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Carolyn Castaño

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Aug 01, 2010
Location: USA
Topic: Interview with Carolina Castaño
Interviewer: Tiffany Barber

LatinArt:  The term ‘Chicano’ and its relationship to the heritage of people of Mexican ancestry in the United States has been a site of contention since it first began circulating in the United States cultural landscape. Though its very etymology is uncertain, the term has served as a representation of resistance, from derogatory identifications to positive self-reclamations. El Movimiento initiated in the 1960s, a participant in the rich pool of counterculture revolutions of the same time, sparked a monumental set of social, cultural and political concerns as well as a visual language all its own. Through murals, posters, and other media, artists responding to and working within the Chicano Movement forged a unique and undeniable Chicano aesthetic. In recent years, Chicano aesthetics and histories have been the subject of academic courses and symposia, publications, and art exhibitions, most notably with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s "Phantom Sightings: Art After the Chicano Movement" (2008). A number of contemporary artists working today continue to be influenced by the aesthetics of the Chicano Movement. One of these artists, Carolyn Castaño who lives and works in Los Angeles and whose work was included in "Phantom Sightings," talked with Los Angeles-based critic and curator Tiffany Barber about how the culture of Chicanismo influences her work.

Writer and art historian Nizan Shaked described your work in the LACMA show "Phantom Sightings Art after the Chicano Movement" as "probably the most 'Chicano looking' in the entire exhibition." What did it mean for you as a Colombian, in the adopted city where the Chicano Movement was so prevalent, to be included in the exhibition?

Carolyn Castaño:  I was born in Los Angeles to Colombian parents. They came here in the early sixties when they were very young. So even though I lived and learned about Colombian life and customs inside my family, I grew within a Mexican-American culture because of growing up in Los Angeles. For me being part of Phantom Sightings is not that far of a stretch since I grew up with Mexican friends, culture, and customs. The term "Chicano" began as a name for a politicized person of Mexican-American descent. Although this still holds mostly true, it has been opened up to other Latinos in the U.S. who came up within Chicanismo.

The show is called "Phantom Sightings - Art after the Chicano Movement." There was a lot of contention as to what the curators had in mind with the title of show. I think that the "After" speaks to the evolution that Chicano artists have made in regards to art, language, aesthetics, and concerns after the initial trailblazers of the Chicano Movement. But it is also in reference to Other artists, children of immigrants, who are Latino and grew up and work within the Chicano milieu.

My work seems the most Chicano because much of the great work done during the Chicano Movement was in the form of painting and murals, the work sought to claim and celebrate an identity and much of it took the form of portraiture. Because my work is primarily paintings and portraits, it speaks to that early history of Chicano art, but I think it also speaks to contemporary concerns of pop art, poster art, and youth culture.

LatinArt:  In your recent solo exhibition "It’s Complicated," here in Los Angeles, the work centered on the complicated romantic relationships between drug traffickers and their female lovers. Can you talk about your choice of this specific archetypal relationship, in terms of the performance of a particular kind of masculinity and the female counterpart? In your research for "It's Complicated," did you come across any non-heteronormative examples?

Carolyn Castaño:  The work in the show has many layers. It is about these personas from Latin media who are both hated and adored. The paintings are also about the romantic interests of these figures. Pablo Escobar, the subject of one of the large-scale paintings in the show, was not only was he a drug kingpin who took drug trafficking to the level we know today, he was also a kind of philanthropist who funded many social projects for the poor, such as Medellin Sin Tugurios, (Medellin Without Slums). And he was rumored to have had presidential aspirations. As a result, he has a cult following. If you go on MySpace and Facebook, there are several fan sites of people who in some way idolize Escobar. The painting of Pablo was paired with one of Virginia Vallejo, who was his lover and a famous Colombian TV anchorwoman. She recently wrote a novel titled, "Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar," which has caused quite a stir in Colombia, because in it she not only recounts her love affair with Pablo Escobar, she also implicates members of the Colombian government in the drug trade and in the assassination of Colombian presidential candidate, Luis Carlos Galan. What is interesting about these figures is that while they are reviled in the culture, there is a certain "Love" and curiosity about them. The paintings are about this kind of "love," the personas’ romance and how romance intersects with international politics. The work had a kind of religiosity - of a fan or of someone who goes to great lengths to decorate and adorn the altar of their patron saint. The triptych in the show featured Clara Rojas, Ingrid Betancourt, and the FARC Guerrilla, Rodrigo Londoño. For me this triptych was from the point of view of Clara, because she had a baby with an unknown FARC guerrilla, who is rumored to be Rodrigo Londoño Echeverry. Ingrid was sanctified and then de-sanctified by the public for being kidnapped.

You can say that yes, my work is very hetero-normative, because I only have examples of the male/female dynamic. The world of the drug trafficker is a world that is very secret, very dangerous, and very macho. One’s sexuality is not something that is publicized or overt. I found examples in other genres like the corrida scene and gangster scene, but not examples that are explicit in the drug lord and Latin political scene. They are there for sure. I need to find them! What is non-heteronormative is my imposing of these girly materials on figures like Pablo Escobar and Angel Garcia Urquiza, and the Gueriilla from the FARC. The materials transform them into romantic heroes or dandy figures.

LatinArt:  Can you talk about your interest in kitsch, beauty and gender, in terms of materials like glitter and jewels? And in terms of subjects, i.e. the Public Art Fund peacock, the flower mural for Watts House Project, and the feminized identity you perform and paint?

Carolyn Castaño:  The glitter, flocking and rhinestones are craft materials, which are considered kitsch; they are tacky, frivolous, and not ‘high art.’ The material is coded as feminine and decorative. I feel that by adding this outer layer of glitter, the paintings wink at the viewer, drawing them in, simultaneously seducing and repelling them. The application of glitter also becomes a kind of devotional act, where after the painting is done and perfect, one steps back says, "Wait, there is one more thing that will make it better."

The term kitsch seems like a degenerative term. Although the materials might be considered "kitsch," I prefer "camp." The difference is that in kitsch there is an easy one- liner, which proposes the POP moment, but that POP moment becomes consumed and flattened almost immediately. In camp there are more complex layers. There is the Pop moment and the artifice, and then there is a kind of sleight of hand or slippage, where something is revealed about being human and then it is hidden again. We are all laughing and we are all crying.

LatinArt:  Can you talk a bit about your artistic practice and trajectory, from art school to now?

Carolyn Castaño:  At UCLA, I began making drawings and videos that employed a constructed artifice to explore beauty and the feminine. The "drawings" were collaged and mixed-media pieces that were labor intensive, laden with jewels and glitter. I was interested in figuring out what attracted people and repelled them simultaneously. I wanted to explore the line between beauty and the grotesque. Many of the drawings used the peacock image as a starting point to explore these issues.

I’ve been fascinated with the peacock as this animal that complicates our notion of gender, because the male of the species is the one who is decorated and over the top, while the female is plain. The peacock acts as a kind of substitute to explore issues of gender and artifice. Later on, I took a departure from that work with the body of work that was shown in Phantom Sightings. I began making portraits of friends and people I would meet at art events. They were surrounded by colors, patterns, and stripes that you might see silk-screened on a t-shirt or in the way people painted their storefronts in parts of Los Angeles. I found that there could be an intersection with high and low forms of art, where the bands of color on a muffler shop might have a relationship to hard-edged painting and geometric abstraction. That work led me to my current body of paintings, where portraits of the drug-traffickers or beauty queens are surrounded by the colors and patterns specific to their story. The Pablo Escobar paintings have the green and white stripes of his favorite soccer team, the Atlético Nacional of Medellin, and the paintings of Ingrid and Clara have the camouflage of the FARC. The camouflage pattern is digitized, which speaks to the reproducibility of their images in the media and the internet, as well as to new forms of camouflage which employ pixilation.

LatinArt:  What's next for you? Forthcoming projects, residencies, etc.?

Carolyn Castaño:  This summer I am working on a project for Intersections 2009 with Outpost For Contemporary Art and the Center for the Arts, Eagle Rock, as well as curating a video screening at the Meridian Gallery in San Francisco. In my paintings I would like to keep exploring some of these figures from the Latin media, maybe a suite of dictators.

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