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Monica Castillo

Fotografia de la artista con corona by Monica       Castillo

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Mar 26, 2001
Location: USA
Topic: Interview with the artist in her studio in Brooklyn, NY
Interviewer: Bill Kelley Jr.

LatinArt:  I am very interested in how you investigate the traditional power of portraiture. Not only in your own self-portraits but your overall challenge to emblematic representations.

Monica Castillo:  The decision to work on self-portraits is a process. It came to the point where I had the feeling that I had to analyze what was, in my specific case, a Mexican tradition. In other words I chose to work with self-portraits because there are so many references to it in Mexican art. The challenge was to represent a self-portrait that wouldn’t be charged with this metaphorical content. When you look at a self-portrait you automatically think that the artist’s face is the artist’s inner life. I did that for seven years, and now I feel that I’m out of that because it got to the point where I realized that the portrait itself has so much meaning that I wouldn’t be able to find a way out of it...or at least at the moment when I decided not to do any more self-portraits. I had the feeling that I couldn’t go further with that investigation. I think that there are some attempts there that do subvert these pictorial challenges, but I think that the main dilemma was that it was a question of choice - a choice in terms of pictorial traditions.

LatinArt:  Can you talk a bit about the materials you use, such as knitting and weaving as well as your newer use of digital media and how that fits into your investigation?

Monica Castillo:  There is a lot of manual labor involved in my projects and in a way I chose to work in a very time consuming way because it was a way of thinking about what I was creating while I was working. There is a certain amount of energy when you invest time into something, and this is not something that is always evident as my work is closely related to handcrafts, but there is definitely a relationship you establish as an artist to the viewer with this huge investment of energy. I thought it was a very useful tool to investigate - these very time consuming and low regarded crafts.

LatinArt:  There is a definite commercial interest in your work. How did this time consuming practice affect your "productivity" as an artist?

Monica Castillo:  It got to the point that I sold each of the portraits I did and I had a awaiting list as well, and this was a situation I really did not want to get into. It was not really an aim of mine to create a huge series of self-portraits. What I wanted was to have a serious - if slower - investigation into what these images could be. Also, by working slowly and making time consuming objects I was also able to detach myself a bit from what the galleries wanted of me.

LatinArt:  Does you transition to other media, such as video and digital media, allow you to work at a different pace? Did time or the market have any bearing on the adoption of this media?

Monica Castillo:  You know, the thing that happened after so many years of working so slowly was that I didn’t have enough work around me to create as rich a discourse from my development than if I had been producing more. Because I was so involved into this investigation of image representations and painting processes, the decision to start working with video was kind of an organic development. Now, I really think that it was the right decision because I always had this incredible sense of anxiety over never having enough work, and as a result I had professional difficulties. It got to the point were I didn’t like it anymore.

LatinArt:  Your investigation into Mexican cultural traditions, often universal traditions, has been integral to your work. How does it play it out in your newer projects?

Monica Castillo:  We in Mexico have this incredibly fragmented cultural tradition, there is so much conflict in the way we see ourselves and understand each other in relation to cultural forces. The way I relate to Latin American traditions is the way we were taught to understand images. I mean, it's an animistic way of creating a semiotic confusion between the represented and the object...So, I came to certain conclusions; I mean, after making self-portraits for seven years I became a kind of a victim of my own images, in the sense that I couldn’t detach myself from this monster that I had created. It was also the moment that I realized that I couldn’t make any more inroads with the self-portrait. My next decision was, well, if image and object is impossible to separate, then I’m going to glue them together and that was the next step in my series of Painted Men.

LatinArt:  Those Painted Men are fascinating because I remember I saw them as an interesting fusion and exchange of media; Is it painting? Is it photography? Is it sculpture? Do you see yourself playing more with this idea of a blending or synthesis of media and materials?

Monica Castillo:  Yes, definitely. The main objective of this investigation is image/object, but of course there is this other one called photography and media. In a way, I think it conceptually matches the issues I’m trying to deal with.

LatinArt:  Are there any new conceptual developments or ideas that you’re trying to work out?

Monica Castillo:  I’m working on how one represents the vehicles and tools of representation. The next step would be to make a parallel between painting processes and organic processes. In a way, it is very much related to 70’s conceptual art. The other interest I have in these developments is an investigation into the dynamics of animistic cultures and its iconoclasms. Animistic comes from anima, the idea that you inject life into objects and animate them. The concept is that if your looking at an image of Christ you have to understand this image as Christ itself. There is then, this semiotic confusion about the image. We are not able, culturally speaking, to make that separation. That, I think, is something very interesting about our culture, and I think that is part of my task - to talk about those things that function within my work’s context.

LatinArt:  That separation is a daunting task, just ask the people here at the Brooklyn Museum.

Monica Castillo:  Yes, I think it’s incredibly primitive and I think it has to do with what can be called mimetic forces the image has - that impulse to have an image resemble the object. Those mimetic forces relate to us in such an essential way, it essentially allows us to look at images calmly...there is something not clear about the way we relate to images.

LatinArt:  You seem to be dealing with how we, the public in general, deal with images. Does the public somehow influence what you create?

Monica Castillo:  Do you mean, in which terms does the public "interfere" with my work?

LatinArt:  Sure.

Monica Castillo:  Well, I think they do. I have had this discussion with my husband who is also an artist, and he always tells me that I’m always too didactic in the way I present things, that I don’t need to do that. The moment I moved to New York I realized that I didn’t do that anymore. Here you know that you are showing work to people that are incredibly experienced at looking at contemporary art. The difference with Mexico is considerable. There is certainly an informed public in Mexico, but for example, in NY, there is a huge public that views art on a regular basis. That gives you a much more flexible approach to art. The show that was at Ace Gallery in L.A. was also in Mexico City and the difference in what the public and the art critics in Mexico and the US who wrote on them saw, made me think on how a more informed context can make you do less didactic work.

LatinArt:  Do you find yourself spending more time in Mexico City or New York because of this?

Monica Castillo:  I find myself being more creative in Mexico...that’s the truth, but in a way it’s really good to be here because I feel incredibly challenged.

LatinArt:  As the center of fashion, design, commercialism, and of course, the art market, are there any challenges to live and work here in New York that are different from any other place?

Monica Castillo:  I try not to get too involved in that. The great thing about being in a city like New York is that you really get a chance to see everything. In a way, I thought it would be an intellectual challenge being here, but that hasn't been that yet. What is challenging is the incredibly wide art scene...that is a challenge. To define who you are and what you want from your work. But really, I am still surprised, I thought there were going to be many more ideas going around. There seems to be an atmosphere of being totally bored with if there was too much. Then again, it’s kind of true! (laughs), or maybe I'm a little too enthusiastic about art.

LatinArt:  And in relation to Mexico City?...

Monica Castillo:  There’s something about Mexico City that keeps me going in terms of my artistic activity. Because I keep traveling back and forth these impulses remain every time I go there. In a way, it has to do with my interest in creating something regional or local but that can also work in a bigger context. What I have realized being here in New York is that there is a gap between U.S. east coast traditions and Mexican traditions. I would say that it has something to do with Mexico’s lack of Minimalism; you know here in New York there are three or four "Minimalist" generations. This definitely affects the way New Yorkers, North Americans for that matter, see contemporary art. That I think is something that creates a division. The question would be why we never had a Minimalist movement in Mexico. There is a movement in Brazil, Argentina and Chile, but we never had that. So here again, we have this different analytic mind when we relate to art. We in Mexico have such a strong animistic tradition that it flows over absolutely everything.

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