been making art, religious iconography has been a mainstay. From the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux, France, to the contemporary works of artists like 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 s/he, tries her best to explain what inspired her to produce it. The painting in question, Our Actions are Orchestrated from Above (Our Strings Entwined) hangs in their studio at Bread & Salt, where they have just completed a residency of several months. Painted in bold black and white oils and acrylics, the painting features stark puppets of various religious icons, including an angel, a Mexican-inspired one Calaca and in the background what appears to be Joseph speaking to a pregnant Mary.
“I think at the root of all my work is trying to find a sense of reality, so there’s a lot of iconography,” says Rishel, who says a lot of her work over the last two years has had a lot to do with life in the Church Lofts Apartments downtown. “It was a Baptist church in the early 20th century, so being quarantined there was a really interesting experience.”
As with the other tracks in Rishel’s studio, “Our Actions are Orchestrated from Above” is surrounded by a frenzy of notes and doodles written on crumpled paper and receipts. Some are conceptual blueprints of the work itself, but some of the notes are broad, existential reflections on life itself.
“A tide unleashed by an angry god.”
“God’s calls are being brought to an extreme order that is becoming tyranny.”
“Hallucination: uncontrolled perception. Perception: controlled hallucination. Reality: agreed hallucination.”
Rishel admits these notes may sound “pretty neurotic,” but when viewed alongside 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 not to be religious and basically being trapped in a church and thinking about these things,” says Rishel, reflecting on her time at the Church Lofts. “I’m fascinated by marionettes. This notion that when there is a higher power, we are all puppets. So I wanted to represent that – the idea of destiny and destiny.”
Influenced by Renaissance masters as well as pop-surrealism and manga comics, Rishel nimbly explores those indescribable gray areas between fatalism and free will, worship and awe. Such is the case of “Rogación de Cabeza (Devotion and Santería)”, an oil painting that incorporates the classic gold leaf technique perfected by Renaissance painters. She describes the play as “an homage to an experience of relinquished control, healing, acceptance and love,” but could also be seen as a reflection of her family roots and upbringing in San Ysidro.
“The root of everything is the search for an identity, which is why there are a lot of these religious elements,” says Rishel. “I’m not particularly religious, but my family is into Santería, so I do rituals with them. Well, they perform many rituals on me. I really like it. Part Catholicism and part African hoodoo. It’s a very intense religion, but it comes up a lot in my work.”
Rishel wanted to be an artist since they won a painting competition in elementary school at the age of 6. Raised in San Ysidro in a working-class household but nonetheless creative, Rishel credits her father with her artistic abilities, but says it was her mother who “provided a safe space for me” and “pursued whatever I was curious about.” And while Rishel doesn’t identify as an introvert, they’re quick to point out that they’re self-taught much of what they know, and mostly influenced by deep dives on the internet.
“I think originally I just never really intended to be part of art shows,” says Rishel. “I think I just wanted to be one of those internet artists who just put their work there and are always home alone.”
After graduating high school, Rishel briefly took art classes at Southwestern College, and while they were drawn to the graffiti artists around San Ysidro, are reluctant to credit them as influences or inspirations. Rather, Rishel says they were more drawn to finding related creatives and artists online.
“I looked up a lot of artist blogs and tried to emulate their styles,” says Rishel. “I just found these weird, random blogs, but it wasn’t until college that I found a lot of other people like me.”
In this way, Rishel is emblematic of what it could mean to be a Gen Z artist. While in the past creatives had little choice but to visit other creatives’ pockets or go to school to learn to paint, Rishel’s generation can first curate their preferences on the web and beyond that, learn how from the many tutorials on social media and YouTube.
That’s not to say that Rishel’s generation has it better or doesn’t have to work as hard. Rather, it points more to an economic reality: if they have an artist heart, they will make it happen. And given that a whole new generation of young artists have spent two years either in isolation or in distance learning, it’s not hard to speculate that this could be something of a new norm. A kind of distillate of artistic self-teaching via the Internet. The difference with Rishel is that they have been able to take what they learned from the internet and have not only made a name for themselves through perseverance and trying to perfect their techniques, despite not conforming to institutional artistic norms . Additionally, they use their art and platforms to support causes close to their hearts.
“I just think art and helping each other go hand in hand,” says Rishel, who has made prints of her paintings to raise funds for causes like 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 that’s my only talent.”
While they’re proud of their accomplishments so far, Rishel plans to go back to school soon, this time at Mesa College. Having completed their first residency at Bread & Salt, this summer they will have their first solo show in a gallery at Oceanside’s Hill Street Country Club. They were also recently tapped by the local non-profit Casa Familiar to produce a mural in San Ysidro.
“I used to walk around the neighborhood and there were some murals, but they were untouched for years and never updated,” says Rishel, who recently moved back to the neighborhood where she grew up. “But it’s interesting to see the new generation of artists throwing their work up there. I am so excited about the idea of working in my neighborhood where I grew up. The same streets and alleys where I held hands with my boyfriend or smoked shitty weed with my friends. Yes, I have come full circle.”
Place of birth: Los Angeles
Fun fact: In addition to the spiritual elements in her work, Rishel says Japanese anime and manga comics have been a big influence on her work, citing Yoshitomo Nara and Inio Asano as two of her favorite artists. “I’m moving away from realism and want to play more with cartoon characters,” says Rishel.
Combs is a freelance writer.