Carolyn Castaño: A Female Topography, 2001 – 2017

In 1854 Albert Berg published a series of lithographs titled Physiognomy of Tropical Vegetation in South America. Inspired by the early-19th-century writings of Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who described the “splendor and fullness of the vegetation” that gave Colombia’s “[Rio] Magdalena a grand, solemn, serious character,” Berg’s illustrations captured the various and lush plant forms of this region. 

More than 200 years after Humboldt’s initial encounter with the Magdalena, Los Angeles-based artist Carolyn Castaño offered an homage of sorts. Whereas Humboldt romanticized the Tropics and viewed plant physiognomy as a means to cultivate the human spirit, Castaño uses this framework to explore the human violence that has more recently plagued this area thanks to civil war and narco-trafficking. The exuberantly colorful landscapes from her series of paintings Physiognomy of Tropical Vegetation in South America: After Humboldt and Berg include body parts and decapitated heads hidden among the plants. Her deep and abiding interest in Colombia is not surprising: Castaño’s parents are Colombian émigrés, and the artist conducted workshops for women affected by narco-violence during a recent artist residency with the nonprofit feminist organization Mujeres Que Crean (Women Who Create) in Medellín. 

Curated by Laband Art Gallery director Karen Rapp, A Female Topography, 2001–2017 [September 23 – December 10, 2017] was Castaño’s first solo survey exhibition. The sounds of Colombian native birds and the voices of midcentury opera singers permeated the gallery space, setting up the interaction between nature and culture that is central to Castaño’s oeuvre. Rapp’s careful selection of works revealed the breadth of the artist’s practice and included collage, drawing, painting, video, and installation that spoke to the show’s connecting thematic threads. Early works, such as Black Frolic (2005), invite comparison with Wangechi Mutu’s collages, as Castaño combines confident curvilinear lines, resembling an explosion of curled eyelashes, with black feathers, rhinestones, and glitter. These works explore notions of feminine beauty both natural and applied, and they utilize cut-outs from fashion magazines to introduce the idea that adornment can be personally expressive or confining and oppressive, depending upon the circumstances. Castaño also complicates the typical association of physical “beauty” with the female body in Moss and Envy (2004), a stunning collage that references the male peafowl, and Hair Boys (Phillip II) (2004), a muted watercolor emphasizing the delicate lines and curl of the subject’s hair. 

In Tropical Baby (Self Portrait) (2007) Castaño’s face is captured with an economy of line that contrasts dramatically with her thick black hair, dotted by small round mirrors and black glitter. This black and white head is surrounded by floral forms and geometric patterns, creating a stylized icon that reproduces well yet offers a particularly rich textural experience in person. The diptych Beauty Queen and Druglord (Laura Zuñiga and Angel Garcia Urquiza2009) features similarly rendered facial portraits, but ones based upon mug shots, surrounded by bold colors and geometric lines along with plant references—a reminder of the impact of heroin and marijuana on Colombian (and American) society. 

Castaño is equally fascinated by the stories of the Narco Novias (Drug-runner Girlfriends) and the terrible fates that await many of the women with romantic or familial ties to the men involved in the drug trade. Narco Venus (Liliana Andrea) (2011), for instance, plays upon the tradition of the reclining nude by placing the dead Colombian actress and beauty queen Liliana Lozano in a lush landscape, haunted by a skull depicted in the corner of the image. In 2009 Garzón, the girlfriend of drug lord Leonidas Vargas, was found tortured and shot to death. 

Castaño’s skill as a video artist is evident in El Reporte Femenil/The Female Report (2012), in which the artist herself plays the role of a bilingual newscaster who shifts from Spanish to English midsentence. Her frenetic report ranges from coverage of femicide in Juarez to celebrity news; ads for a 1-800-FLOWERS delivery service punctuate news about the FARC guerrillas. This exhibition demonstrates Castaño’s skill at creating seemingly playful works that, upon closer inspection, reveal textures and complexities that linger long after the glitter fades.