Pablo Castaneda

Pablo Castaneda, Simulacro 48: Pueblo en llamas (Simulacrum 48: Town on Fire), 2012, oil on canvas, 20 x 24”.

I first encountered Pablo Castaneda’s work during a visit to Mexicali in 2011, where one of his paintings, Simulacro 15: Carretera imposible (Simulacrum 15: Impossible Highway), 2009, was featured in the Bienal de Artes Visuales del Noroeste at the Centro Estatal de los Artes. Later, I visited his studio and was overwhelmed by the range of his work: figurative paintings in muted colors as well as black, white, and gray monochromes that render familiar sites in this desert city newly strange. Sexy and violent, vulgar and tender, his paintings depict an everyday life enhanced by the presence of haunted faces and fantastic creatures. Born in 1973, he is part of a generation of Mexican artists living along the border who are equally influenced by Latin American fabulism and US mall culture. Six of his paintings are currently featured in “La Colección Elías-Fontes,” an exhibition on view at Centro Cultural Tijuana (CECUT) through April 3, 2016.

THE FIVE PORTRAITS in this exhibition all feature close-ups of faces as they would appear on a film screen, boiling with expressive power. For instance, the eyes are all highly defined. This technique is used sometimes in murals, but that’s not where I sourced it. All of my work is based on photographic material. Since discovering photography as a source, I’ve looked at photography books, art magazines, newspapers, National Geographic, etc., and also at museum photography exhibitions. I love the work of Cartier-Bresson, Jeff Wall, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Thomas Struth, and other photographers. I also take photographs of landscapes and scenery in the nearby Rumorosa Mountains. Taking and collecting photographs is a way of keeping a diary. And then I construct and reconstruct these found images in my paintings. I’m interested in aesthetic forms that relate to actual problems with a mixture of reality and imagination.

The five portraits currently on view in Tijuana are part of “Simulacro,” a series I began in 2008. The paintings are neofigurative, combining gestural force with the rational impartiality I find in Conceptual art. Since beginning the ongoing series—which so far comprises about fifty-seven paintings—I’ve used different techniques, sizes, and formats to depict the personality of each face. Throughout, I’m interested in a dramatized and documentary figurative style.

For example, Simulacro 48 depicts a young woman turning away from a fiery building after an explosion. A police officer in a black balaclava holding an automatic weapon stands behind her. I come across these kinds of newspaper images of drug war violence practically every day. But the tension between the depicted elements in the work suggests a narrative, so it’s no longer clear whether the image is fictional or documentary.

The only painting in the show that isn’t a portrait is Picture 8: Playa. It’s based on a photograph of the old wall in the Pacific Ocean along the northern border between Tijuana and California. It’s a black-and-white painting of a crude sea that shows the exhausted partition and a stray boat merging in turbulence. I’m drawn to realistic scenes suffused with a tragic or mysterious ambiance. For me, such images generate paintings where reality seems almost imaginary: the heightened sense of an allegory, but drawn from contemporary themes.

It’s nice to be in this show because Alonso Elias has collected my work since 2011 and almost all of the artists in his collection are based in Mexicali and Tijuana. He’s an unusual collector: Not only are art and culture a big part of his life, he sees them as a means of constructing a better future. Originally he was drawn to my work because it reminded him of art that he’d seen in New York, in the East Village during the 1980s. Border art, including the work being produced in Baja California, is advanced in the way that it mixes artistic tendencies. Latin American and Chicano art have different aesthetics, but they are influences, too. As a border artist, I’m excited by the imagery around me, and inspired by all of the arts. I think this position collapses the distance between different countries.

Translated from Spanish by Marco Vera.