Interviewsand Articles


An Interview with Rolando Castellon—Mysterious Stranger: Meridian Gallery SF June 13 2007

by Richard Whittaker, Jun 13, 2007



When Meridian Gallery was forced out of its old space and moved around the corner to Powell Street, directors Anne Brodzky and Tony Williams were looking for tenants to help defray the increased costs they now faced. I took a room as an office figuring it would be an adventure. The circle of influence I entered was bound to bear fruit in some way, I thought, their relationship to art and artists being something I felt close to. Besides, the name of Anne’s and Tony’s non-profit Society of Art Publishers of the Americas, made me feel at home. 
    Meridian’s inaugural exhibit in this new space featured three artists, including Rolando Castellon. One afternoon I’d walked up to the third floor where Castellon’s installation was underway. The place was deserted and I took the opportunity to study what was already in place, several small drawings and a large piece of black felt paper covering much of one wall. The smaller pieces were lyrical and a little unsettling. Across parts of the felt paper Castellon, using mud, had brushed loosely architectural patterns evocative of pre-Columbian imagery. The rich matte brown of the mud was strangely beautiful on the black surface. Altogether, his work struck me with unusual force. I was curious to meet the artist about whom I knew nothing.
     A little later, a man in his late sixties or early seventies walked up the stairs. Slight of build, he radiated an air of quietude. His face made an immediate impression. It must be Castellon, I thought, and knew right away I wanted to interview this man. A few days later we met to talk.

Richard Whittaker:  How long did you live here in the Bay Area?
Rolando Castellon:  I came in 1956 from Nicaragua. I was 19 years old. I’ve lived more than half of my life here. “Oh, no pictures!” [I’d picked up my camera and Rolando covers his face] No, really. It’s against the law. When people are extremely interested, I say, take pictures from the back.
RW:  The moment you walked in, I knew I wanted to interview you. It’s what I saw in your face.
RC:  Really? When I started at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I just hated the superficiality of the people who wanted to take pictures for the social pages. I told the museum’s photographers, don’t take my picture, ever! And nobody has seen my picture in public. It’s against my principles. I like to be behind the scene.
     My first major exhibition was in 1971 in Costa Rica. It was the first biennial of paintings in Central America and I won the award for Nicaragua, so I disappeared when they were giving the awards. All that publicity, I just don’t like it. Eventually the man who had invited me, from a big paper in Nicaragua, kind of caught me and insisted that I stand next to my work, but that was the last time anyone had any success in photographing me.
RW:  Richard Berger didn’t want me to take his photograph when I interviewed him. Well, that was the first time I’d run into that and I was impressed, because there’s such a hunger in the culture for media attention.
RC:  Nobody questions it. All the photographers, it’s like an invasion——especially with the newspaper journalists.
RW:  For most of the history of the world, artwork had been anonymous. In traditional cultures, I doubt that people sign their names. Do you have any thoughts on that?
RC:  I have made some funny statements about that. For one thing, in ancient cultures people were producing utilitarian things. They were not making “art.” It was just part of the culture. There was no individual identification, but styles could be recognized.
     Since I can remember, since childhood, I have drawn. This is my great passion. It is something that comes natural and is an everyday activity. When I came to the United States, the reason was because I had an injury from playing soccer.
     My mother had been here in San Francisco for a couple of years and I was told that I’d have to have an operation to fix my clavicle. I didn’t like the idea of putting a nail or something in there like the doctor in Nicaragua said. When I got here, the doctor said I didn’t need it. In retrospect, that was important because it kept me out of the service. Then, being here, I saw all the artistic activities, the festivals, the dance, the museum exhibits, so I just felt perfectly with it.
     I saw that what I’d always done for my own pleasure had some significance here. That just changed my life. I had never realized that. One of the first things I found out was that the signature was very important, the identification of the work. So I invented a name, which was actually my real name, and I began to practice a new signature. In the catalogue there is one page dedicated to repeating my signature over and over. So I made a joke about it.
     Now my signature is not my real signature. As a boy I used to sign like this [demonstrates]. In fact, in school I used to do this, too [demonstrates a variation]. But when I came here, I invented this, and I can even do it backwards. [demonstrates]. So eventually it became my official signature on paper. This is my natural signature, and this is what I invented. I said that I invented this name, taking the name of the city in which my grandfather was born in Spain. So I make a funny story. Half of it is untrue. I do like to play a little bit with things.
RW:  The question around identity is a big one. But I understand you were one of the founders of the Galeria de la Raza. I’m sure you’ve been asked about that, but would you mind saying something about that?
RC:  The best thing is that it’s still active. The most difficult thing is to open something and then have it close in two days, or have a magazine and have four issues. So that was important.
     I was never that interested in groups. I was an only child and my personal choice is to be aloof. I’m always somewhat afraid of people. I always kept behind the scene. But I began to exhibit some works in 1965 or so with some success in another gallery, a storefront in North Beach. I learned a lot from that, because I used to help with the gallery. So eventually, when I went into administration—as with the Galeria de la Raza—I knew a little about how galleries functioned.
     How it happened is that one of the members of this group, Casa España de Bellas Artes, came to talk to me. He wanted me to join, but I told him no for the reasons I just explained. But we became friends and he kept in touch. They were theater people, poets and artists.
     I had studied advertising at San Francisco City College for a profession. I worked in that for nine years. All my jobs have been for nine years, for some reason. So I worked at an agency, but at one point, I decided to go to Europe. My boss told me I could have a year’s leave of absence. It was a nice gesture, so I accepted. But when I came back, I couldn’t work at that anymore after being in Europe and getting all this incredible experience. I resigned.
RW:  Could you say something about what you got in Europe that was so compelling?
RC:  It was similar to the impressions I had when I first came to San Francisco except that it was an old world. It was the same impression of being exhilarated by all this history, which I was totally ignorant of. It is just like a child finding himself in a toy store. Of course, in Europe each one of those cultures are different in many ways. So going around all these countries, I was learning. Eventually I ran out of money and had to return, but when I came back, I couldn’t work in advertising anymore.
RW:  I’m curious to know your thoughts about that.
RC:  At the time, architecture would have been of interest to me to study, but I didn’t have the financial capabilities of going to university. My mother worked and was supporting my high school and city college education. So I took the quickest way to get employment. Advertising was a two-year course. I took it, graduated and immediately went to work. It wasn’t that I was interested in advertising itself. It was the fact that I did have some ability and since it had to do with drawing it was something I thought I’d like.
RW:  There is this aspect of advertising where it sort of consumes whatever images it can make use of. It appropriates things from the arts.
RC:  Well, I rejected the idea of taking a job in layout or doing renditions. I wanted to do my own work and I didn’t want to come home tired doing that work for advertising. So I remained in the technical side of it. Eventually I was named manager of the production department. I did not consider that this had anything to do with art. I was very careful not to be tempted, because I probably would have been paid better. I wanted to do my own work.
     And being self-taught, I never studied so called fine arts. It was just a natural development of my own ideas. In school, in Nicaragua, I refused to do my homework. I said I was incapable of doing it. Everybody in my family was very craft oriented. In Nicaragua almost every family has that interest; it’s a natural cultural thing. But when I was going to junior high school I was the only one who refused to do homework. I just declared myself incompetent. So my uncles used to help me. It had something to do with decision-making. I’ve always had something to do with making decisions of one kind or another. And I’ve been in positions of leadership in many instances, whether it was in sports or my artistic life.
     To continue the story of Casa España, when I quit advertising, I still needed to work to maintain myself and my mother. I helped produce books and catalogs, freelance. I used to produce the Christmas catalogs for the Emporium, Macy’s and all these places. So I learned the craft of making books. That was important for me later, because I do have a magazine, Cenizas, that I started in 1979. I’ve produced forty-two issues so far.
     So I quit and decided to get an office. It occurred to me that since that person from Casa España was still after me, I decided that, well, maybe I would accept. I thought maybe we could combine things. I said, “OK, you got me.” They appointed me director of visual arts. They had a budget and I was given a certain amount of money for expenses. Since we did exhibitions all over the place, I said we needed a space—especially since when you went, innocently enough, to a gallery and asked to show work, they didn’t even want to look at what you had because of the discriminative part of the culture. I realized very soon this was a moot question and saw that, in relation to the community, what we needed was a space.
     I, of course, participated in all the things going on. I did the opening scene in the city with museums and so on. I mean this was like, as I said, I was just in heaven. I participated in everything. So I knew guys and places and I noticed at one time that one gallery had moved from Union Street to 17th Street and Valencia, for some reason. I noticed it didn’t last. The clients wouldn’t come close to the other side of the railroad tracks, you know. So I knew the place was empty. So I decided to contact the owner. I wrote a letter and I didn’t have a carbon copy. I lived in Bernal Heights, which is pretty windy. I went home for lunch and when I opened the door of my car, the letter, which was just sitting on the front seat, this wind came in and took the letter. It went up the hill in the air, and it just disappeared. I mean it was like a divine act.
     So there I was. I had no letter. So I got back in the car and drove to the place. The door was ajar and I went in. Anyone home? This guy came out. He played tennis, was a very wealthy man. It turned out that he was interested in the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca. His name was Frederick and we hit it off nicely. I explained to him what I was looking for. He was friendly. I said, “How much?” He said, “One hundred twenty-five dollars.” That was exactly what I had in funding from the group! I said, “Okay, I’ll take it.” That’s how it started.
RW:  A wonderful story.
RC:  So I went back to my colleagues. We had a meeting and accepted to take it and came up with a name. When you use raza, that’s a very political statement—especially at that time. But we thought that was very important. We wanted to change things, you know. It was a collective. It consisted of about twelve artists, or so. Everyone had to pay ten dollars a month.
     Many have gone on to better things. But I was able to close the cycle because we started in 1969. In 1988 I was director of the university museum gallery at UC Santa Cruz. That was my last job in the U.S.—another nine-year stint. The Director of the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz asked me if I’d curate a show for Latin American art at that museum. I told him I would do it if we collaborated. I was very busy and I was always very careful about doing things correctly, anything where I would get paid, because it’s very easy to get in trouble for abuse of things. One of the first things I had done at the Galeria de la Raza was that I told them I didn’t want to be the director forever. I said we should have elections every year so that we would all get the experience of directing this. And also, many people just don’t like to work. Of course, I didn’t want to get stuck with something. 
     So in 1997 the director of the museum from the city of Santa Cruz said, fine. And we did a show at the museum downtown and at the university. It was called Mano a Mano, which is a confrontation. It’s used in the ritual of the bullfight. Then the Mexicans, guys in a bar, they play guitar, they insult each other. One sings and the other responds in song. It’s very Latino, a cultural thing. So I called it Mano a Mano.
     The idea that occurred to me was that Latino art has always been qualified as realistic, always political, some reasons it’s never accepted in the mainstream. It’s too literal, right? So I decided the confrontation would be between abstract and figurative work. I wanted to compare and also to show that we do other things besides just being “realistic” and political. I selected sixteen artists. About ten were from the old guard, the people who started with me. There were some younger ones, too, that I found.
     I installed the exhibition by putting work from both tendencies together, a comparative thing. There would be some connection whether it was composition or color or other elements. So there was a confrontation. In the catalog I did that, too. I think it worked very nice. So I was able to do that cycle. I started with them and I was able, twenty years later to do a definitive exhibition, at least for that generation and the beginning of the next one.
     It traveled. It went to Los Angeles and was at the Oakland Museum. There is documentation in the catalog. They still sell it on the Internet.
RW:  There are several areas I’d like to ask about. As you say, as a child you’ve been drawing. Over the years what has evolved and changed, or what has remained the same through a lifetime of creative work?
RC:  There has been a consistency of intention. Not until I went to Costa Rica in 1993 did my interest begin to decrease.
RW:  Decreased?
RC:  Yes. Because I was very obsessive. I mean I have hundreds and hundreds of works in my house in Costa Rica. Especially as I’ve been drawing since —if anybody asks me, I’m a drawer. That’s what I am. I painted a little. I didn’t like it. I wasn’t interested in any colorful work, as good as it might be. It was always decorative. Latinos were accused also of copying the French, all these influences. But color, I was not that interested in it and it became totally monochromatic when I started to use mud.
     My hand, in the work itself, it certainly developed. They say that to be a Sumi artist, you had to study your whole life before you could be called a master. I was so intense when I drew that my hand became very facile. And I don’t think about anything beforehand. I don’t do anything with a purpose. I just let my feelings get into the work. It might be good. It might be bad. It doesn’t matter.
     I’ve done things of all kinds. But I always liked to do the original work. I tried to learn as many techniques—I don’t like some because of the health hazards and because I had to wait for weeks to see the final work. I want to see it now! But I learned. I taught myself how to do etchings and lithographs. In fact I did a lot of work that looked like prints, but they are not. I did a lot of experimentation and there are many techniques that I discovered. I touched everything. I used any medium. But the main force, was to do it.
     I think, in all cases for the artist, it’s the doing that gives you that pleasure, or whatever it is that interests you so much.
     Then in 1981 I found this idea of using mud. I was interested, in Central America, in those fragments of adobe walls. They were really beautiful and they reminded me a little bit of pre-Columbian works. So I began to make some fragments from walls. I used the traditional way of using grass and sticks, of crossing them and putting layers of mud and more grass, because that held the object together. I did that and eventually I began to apply the mud to the paper. That amalgamated everything. The coloration of the mud, as you can see on the mural there, there are many things that can be done with it. Some details of the murals look like paintings. Some have sculptural elements. Some have drawings.
     So, obviously there was progress, but I think the theme has never changed. It’s a continuation.
RW:  The intention has always been the same, you said. Could you say more?
RC:  I cannot verbalize it. As I say, the way I work is very organic. I just don’t think about it.
RW:  The problem of language. But something keeps you coming back to making art…
RC:  Yes. I think you can say it’s expression. I remember I used to play soccer and I was very—I demonstrated my abilities quite a bit. I always played goalkeeper and I did things I didn’t have to do. It was a form, I guess, to express feelings. And you did it naturally. Children do it naturally. They don’t have any reason. I guess I was always a child. I’m still a child, as far as I am concerned. I always work organically. I’ve just gone my way. I still do it, no matter what.
RW:  Is there something in the experience that connects you all the way back?
RC:  Yes. Sure. I think so. But on the daily basis I don’t sit down to work like I used to before and spend two or three hours doing the drawings. For example, for this show, some of the drawings are very old. What I do now, when I get invited to do an exhibition, I just do stuff on the spot. It’s site specific, as they refer to it now. You do things right on the wall. I bring the drawings because they are part of the larger work. It’s a work in progress that is getting larger and larger in size. The intensity is still there, but the process has changed. I just don’t do it as much as I used to. I’m less obsessive. It is like I don’t need it anymore — I feel like a fool, like it’s really cumbersome…
RW:  When you say you feel like a fool what do you mean?
RC:  I always felt one thing about art and artists that live a long time where they begin to repeat themselves. We do things and we repeat ourselves. I think that’s a negative force. That might have something to do with it. I feel satisfied with what I’ve done so far.
     I’ve had very few shows in forty years. In the book, I think there are twenty one-person and ten group shows. That was not up to me. If I was invited, I accepted. At one point I submitted some work early and I got into a national drawing show, I remember, in the sixties. I mean, when you send something and it’s turned down, it’s not a good feeling. Well, I don’t do it for this. So in my adult life, if I have an invitation, I accept it; I do it, and it’s wonderful. But I’m not going around sending slides. No. I didn’t think that was what I would like to do.
RW:  So what is it that one does it for?
RC:  For myself. And then what comes is secondary. It’s up to somebody else. A person might like the work, might not. A critic might like it or might not like it. I was kind of fortunate because the few times I exhibited in San Francisco I had good attention from the critics and good responses, too. When I worked at the museum, I used to open my own studio once a year. The critics would come to see my work in my own studio. I think that I was fulfilled in my activity and, if they came, fantastic. I couldn’t do anything about it.
RW:  What is it that one gets for oneself?
RC:  I think it’s totally chauvinistic, or ego. I mean it’s like when I played football, I used to do these unnecessary acts. So I think that art comes from artifice. So there is something fake. Something illusion.
RW:  I find it hard to believe that this is what it is.
RC:  Well think about this. I think that sculpture has it 100% above two dimensions. Sculpture is something that is as real as this table. So I am very partial to sculpture because it is something that exists. If I close my eyes, I can still touch a sculpture, but I cannot see a drawing or painting. So the illusion that is created by two dimensions that I consider to be, well, I use “artifice.”
RW:  Okay. But the part I have trouble understanding when you say “ego” —if one is working and one is alone and no one is there to see it, how does the egotism come in?
RC:  The idea that you think you have control of something. This, in myself, is ego.
RW:  Is there more to it than that? I didn’t know I could do this. As a matter of fact, how can I take credit for this thing I didn’t know I could do?
RC:  Before I came to San Francisco I did it with the same intensity that I did for the next fifty years, ok? I didn’t know at that time that there was such a thing as doing it for somebody else, signing it, getting paid for it. I mean these things were non-existent. I mean I did it because of a love of doing that. In fact when I came here I, of course, hit the libraries and got all the books that I could put my hands on and I read something about Odilon Redon. He said “I love that which has never been.” Which is again, when I do something, I love to see what comes out. Somebody can say, I’m a dumb artist. I don’t use my intellect. I use my emotions and that’s a no-no. You’re supposed to know exactly what you’re doing.
RW:  I relate to you in the sense of being self-taught. But I’m interested in this thing about egotism. I’m sort of stuck on this point, because, as you say, I start out and I don’t know what I’m going to do, but the hand has become facile and then something is done. To me, egotism, refers to something where I can say “I” did this. But if the hand does it by itself—like I don’t know how it did it—isn’t that something else other than egotism?
RC:  The thing is, that is cultural. That is what comes in your blood. Sometimes I will realize, where did I learn to do this thing? How come I have this facility? I don’t know. I didn’t “learn” it. But if I do it since I’m two years old, then there must be some explanation.
     An explanation came along when I had this friend, a Korean man who had a gallery on Union Street. He gave me my first one-person exhibit in a gallery. There were some black and white drawings. At the opening the mother of the wife of this guy, she was in her late eighties, asked her daughter to call me over. She wanted to talk to me, and the daughter translated. She wanted to tell me not to worry if people did not understand my work. She understood it perfectly well, and rejoiced with it. Those who didn’t understand it were too young to understand it. She said that I had many lives behind me so I was a wiser person. She believed in reincarnation. Metaphysically, that’s the only explanation that makes some sense, you know. As a child, I liked to write all over the wall—except I kept doing it as an adult.
RW:  As a child, it must have been something that fed you.
RC:  Absolutely—and it has all through to today. That’s why I used “ego,” because that’s something we all have. There was an article that was written by Charles Shere, the art and music critic for the Oakland Tribune. He wrote a review of a show that I had at Meridian. The text was written in two columns. One column was for ego and the other for modesty. The article is very interesting. He talks about my artistic life and mentions how I was a show off as a goal keeper. And he talks about my being a naïve artist in the beginning—I had drawings that are wonderful naïve stuff—and that I had developed further. Then, on the last line, he said, “where modesty stills ego.” He wrote that I had been successful in defeating ego. And it explains, for me again, like the explanation of that lady, why I do what I do. I have no explanation: it pleases me; it pleases the insides of my brain, or whatever it is—which is not enough to call myself an artist.
     Of course, I never called myself an artist. I think that I use the word because it’s part of the system. I learned that, yeah, if you can do that, you’re an artist. So I continue to feel this same way. I don’t do anything for a purpose. I think I’ve been extremely fortunate that I’ve made my life around this thing—professional, pleasure, money, some recognition, name it. I worked in a profession that I had no training for. I was a curator at a major museum, and from where?—from my dedication of working at the Galeria de la Raza, my experience in the field and because I knew everybody on both sides. From the Galeria I went directly to the museum.
     They didn’t have anybody at the museum to look at Black Art or Chicano Art or Japanese Art. They had to hire somebody. For some reason I fit the need and I filled that need somehow. I discovered a part about my mother, especially at the end of her life, she did a lot of work that I never knew about. She would hide it. It was wonderful. She had a great sense of composition and color, and so on. I think I got some of that genetically from her, and maybe from my indigenous past, because I’m half mestizo—or 100% mestizo, as I say.
RW: You’ve been an insider and then there’s what’s called “outsider art.” Nobody ever calls himself an insider artist, I’ve noticed. Have you reflected at all about art world categorizing on this basis?
RC:  One of the things that I didn’t like about the museum[SFMOMA], and it’s not necessarily the question you’ve asked, but I was categorized as a “third world” curator. Here’s a Black painter, there’s a Chicano, whatever—nobody likes to be put into those categories. I want to be a person. I want the opportunity to fail or succeed, but I need the opportunity to prove either way. So that was my way of thinking.
     As Thomas Albright used to say, “all artists are fourth world.” All artists are minorities, white, black, whatever. I agree with him on that. I don’t want to be put in there as a token act.
     When it comes to so-called naïve painters, there are some that transcend the line. I think that’s correct; I understand it. In most cases the separation remains, but it’s difficult to draw the line. There was this Mexican artist, Martin Ramirez, who just had a show at the New York Folk Museum, an outsider, so-called. He was in several psychiatric hospitals. He is being looked at now very seriously in several museums. If I had something to say, I would not draw the line, but I can understand why.
     I did a group show, a naïve show at the San Francisco Museum, where I took what I thought were authentic naïve artists. There were twelve or fifteen. It was very successful.
RW:  Some of that work is very powerful.
RC:  I know! It goes back to the idea that contemporary art is intellectual. Anything that comes from the heart is [dismissive wave of his hand].
RW:  Yes. I wonder what that is about.
RC:  I just heard a lecture where a guy said that originality has no place in the contemporary art world. I said to him, well, that leaves me out, because I’m totally an intuition person. But that’s the process. October magazine, for example. That’s a good example of such ideas.
RW:  There are certain canons of the times, I guess, that I just don’t accept. In those rare moments of really being whole, we know there’s more than just this intellectual trip. I mean, most of the time, I’m just on some head-trip.
RC:  Well, when I was at the museum, I wrote a text and Albright emphasized what I felt, this idea of the intellectual against the feeling sort of thing. He made a good point about that, that despite all the intellectual stuff, good work, dealing with feeling, is still being made—and it will always be made.
     In Santa Cruz I did an exhibit called From the Heart. That was the title of the show, a group show. I mean, I’m for it and I did it. I had the power to do it, despite what the intelligentsia is telling us. I brought several things in. International.
     Of course, I like to revise history. I’m doing that a little bit, for fun. I eliminate all the art and artists I consider fraudulent in modern and contemporary art. The system needs them for various reasons, but they don’t belong there.
RW:  Well isn’t it kind of mysterious how some art touches so many people? Here’s another thing. The Getty spent ten million on a Greek statue that was a forgery. Certain people told them it was a fake as soon as they looked at it. They just got it immediately! But the Getty people bought it because some experts thought it was legitimate. And later it was proved to be a forgery.
RC:  I think commercial importance has a lot to do with it. Twenty, eighty million dollars for a work of art. That influences things. In fact, I can only think of Frida Kahlo. I could say that she’s an outsider surrealist or something, but she is the queen of the auction houses. She’s someone who broke all the rules, and she is more important than the three big masters of Mexican art. All the big museums have her work, but why is she being accepted and not Martin Ramirez, let’s say.
     There are so many things that are the result of manipulations or corruption. It’s a business, basically a business. They know what they want. They invent it, sometimes. I said to people, well look how boring it would be if the only thing you get to look at is what the system offers you. Because what makes an area, or a city, interesting is what goes on at large, you know? That’s what makes it exciting.
    What makes my life interesting is to be in front of living art. For the artist, it’s so difficult to get through. It’s a fight against life, really, to try to be a successful artist in this country, in Europe or anywhere. The system, by itself, is really very limited. This is not to deny that the system has many wonderful works of art. But there are some where you ask, why is this guy in there? Nothing you can do about it.
    I discovered very early on that I could not be part of that, so I invented my own space based on my own reasons— which is what they do. So I’m not any better than them. But there were so many artists who came to the Galleria or some of the other community galleries, and of course, the emphasis was on showing our work, naturally. We needed to educate, we needed to give pride and to be able to succeed, which is important. But there are many things that will stop you from doing that. You have to keep fighting.
RW:  You’re able to keep going. Why don’t we look at some of what you’ve done here.[his installation at Meridian Gallery] Are all of these drawings you’ve made?
RC:  Yes. All of these are hand-produced. This one I drew the line part with a ballpoint over an ink drawing. These are photographs. I had an exhibit at Santa Cruz where I featured exotic plants as works of art. This is one.
RW:  This shape here. You must be attracted to that.
RC:  The human image is very important to me. It appears all the time; it’s always there, especially symbolically, with the extremities. This could be a person in movement. It has animal, bird and human forms. It’s sort of a mixture.
     One time I had an exhibition at a museum of anthropology. I wanted my part to look authentic, so I asked for a guard. They couldn’t afford one, so I dressed as a guard myself for the whole month. I heard people’s comments. “Oh, does this man like teeth. There are teeth all over the place!” [Laughs] They thought these were the roots of a tooth [pointing to a repeating shape].
RW: Can you say what it is about these shapes—animal, human, bird…
RC:  And plant.
RW:  Okay. Something’s going here. Can you say anything about what lies underneath this?
RC:  From my point of view, I think it’s the beauty of—let’s call them “objects”—the beauty of nature: the study of delicacy, the small detail of the flower, the insect, the human also—the beauty of the elements, which are natural. The interpretation is not artifice. It is the real thing.
RW: Now what are these [small, handmade bundles of dried stems]?
RC: In Europe I would leave these little things. I’d just drop them. In this case I left some on a statue of a soldier in Germany. I’d come back a year later to see if they were still there. So it’s sort of a pseudo-conceptual thing. I leave to see how much life they will have. Very seldom have I found one. It’s just an action. I was making fun of conceptualism.
RW:  But calling it “conceptual”—as if that explains something. You’re doing it, so for you there is some meaning. Or why do it, if there’s no meaning?
RC:  Remember that I look at the light side of these things. It’s a game, as far as I’m concerned. I do it to make fun of that conceptual art, but I did it so well that some people qualify my work as conceptual.
RW:  It’s playful.
RC:  It’s a playful thing. It’s a serious curator who has a light side, who will abuse a work of art. So it’s a contradiction. It has to do with extremes—which I like. I like water and fire, cotton and metal. It is an investigation, but with tongue in cheek. [moving on to other pieces] But the beauty of this, it’s like a weaving. And here, this is not mine. It was done by a student here at Meridian. I said, why don’t you draw that [a wood construction of Castellon’s, and part of the installation]. It’s a beautiful drawing. All these things are collaborations.
     I don’t have any reasons except the joy that I perceive. When I use the word love, it has to do with that. I think the materials here have their own reasons. I cannot explain it intellectually.

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and the West Coast editor of Parabola magazine 


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