Monica Castillo's 'Body' Language

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 6, 2006

Regular followers of the art scene may remember Monica Castillo from last spring, when a piece of video art by the Mexican contemporary artist was featured in the multi-site exhibition "Mexican Report." In Castillo's video, a female dancer was shown making a kind of self-portrait -- by sloshing paint around a room via cans strapped to her dancing torso. Devoid of a larger context, the artist's work was intriguing and perplexing in equal measure.

Now, a tightly focused one-woman show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, presented in conjunction with the Cultural Institute of Mexico, supplies the rest of the picture. Castillo's face is all over it.

That's not quite accurate, though. While "Monica Castillo: The Painter and the Body" includes several permutations of the artist's likeness -- in photos, paintings, crochet, embroidery and video -- it is less about self-portraiture than the idea of self-portraiture. Or really, portraiture in general, or representation itself. When it comes right down to it, "Monica Castillo: The Painter and the Body" is about the fluid notion of the fixed image.

Take "Spoken Self-Portraits," a series of photographs of the artist's face, each one digitally manipulated in subtle ways to reflect various friends' verbal descriptions of her appearance. Like wanted posters prepared by five different witnesses to a crime, the likenesses are close enough to be recognizable as one person but differ in significant ways: skin tone, shape of the face, relative prominence of nose to chin, etc. Similarly, "Self-Portrait in Shifts" depicts the artist's face broken into a mosaic of maplike patches, each one dated for the time it was completed. Pores, hairs, blemishes and other features are given greater or lesser emphasis, depending on -- well, on what, really? The artist's mood? The quality of the light? Or simply the fact that, to paraphrase Heraclitus, you can't step into the same face twice?

Other works play not on perception and its mutability, but on the very concept of painted-picture-making, which seems stranger and stranger the more Castillo turns it over in her curious hand. In the DVD projection "Sigh II," the artist turns herself, quite literally, into her own living, breathing canvas, covered as her entire head is in gooey pigment. Alternately holding her breath, in an evocation of static portraiture, and breathing in and out, Castillo (who is both artist and artwork here) makes for an effective if creepy piece of conceptual art. The nine digital photographs in "Painted Men" operate in a like vein, depicting various body parts -- an ear, an eye, a finger, toes, a beard -- that have been painted by the artist in a kind of parody of figurative painting.

In any other context -- actually, in this very museum context, but presented without the air-quote irony -- they would merely look like what they purport to be: an ear, an eye, a finger, etc. Here, captured with photographic realism against the backdrop of the unpainted body, they look grotesquely unreal. The artificiality of their hyperrealism makes them appear hyper-unreal.

Commenting on the idea of how art operates, by even greater exaggeration, are three powerful video pieces from the artist's "Pictorial Effect" series. In each, a hand wielding a wet paintbrush directly strokes a different body part: an open eye; a woman's nipple; a penis. It's shorthand, and mightily effective shorthand at that, for the way that painting traditionally moves the viewer. In this case, though, it cuts out the middle man -- the painting -- entirely, by going directly for a physiological reaction.

In these three pieces, "Monica Castillo: The Painter and the Body" lives up to its title. What else is there, the artist seems to ask, besides these two extremes? By making the painting extraneous, of course -- by bringing the brush into physical contact with the audience -- Castillo underscores a single truth: That art takes place neither on the wall nor in the eye (let alone the pants) of the beholder, but in the space between the two.

MONICA CASTILLO: THE PAINTER AND THE BODYThrough Jan. 22 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW (Metro: Metro Center). Open Monday-Saturday 10 to 5; Sundays noon to 5. $8; students and seniors $6; members and visitors 18 and younger free; free the first Sunday and Wednesday of the month.

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