Victor Castillo

Victor Castillo

Jul 01/2012
by Glen Leavitt

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

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

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

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

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.”

Breaking the Law - 2012

Breaking the Law – 2012

 

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