Victor Castillo says he’s not a rebel, but you can be forgiven for thinking otherwise. His work is full of images mocking the traditional pillars of authority in society, whether churches, schools, or government. Patriotism, sports, the nuclear family, youth groups, mass entertainment, and even Santa Claus are called into question in Castillo’s relentlessly dark, but morbidly funny, view of the world. Everything in Castillo’s paintings hints at deception and intrigues lurking below the surface of everyday life. Lies and corruption abound. The veneer of civilization that hides our darker impulses wears thin in Castillo’s art, so that his cartoon characters live in a sort of nuclear holocaust, Lord of the Flies world. It’s the end of days as imagined by Looney Tunes. Or maybe it’s just a bad dream.
Just Another Night – 2012
The characters in his paintings are almost always children, which is appropriate. Castillo is interested in the barbarity that lurks below the surface of things, and at no point in life is that barbarity closer to the surface than it is in childhood. Castillo captures perfectly the naively sadistic, destructive impulses of childhood, and the fear and hostility children naturally feel towards all figures of authority. In Castillo’s imagining, children run gleefully amok in a nightmare vision of a post-apocalyptic world. Little girls in pigtails and penny loafers trample over the ruins of cities, or say their bedtime prayers while a cathedral burns in the background. One painting shows a boy beside a moonlit pond, tossing a crucifix into the water. It’s called Rebels with a Cause. Still, Castillo insists, his paintings are not really about rebellion per se, “but rather a profound disillusionment about the state of things.” And these days there is much to be disillusioned about, especially when it comes to institutional authority. “Today more than ever, and everywhere, the credibility of institutions is in crisis.”
Written Forgotten – 2011
If anyone has a valuable background perspective on these matters, it’s Castillo. He was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1973, and grew up under the rule of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. While it’s always possible to overstate the influence of the environment in which an artist develops, there is no denying that growing up under a dictatorship influenced Castillo’s perspective. Many of his paintings deal explicitly with political and economic themes, and always in a way which is deeply cynical about institutional corruption. In The Big Boss, a young boy in a business suit, wearing a fake grin, buries his piggy bank in a hole in the ground. In Masters of the Universe three innocent looking children gaze lovingly at an oil derrick draped in sausage. Religion is a particular target of abuse in Castillo’s paintings, and he doesn’t mince words about his distaste for Catholicism: “I grew up in a very Catholic country and took religion classes at school. There was no lack of Bible stories on television. But the truth is that I never believed the stories of the Bible and I find it unfortunate that this book exerts influence on so many people.” Upside down crucifixes, burning churches, and demonic imagery occur regularly. When speaking in general terms, Castillo is more circumspect about his attitude to growing up in Chile. “Growing up in a beautifully secluded country gives you an interesting poetic perspective. It can be a refuge, a paradise or a prison.”
The Beast – 2012
Castillo’s paintings are not all apocalyptic visions of youthful destruction and cynical allegories of corrupt authority. If the title Rebels with a Cause indicates one way of looking at Castillo’s paintings, Dreamland points to another. In this painting, and many others, we simply see a bizarre, nightmare world of strange creatures and surreal symbolism. Animals appear, and mythological creatures. References to art history and pop culture get jumbled up together in funny and disturbing ways. Castillo revels in a pastiche of high-brow and low-brow cultural touchstones. On his website he describes developing the urge to draw at a very young age, inspired by the animations he saw on television, science fiction movies, and the illustrations on his family’s record covers such as Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” Rock music is obviously dear to his heart, and the titles of many of his paintings are taken from rock songs: Love Me Tender, Another One Bites the Dust, Riders on the Storm, Whip it Good, and so on. References to movies occur regularly, especially Stanley Kubrick films. Those creepy twins from The Shining crop up from time to time, and in one image a young cowboy rides a missile, Dr. Strangelove-style.
It’s not that strange a mix; there are cartoons that seem like ancient classic paintings. However, it entertains me and I find it ironic mixing incompatible genres, but ultimately find they work very well. The humor is always present in my work.
And yet, Castillo is not completely removed from traditional art history. He became interested in classical painting after studying Goya in Spain. Echoes of Baroque painting are present in his use of darkness and light. One painting, Moonlight, is a direct allusion to Ophelia, by pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais. Castillo sees no difficulty in his mixing and matching of cultural reference points, and enjoys the sometimes disorienting result. “It’s not that strange a mix; there are cartoons that seem like ancient classic paintings. However, it entertains me and I find it ironic mixing incompatible genres, but ultimately find they work very well. The humor is always present in my work.”
Can’t Get It Out Of My Head – 2011
Castillo now lives in Los Angeles, and I ask him if there is any conflict between his love of American popular culture and his rejection of American-backed political and economic policies in Chile. He points out the distinction that must be made between the culture of a place and it’s institutions of power. “Government and citizenship are very different things. The citizens aren’t the ones who make political decisions, let alone people in the world of art or culture. So I have no conflict to reconcile the two realities of a country. It happens everywhere. I, for example, don’t feel identified with the policies of the government in my country.” What role, I ask, should an artist play in society? “All this – to entertain, provoke, seduce, reveal and most of all, ask questions.”
At first glance, Paul Kaptein’s collection of hand-carved wooden sculptures might appear as though it was conceived in the deepest recesses of his unconscious mind. But in fact, his warped creations were born out of a very deliberate and conscious desire to depict an unstable realism – one that represents the dynamic relationship between form and emptiness. We spoke to Kaptein about his inspiration, the role of symbolism in his work and the relationship with his medium. G—Wood is a dominant medium in your work. What type of narrative do you think it creates? PK—I think it assumes a narrative that predates the work, and commences a commentary around time and timelessness. Wood has a universal presence that speaks to everything from wooden spoons and chopping boards, to alter prices, totems and architecture – it’s like the backbone of culture in a way. It acknowledges that change is an inherent part of the work – that it may one day become something else. For now it is sculpture. Hopefully. G—Much of your work is sculpture based. What are the advantages and limitations of sculpture? PK—I’m interested in being in the world and therefore tend to have a very visceral response
Kip Omolade is an American artist from Harlem, New York, with a background in graffiti art and a BFA from Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts. His latest series, Diovadiova Chrome, is a sequence of hyperrealistic oil paintings depicting massive chrome masks. Omolade casts these masks himself, which he then uses as a model for his paintings. The end result is a fascinating hybrid of African tradition and contemporary materials. We spoke to Omolade about Benin masks, Paris Hilton, and the meaning of chrome, “the poor man’s silver.” G—In your series, Diovadiova Chrome, you explore immortality and contemporary notions of beauty and luxury. What prompted your interest in these themes? Kip Omolade—Paris Hilton. During the early phenomenon of reality TV stars, I became fascinated with the idea of the instant celebrity in mainstream media. I wondered if art could participate in this star-making machine. So, I ironically spent ten years developing the Diovadiova using one model as a muse. I drew, painted, printed and sculpted over 100 images of a single person. By confining myself to one model, Diovadiova also allowed me to stretch my imagination as an artist. I developed different styles including the current technique used in Diovadiova
Since 2008 the Finnish photographer Juha Arvid Helminen has been exploring humanity’s literal and metaphorical dark side with a photo series entitled The Invisible Empire, which explores the ways in which power, authority, and violence express themselves through fashion and visual iconography. Helminen dresses his subjects in uniforms and accessories which suggest fascist and authoritarian political movements, conservative religion and contemporary policing. “I have always been fascinated by uniforms, and when I had studied arts and photography for a few years in 2008 I wanted to create photos with a meaning. To be honest, at first I was only intrigued by the aesthetics, but a bit later I started to think about human behaviour and how we convey different ideologies and professions by our clothes – how traditions and beliefs dictate our behaviour. How we hide our true persona and create walls around us.” This name, ‘Invisible Empire’, was on my mind for many years. Little by little just a few photographs grew into a whole narrative of humans’ incapability to learn from its mistakes throughout many centuries. The title, Invisible Empire, refers to an alternative name used by the Ku Klux Klan, an organization “known for violence, racism and