“Monica Castillo: The Painter and the Body” is the intriguing title of the Mexican artist’s show at the National Museum for Women in the Arts. It could also be called “The Artist and the Model” — a popular theme for painters from Johannes Vermeer to Pablo Picasso — where the personal connection is often intense.
It’s not unusual that Miss Castillo has built an international reputation based on portraiture and self-portraiture, with shows in Mexico City, Caracas, Santiago, Bogota, Munich, New York, Los Angeles and other cities. It also helps that feminists love her because of her primary focus on women.
Yet, her connections with the models and herself are anything but intense. Miss Castillo purposely treats her works as experiments, which, as exhibit curator Britta Konau writes in the catalog, are “seemingly detached, almost scientific investigation of her subjects.” The artist is determined to strike emotion from her work and ignore portraiture’s traditional “window-to-the-soul” role with these paintings, sculptures, videos and digitally manipulated photographs.
Miss Konau writes that Miss Castillo, 44, “rose to fame with her self-portraits in the 1990s” but “they can hardly be called self-portraits in the traditional sense. Her goal was not to present a truthful self-portrait, but rather to use her face to explore the boundaries of representation.”
The results are clever, but I found them repellent and boring, as well as arid, forced and, ultimately, vacuous.
And why does her work call for a 143-page, full color-illustrated catalog with essays by several Mexican curators?
Still, the National Museum for Women in the Arts chose her to kick off the Women Artists Worldwide exhibit program that is co-sponsored and organized with various embassies. In this case, the museum collaborated with the Cultural Institute of the Embassy of Mexico.
Visitors see the artist’s use of unusual materials, probably for shock value: fingernail clippings, stones, bread, needles, sewing and crocheting tools, and a TV set placed under a table that forces viewers to the floor.
“Self-Portrait in Shifts” (1994), for example, breaks down surfaces on the subject’s face. The oil painting could be an Arizona landscape, with a high ridge here and low gully there. The designated areas of blacks, browns and oranges in different textures refer to the dates she painted them. Her woebegone eyes stare straight out, avoiding contact with visitors.
In “Self-Portrait With Distinguishing Features” (1993), 16 self-portraits set in red horizontal divisions show many expressions, including tears, heavy perspiration, dripping nose, red cheeks, and beginnings of masculine mustaches and beards.
Few of the eyes engage audiences, although one self-portrait — in which the image actually resembles her — does.
In addition to oils, Miss Castillo employs implements used in crocheting and knitting for what used to be called “women’s work.”
An outstanding example is “Model for Self-Portrait III and Representation,” a cotton-thread crocheted woman’s bust framed by “hair” of the same material, looking toward a crocheted picture of herself on the wall. Less interesting, and continuing the “women’s work” theme, is the large embroidered “Projection Left-Right” that stretches her face across a horizontal wall.
Even less enthralling is “Box With One” in which Miss Castillo sinks both her head and sections of her fingers into a cloth, head-shaped metal box.
The artist is also noted for painting images on her body and those of models. Recorded on video loops, she paints nipples, eyelashes and even male genitals.
If I were to predict the future of mankind based on Miss Castillo’s work, it would, indeed, be a sorry one. I wonder why she couldn’t include even one seemingly happy person.
Mexico has sent the work of its finest artists to top venues all over the world, and the Cultural Institute of Mexico has hosted several. This isn’t one of them.
WHAT: “Monica Castillo: The Painter and the Body”
WHERE: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, through Jan. 22
TICKETS: $8 adults, $6 students and visitors 60 and older, free for those younger than 18, free for members, and free on community days the first Wednesdays and Sundays of each month.