Revisionist History | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Revisionist History 

Rolando Castellon

"A Legacy of Mud: Post-Columbian Objects, 1981-1997"

at Betty Rymer Gallery, through April 23

Ray Johnson

at Feigen Incorporated, through April 19

By Fred Camper

When the decline of traditional culture results in the loss of community, artists seek remedies in fiction. Gauguin, not finding the native religious art he'd expected in Tahiti, made it up, carving wooden "idols." In recent years artists have continued this tradition, exhibiting objects that appear to be from lost civilizations but are actually of their own invention.

Rolando Castellon takes this idea to a new extreme in his exhibit at the School of the Art Institute's Betty Rymer Gallery: A wall text purportedly written by "Jane Doe, Ph. D." playfully announces that the 77 objects on display are recently discovered artifacts of a Central American "neo-indigenous" society, though in fact Castellon created them all by himself.

Most of the items in a series called "Found Objects"--constructions using mud and acrylic on paper--hang on the wall. Found Object IX looks a bit like a tunic, its short "sleeves" stretched out horizontally. But at less than a foot wide it's too small to be worn, and it comes to a point at its bottom, where Castellon has attached a skein of twigs and hair. Like the other "Found Objects," its dark muddy surface and apparently offhand construction cause one to wonder who made it, and why.

In its use of materials and its tunic shape, Found Object IX recalls the traditional art that Castellon's work constantly references. But the artifacts of pre-Columbian cultures were mostly made for use; Castellon's pieces are firmly rooted in the modernist art world, in which art is made only to be exhibited. No one would, or could, wear this "tunic." Its lack of functionality, dense and dark surface, and mixture of irregularity and symmetry give it an inwardness, a hermetic air, linking it to contemporary art while suggesting that it sprang from a lost culture that will remain forever obscure to us.

All of Castellon's objects share this quality. The viewer feels a kind of poetic distance, as if the object will not permit complete understanding. Found Sheet I is almost square, with a faint and irregular grid of lines near its center and an enigmatic circular shape to the right. Its less-than-perfect grid recalls the designs on many pre-Columbian textiles and other objects, which blend geometry and imperfections reflecting the maker's hand. Here, the grid seems almost buried by a thin layer of mud, which can be seen as a metaphor for the ruinous effects of time or of cultural dislocation.

The specter of the latter is raised by the exhibit's provocative title, which is underlined by Castellon's statement in the accompanying booklet that "there does not exist an autonomous Latin American art," because all its forms and aesthetic concerns are "derivative of the inevitable and permanent European influence." While "Jane Doe, Ph. D." suggests "these works do not signal a return to an indigenous art of the past, but rather point toward an emerging culture"--one, presumably, that Castellon himself is creating out of whole cloth--I could never see them as original in themselves. Their style is calculated, with similar forms drawn repeatedly from natural materials; this imaginary culture is incomplete--its pseudotraditions are haunted by absence. These are a lost people, going through the motions of art making almost as if they were sleepwalking, forgetting any larger purpose, forgetting even content. If pre-Columbian cultures frequently mapped out their cosmos in art, these objects are all mannerist dances around an empty center, an idea embodied in the elegant "Frame of Thorns" series--frames made of thorny wood with nothing inside. Though Castellon's theme is compelling, his depiction of loss and lack results in an exhibit that is less than satisfying as art.

Born in Nicaragua in 1937 and raised mostly in Costa Rica, to which he returned in 1993, Castellon spent much of his life as a curator in San Francisco. An acknowledged expert in Latin American art, he displays a careful study of traditional forms. But his exhibit's very premise--that autonomous traditions became impossible after first contact--has its problems. The efflorescence of textile making in 19th-century Bolivia, for example, proves European influence, but the textiles' highly geometrical abstract forms are anything but European in their effects--strange almost beyond measure, these dynamic designs are a testimony to the way great artists, whatever their circumstances, constantly reinvent themselves. This is no small point, because Castellon's exhibit seems to be saying--almost whining--that 500 years ago the art and culture of a continent was ruined forever, and that only now, in his hands, can some new synthesis make "an emerging culture" possible again. His frames of thorns point an accusatory finger at the conquistadors and all of their descendants. The fictions of Castellon's forms, their self-consciously empty beauty, exist not in the observer's present, but instead in relation to history. Castellon fails to make objects that function as art, even though he exhibits them according to the western art-for-art's-sake model.

The exhibit's one large wall installation, Muro, is a partial exception because it attempts to establish its own context. A big, sprawling, brash, playful, and intentionally messy assemblage, it includes wall paintings, plant fragments, a bird's nest, wood, and mud. Some of it is mounted on the wall; other parts are placed on the floor below, projecting the work into the room. It's engaging, sometimes surprising, and, on a first pass, fun to look at. But ultimately it doesn't cohere, which is perhaps Castellon's intention--he's named, and offered for sale, some parts of it separately. Aggressive by virtue of its very size, Muro demands attention, but then denies the rewards of a unifying organization. Like other works in the show, it took me out of my present space and time. Its provocative combination of materials and fragmented nature combine to call for an explanation outside of the work's form--almost as if it's telling us, "Look at what you all have destroyed." I might have appreciated Castellon's history lesson more if it didn't seem so one-dimensional.

While Castellon's work selfconsciously engages the viewer, Ray Johnson's collages don't care if anyone looks at them. Often somber, dominated by pale colors and grays, these assemblages of pop-culture fragments and abstract designs are puzzling in their obscure networks of references and in the way their busy surfaces, which seem organized according to no known compositional principles, rebuff the viewer's attempts to comprehend. Like Castellon's art, Johnson's collages are enigmatic at first, though his enigmas are not poses assumed to make a point; they have the air of authenticity, the uniqueness of a fingerprint, a poetry that comes from the deepest recesses of an artist's being--a being unwilling, in Johnson's case, to yield up its secrets.

Supposedly reclusive, Johnson did have many friends, a sense of humor, and a love of movies. Born in Detroit in 1927, a suicide in 1995, he had a number of exhibits in his lifetime--but he was also troubled enough by the gallery and museum system that he refused to exhibit for years, often selling his works for a pittance on the streets of Manhattan's Lower East Side, where he lived before moving to suburban Nassau County. Often thought of as a precursor to pop art, his work bears little resemblance to Warhol or Lichtenstein; in its deep self-abnegation, it perhaps comes closest to the work of Jasper Johns, who knew Johnson and collected his art. A student at the legendary Black Mountain College in the late 40s, he was likely influenced by John Cage. He was also gay; the sculptor Richard Lippold, whose cleanly geometrical later work couldn't be more different from Johnson's, was his companion for years. A protean figure who founded something he called the New York Correspondence School, Johnson frequently sent mail art to friends; some felt he designed his suicide as a last performance--two passing girls heard a splash from a bridge and saw him swimming out to sea. In the way he lived and in the manner of his death, he exemplifies the isolation that artists, and many others, have experienced time and again in our century.

The present exhibit at Feigen Incorporated consists of 28 collages from four decades. They were found in Johnson's home after his death, and many had never been exhibited before. For anyone familiar with Johnson's work, it is the later collages that are the most puzzling--and surprising. Sade in Japan has a number of dates written on it; apparently it was worked on between 1981 and 1994. A central rectangle sits below an illustration of a snake and above an abstract pattern of dark lines. Inside the rectangle appears a panel cut out in the profile of a head; a smaller cardboard square colored with an abstract yellow pattern covers the areas where the eyes and mouth would be; the rest of the head is decorated with parallel stripes in a low-budget imitation of Frank Stella. In a tiny area beneath the rectangle, the words "Sade in Japan" are written repeatedly.

There's apparently no way to know what Johnson meant by his title. Fond of puns, anagrams, and chance verbal resemblances, perhaps he liked its close-to-rhyming sound. The famous marquis, of course, never went to Japan; perhaps the reference is to the pop singer of the same name--had she toured there? Puzzled, I phoned Bill Wilson, a leading Johnson expert, who offered that changing one letter of the title would produce "Made in Japan." He said Johnson knew a Japanese artist named Kusama, who made works that, "on the cutting edge of the explicitly erotic," might invite associations with the Marquis de Sade. But Wilson believes you don't need to get all the references to appreciate Johnson's art, because "you get the idea of referentiality," of a network of private meanings.

Indeed, Johnson's title is no more revealing than his dark and fuzzy forms. Perhaps the most revealing clue is concealed: the face. Nearly identical triangles on the sides and the snake at top give the piece an almost theatrical grandeur and symmetry, but all pretensions are denied by its lack of content. Johnson's clusters of small cardboard panels placed atop each other create a layering that is hardly architectural. Instead, these separate panels--diverse in shape, size, color, and design--seem like the stacked fragments of an impossible-to-assemble jigsaw puzzle. Johnson is often compared to the great maker of enigmatic boxes, Joseph Cornell, whom he knew. But Johnson's work also reminds me of the puzzlelike collages of Jess, a reclusive San Franciscan of similar age.

Some of Johnson's earlier collages make explicit reference to other art-world figures. By revealing his attitudes toward established masters, these early pieces help us understand his later work. Mondrian Comb (c. 1969) is mostly blank white; to the right is a photograph of Mondrian in his studio, turning a radio dial. Below this is a white-within-white rectangle, at the top of which is lettered "it was an itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini," words to the popular song from the early 60s. To the upper left is a drawing of wavy dark lines, roughly parallel and arranged in the shape of a comb. Just above the Mondrian photo is the work's tiniest element, a small panel with a most irregular abstract design, pointedly unlike a Mondrian.

Mondrian loved jazz, which is presumably what he was tuning in on his radio. He also disliked curves, in his art and in his life--he once asked to be seated facing a brick wall rather than a skating rink at an outdoor cafe because curves were "too emotional." By pairing the austere Mondrian with a mildly lubricious pop song, Johnson tweaks the by-all-accounts celibate older artist, just as the wavy teeth of the comb mock Mondrian's deification of rectilinearity. To Mondrian's austerity, Johnson proposes sensuality; to his straight edges, Johnson answers with wavy lines. That both artists were balding probably figures in here somewhere as well. The tiny block placed above Mondrian's head provides Johnson's alternative to Mondrian's designs, as irregular and hard to read as Mondrian's paintings are clean and clear. The smallness of this block, and the domination of the overall work by empty space, suggests that Johnson is also proposing an alternative role for the artist. To the form-giving, world-inventing, heroic tradition of abstraction from Mondrian and Malevich to the abstract expressionist painters like Pollock and Newman, who were his New York colleagues, Johnson proposes the artist as scribbler, as denier of unified composition, as concealer of form and meaning. If Castellon's works loudly proclaim their own deficiency as a polemical stance, Johnson's denials are an essential part of his expression.

In Barbara Rose Fan Club (1974), Johnson includes a photograph of Barbra Streisand--his nuttily associative mind likens the famous art critic to another star. Streisand and a cartoony drawing of a woman each have a speech balloon reading "I am supposed to report to a Mr. Castelli. I wonder what he's like." (Barbara Rose worked at the Leo Castelli Gallery one day a week while in grad school; though she can't remember saying anything like that to Johnson, she attributes the quote to his "teasing.") But the bulk of the composition consists of small blocks with abstract designs, a pattern of repeated purple streaks, and white dots against a black background that suggest the night sky. ("More stars than there are in heaven" was a phrase MGM used to tout itself in ads.) One could perhaps read a plaint against art stars here, but it's accompanied by apparent deification. The overall effect of the composition is a complex push-pull of open and closed spaces. The fragmentary areas of stars seem to draw one inward, though hardly with the seductiveness of Vija Celmins's night-sky canvases; the supple purple areas have a slight but gentle depth; the cartoony figures, of which there are more than one, seem to make a joke of everything. The composition doesn't try to unify itself into a picture, but rather remains dynamic and alive by retaining the contradictions between its elements, never answering the questions it poses.

At the core of Johnson's art, as the late collages make especially clear, is a denial of the self. Perhaps his art somehow reflects his ultimate end, though his self-abnegating hermeticism never seems to suggest despair, or for that matter any of the affections. Untitled (F), a collage he worked on from 1981 to '94, is almost entirely obscure, except for a print of a seashell (whose outward spiral conceals a center we cannot see). Jagged staircaselike patterns of black on white are visible at several angles near the letter "F," which is also solid black on white--Johnson's beloved wordplay here merging with geometrical abstraction. But the staircase patterns also play with figure-ground relations; they can be read with either the black or white areas representing the object. Most of the area is taken up with densely layered panels, their smeary designs in dark grays or browns or pale greens. The smears were created by sandpapering over his paint, seeming to negate the whole idea of a composition--occasionally biomorphic, they are more often too fuzzy to be decoration, too random to seem like an image, yet too controlled to be accidental. Instead they become metaphors for an in-between shadow world in which Johnson operates.

Fascinated by stardom in the movies and in the arts, Johnson resisted it not only for himself; he resisted anything that would give him a fixed identity, and the late collages stand as brilliant and affecting testaments to this "in-between" state of mind. Johnson was famous for cutting up and reusing his collages in other works; it would be comforting to think that there's a reason why he saved the works we now see. Their mysteriously complex patterns ultimately provide no answers and reflect a profound ambivalence about being itself. These are works that never settle down, never define themselves. They provide a deeply moving response--though in no way an answer--to a key question of our century: how can a person find an authentic identity amid the cultural chaos that divides us from each other and threatens to rip our world apart? o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Frame of Thorns IV" by Rolando Castellon/ "Mondrian Comb" by Ray Johnson.

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