Iván Castellón comes from Cochabamba, Bolivia, but he paints about a problem residents of the Triangle are coming to know all too well: the mutual incompatibility of a growing urban population with the survival of the animals that previously inhabited the land. Castellón's paintings on this theme form part of his exhibition Bolivian Park at Artspace, where he was recently artist-in-residence for three weeks. His residency was facilitated by Cochabamba's Centro Boliviano Americano, and the North Carolina-Cochabamba chapter of Partners of the Americas in collaboration with Artspace and Exploris. As so many cultural exchange programs do, this one demonstrates that widely separated peoples have more in common than they had imagined. Through translator Paula Lujan, Castellón spoke about his work on one of his last days at Artspace.
In 1998, Castellón began painting what he calls urban maps. They are abstracted images of cities, as if "seen from an airplane or heaven. Later in these urban maps I began to introduce the shapes of animals as a way that the cities and the animals could be integrated," he says. In these paintings, a single animal stands immobilized, enmeshed in the grid of the cityscape, separated from its nurturing landscape. For Castellón, who is a sociologist as well as an artist, the "contradiction" between animal life and urban life is the abiding problem of our age. He thinks that many, perhaps most, animals will become extinct. "This problem has no solution," he says. "It is an age-old contradiction. The growth of cities and of population cannot be stopped."
But how can we live without the animals? "That is my worry, also," he says sadly. "Most likely there will be a time when we won't have wild animals anymore. Even the wild reserves become smaller all the time," because of economic pressures. "Spaces can be outlined for reserves, but the problem is that in countries called 'Third World' the people will break the law in order to survive themselves. The poverty is such that the people must kill to live. The reserves will not last because the people will not respect them."
He believes that one day animals will live only in zoos. "The future is terrible," says Castellón. "At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a faith in the future. They thought humanity could build the future, but we see that that hope has failed. It has been broken by technology and population, and also by the globalization process."
How, with such a bleak view, can he continue to make paintings? "Even if it is true that there is no hope," he says, shrugging deeply, "we cannot keep ourselves from loving and creating. I cannot break the illusion of a possible solution for the cities and animals."
Castellón's dark palette reflects his bleak thoughts and the violence and difficulty of the life he observes in Bolivia. But since to breathe is to hope, these paintings also emit a vivid energy. His way of painting is strong, sturdy, forthright. He makes much use of saw-tooth marks that echo the mountains of his home--and the zigzag form used so often by pre-Columbian artists of South and Central America. He draws beautifully, his somewhat stylized animals recalling the work of Mexican painter Francisco Toledo.
But the fractured forms of his landscapes hint at an early interest in Cubism, a distinctly European phenomenon. Castellón's other influences include the German Expressionist painters, both for their social concerns and their ferocious style. He is particularly interested in Kirchner. And although his own work is quite different from theirs, he also greatly admires the Abstract Expressionists. "They bring everything out--put their whole personality on the canvas," he says. "They are impulsive. Instead of being very careful as in the academy, they are very carefree."
In other words, Castellón himself is an unexpected result of globalization. And while he is not "carefree" in the sense of being without worry, and he is certainly not careless, neither is he careful in the sense of being cautious. He has jumped right in where popes fear to tread--and pretty much everyone else, for that matter--taking on the simple fact that humans are overpopulating the planet. His paintings are his position papers, but they are paintings first of all, not mere screeds. And unusual among artists who work from some issue like this, he evidences an empathy for all. He is more sorrowful than condemnatory. And that makes his paintings more compelling than any rant could be.
Castellón's clear-eyed view of matters extends to his own situation. Asked whether his residency at Artspace had been a rewarding experience as far as his own work goes, he replies equivocally: "Yes. But I will know for sure when I see if Raleigh accepts my art. Maybe what will happen here is a social acceptance, but when the time comes to buy ... "
Apparently artists from Cochabamba and from Raleigh have more in common than just living in over-populated cities.