by Kristen Wawruck
The Russian modernist painter and theorist Wassily Kandinsky famously devised a questionnaire to determine how one might associate shapes with colors. One example: Might the triangle be wittier than a square or evoke feelings about lemons or canaries? Responses to such queries helped cement his notions about universal resonances between, say, yellow and triangles, blue and circles, and red and squares—ideas that some of his peers hotly disputed.
A similar conflict comes to mind with Parlor Games, the first San Francisco solo show of Marco Castillo’s work. As a co-founder (with Dagoberto Rodríguez) of the artists’ collective Los Carpinteros (“the carpenters”), Castillo’s career has often centered around the intersecting histories of craft, labor, and design in Cuba, his birthplace. This exhibition features an extensive array of works on paper punctuated by impressive wall-mounted sculptures, which, according to the artist, speak to a visual syntax defined by the post-revolution era. Castillo conceived the show as having been made by an imaginary designer from that era, replete with all its social, political, cultural and aesthetic associations.
However, few visitors will be able to identify these cultural-specific signposts, as many of the architects, designers, and artists referenced in the works have been lost to history. Castillo names his wooden sculptures after such figures, e.g., Cordoba after Gónzalo Cordoba and Ana for the architect Ana Vega (both 2019). Both feature intricate woven rattan insets, which are familiar today as mid-century design elements because of their canonization into European modernist furniture. By featuring these details in several works, Castillo highlights the absence of non-European designers from the modernist canon and calls attention to rattan’s colonial origins. The protruding star form of the former might refer to Cordoba’s role as the revolution’s chief designer, where he oversaw the outfitting of various government ministries, official residencies, and offices, including the one he created for Fidel Castro. A circle morphing into a series of star shapes—prominent on the Cuban flag and in propaganda from the era—produces a metaphorical trajectory of the promise of Communism into authoritarianism.
While much of the show consists of works on paper, the caning in the sculptures reappears in meticulously painted watercolors such as Clara (2017), named for the late Cuban-born, Mexico-based designer Clara Porset, whose furniture designs serve as direct references for Castillo. These larger scaled works are impressively rendered and provide a link to the conceptual architectural watercolors from his collaborative practice. Elsewhere, most of the drawings are abstract ink-and-pencil notebook compositions that could have comfortably existed alongside many different international modernist movements. The unique framing is also notable, with rattan motifs repeating on the Primera (2018) sets and other series taking their shapes in Baltic birch plywood, which is often sourced from its namesake states and Russia. Enclosing imagined revolution-era works in these geographically-specific materials acts as a metaphor for Cuba and the former Soviet Empire’s intertwined political histories.
While Castillo attempts to recover and reexamine some of Cuba’s forgotten or under-recognized figures and movements within a Eurocentric world, the real “parlor game” being played here has to do with how these largely geometric forms resonate with an American audience. One of the paradoxes of space-age aesthetics is how they cut across capitalist and communist contexts. Do forms that originated with Russian Constructivists or at the Bauhaus and other schools of that era evoke a consolidation of state power in a repressive dictatorial regime, or do they remind you of a bag of Wonder Bread? The answer—as with Kandinsky’s triangle—depends on your frame of reference.
The show’s centerpiece, Familia Castillo Valdes (2022), illustrates this point. A massive wall-mounted sculpture comprised of interlocking wooden circles made of mahogany ties the work back to Cuba, where mahogany was traditionally used in canoe building because of its durability. The forms also call to mind mid-century furniture, suggested by the series title, Juego de sala—or “living room set.” The haunting presence of such stylized domestic aspirations nests within the beautifully milled forms. The work’s title, taken from the artist’s family name, serves another purpose: entering Castillo into an extended and revised canon of artists and designers who helped shape a nation’s visual language at a moment of intellectual promise. By collapsing time and complicating narratives, Castillo reminds us there is no singular or dominating set of rationales in a globally connected world.
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Marco Castillo: “Parlor Games” @ Haines Gallery through January 7, 2023.
About the author: Kristen Wawruck is an arts worker, writer, and curator. Prior to moving to the Bay Area, she was the Deputy Director of Swiss Institute in New York.