PRINT February 1997


It’s important to know that “monster” is a verb as well as a noun. One says: “he monsters.” Or, more to the point: “Victor Estrada monsters.” By which, I mean: Victor Estrada is a man who makes monsters, taking our collective heteronomy and giving it shape. He does so with a kind of Rabelaisian playfulness and gravity; like the monk, he’s a creator of charming grotesqueries, prodigies, marvels. He gives us sculptures (and paintings) of excessive creatures, things that are both more—and less—than human; they look like escapees from some Disney studio run amok, at once funny and pathetic, horrifying and curiously warm.

In the now-(in)famous 1992 LA Museum of Contemporary Art show “Helter Skelter,” where he first came to the larger art world’s attention, Estrada exhibited a piece called Baby/Baby, 1991: it was a thirty-foot-long sculpture of a bicephalic baby, heads at either end of a wormlike torso, with what looks like an enormous phallic outcropping emerging from the center. Later, in a 1995 show in Santa Monica, he’d riff in a more sacred vein, recasting the two Edenic Trees of Life—the fruit of one gave eternal life, the leaves of the other, peace between nations—as an immense and sinister Muppet, complete with eyes, noses, and ears. Festooned with tubes and hoses like a patient on IV drips (it’s unclear whether the solution contains opiate painkillers, saline and glucose, or—as the creature-feature cliche goes—something else . . . ), Estrada’s Tree of Life dangles brightly colored forms and heads. Strange fruit, offering either a neon-colored Apocalypse or a mutant rebirth: supernature remade.

Most recently, Estrada has monstered up a series of misfits, mishaps, misshapes; he’s created lovable horrors, lumps and sad-sack blobs with teddy-bear eyes; new-wave gargoyles, homunculi, and golems. In the sculpted bodies that make up his body of work, you find all manner of teratology—you’ll see snouts, snoots, tubes, bumps, stumps, and growths; concavities where noses should be, flat spaces where faces should be. You’ll see pets that are actually part of their owners. This last is actually a recurring motif—both Hablador, 1996, and Smile Now, Cry Later, 1996, feature larger creatures attached to smaller ones by tubes—prompting the viewer to wonder about the nature of their connection (an uncertainty about who is dependent on whom that echoes the conditions of day-to-day life). Hablador is a particularly good case in point: based on Mario Vargas Llosa’s 1989 novel of the same name, the piece is Estrada’s rendition of the book’s main character, a deformed Peruvian Jew who, neither truly Peruvian nor European, feels nowhere at home. Eventually, through force of will and his passion for another culture, El Hablador transforms himself into a Machiguenga Indian, becoming the storyteller, the living history, of his adopted tribe. Like all of Estrada’s hopeful monsters, Hablador is a figure caught between two worlds: wavering between anthropo- and amorphic, he’s firm only in his refusal to be pinned down, his refusal to be entirely one thing or the other.

The artist has said that the material he uses (Hydrocal, mostly) is part of this: transforming itself into blobs, it’s always getting away from his intentions, insistently polymorphous. But in the world he’s building, that’s precisely the point. Things escape, they do what they want to do: Nature will always refuse to be bridled. You can hear echoes of Sade’s idea of Nature here: for him, as for Estrada, it’s a kind of perpetual motion machine, endlessly experimenting, incessantly creating new forms, freakish animals, and perverse entities. Estrada’s sculpture freezes that motion, shows us individual moments in a furious whirl of activity—to remind us of Nature’s wild fecundity, remind us of the power of a Nature that creates constantly mutating viruses, genetic machines re-creating themselves, spiralled code inscribed over and over again in dark blood oceans. He reminds us of animals like the aphid, multieyed and many-legged, laying millions of eggs in hopes that a handful will survive, and of the reckless profusion that has created so many species that the thousands now living comprise only 10 percent of those that have ever been alive.

And if the survivors Estrada shows look like inmates on the Island of Misfit Toys, it’s because he knows that pop culture is the other ocean in which all of us swim today (a second Nature, a new code unfolding all the time, with the same abandon). Remember: if his work reminds us of the first Nature, it is, nonetheless, born in an agar of Ballard writings, Cronenberg films, and Mexican television; it lives in an atmosphere made up of lurid sci-fi films and old episodes of Lost In Space. Assembled from bits and pieces of throwaway culture, it’s all about transformation, transfiguration, and the strange interplay of loss and gain that goes along with such liminal states. The New Flesh looks strange, excessive, monstrous; always escaping our intentions, it does what it wants to do. And as Estrada’s kindred spirit Bataille pointed out, nothing is more excessive or seductive than the laughter and voluptuous horror that the monstrous occasions. They’re extreme responses, physical as well as intellectual; belonging to the body, they sweep over flesh and spirit alike, carrying all thought before them. Bataille claims that such feelings expose us as profoundly cracked beings. Estrada’s work affirms that shattered state, embracing the breaks and flaws that give rise to such lovely monsters.

Mark Van de Walle