The renewable seeps of identity in
Indira Castellon's Perra Vida

December 29, 7:55 AM
Winter Park Examiner
Rex Thomas

Perra Vida by Indira Castellon

While Rex recovers from a little too much lefsa, Egberto Almenas fills in with this insightful analysis of Indira Castellon's work currently on display at Casa Rombo, a prominent gallery in Guadalajara.

Dog, the symbol of faithfulness and the ancient psychopomp or escort of choice to the afterlife in Mesoamerica, also unleashes contempt when wielded in ordinary usage as an adjective. This is not solely the case in the painting entitled Perra vida (Dogged Life), by Indira Castellón, the young Mexican visual artist rising from the city of Guadalajara, Jalisco, and whose forte “cracks” boundaries in more than one direction. [1]

The drama construes one of those lapses in humankind that would merit the qualifier, but what elevates its representation far above a quotidian scorn clings on how the main referential masking has morphed from Xolotl, the traditional, pre-colonial dog-god that accompanied the god-sun on his descent into earth. In Mexico, the subject recurs ever since in all its genres of creative expression, usually donned by a mystical nimbus in relation to death. Dogged Life, though, dovetails a denouncement with a deep-rooted thrust that breaks away from tawdry home rules as it arches in a freshly rebased speculation on form, movement, space and color. Here too, instead of an orthodoxia, the transfiguration ratifies an orthopraxis, as Octavio Paz once remarked about the paintings of Rufino Tamayo. [2]

The artistic gain in Dogged Life lodges most where it endeavors a divergence that, oddly enough, naturalizes its doer as a “citizen from the most unsuspected places,” reads a gallery statement on her work. “Each of her painted characters is her and it is not; we are all, and we are not.” What Indira Castellón calls her “parallel realities” may be for nonce replenishing a wizened definition of identity. If for Carlos Fuentes identity in Latin America or her cultural claim for a united independence is already a sound acquired feeling, the turn-of-the-millennium calls for it to move forward and conquer diversity at a global scale. “To be what we are thanks to the differences that distinguishes us.”

The ever-trenchant Frida Kahlo foreshadowed this shift but not without stumbling blocks that continue to dog us today. Her popularity abroad decades after her early death, for instance, ripened mostly to her intriguing open lifestyle and misread her then hip Neo-nativist approach as uniquely Mexican, whatever that may mean after the tearing asunder of postmodern and deconstructive theory. Such a Frida-Kahlo-fication of Mexicaness still outlaws how she drew alternative values that decry the failures at ridding the same perra vida with which Indira Castellón attempts to shiver our conscience.

Early in the 20th century Diego Rivera believed that the so-called high Mexican art was still corrupted, nothing but passive take-offs bound to disclose an inferiority complex with respect to the greater achievements of the West. The lower votive arts of the altarpieces, along with the miniature portraiture, stood as inspiring exceptions. Anything that would save a true breach in originality from descending into submissive bibelots, he argued, depended on an intensified awareness of a supra-sensitive reality, one that must embrace the whole universe and the essence of nature. Incidentally, this was the approach he most admired from Frida Kahlo. Art in a highly mixed and internally conflicting society as Mexico, he further contended, must seek much more than the occasional miracles of faith. It should strive to pep the familiar into daily miracles that lead to a superior level of co-existence. [3]

When an interviewer asked the bestselling American writer Barbara Kingsolver if “artists have a responsibility to address social issues and express their opinions” in their art, she responded by highlighting a revealing contrast. “Questioning authority, issues of class and gender, this is completely integral to art in other places, but here [in the US] there’s something funny about that. I had this notion that art and politics had gotten a divorce in this country and never really finished the mediation. We have this ‘Don’t question what it means to be an American. Don’t draw pictures of it, don’t write about it.’ ”

Setting aside what motivations may spark these lingering don’ts, they all the same tend to mute the immense pool of variants that enriches identity, more so than the cold cut dichotomies once loosely deployed to uphold inerrant definitions of it. Indira Castellón’s concern for a symbology that ranges “from the most intimate to the universal" would seem to embrace the more complex leap beyond a mere acquired feeling. As never before, artists and art lovers from all four winds are experiencing a heady tessellation that orbits as one according to the gravitational point of each or those differences that distinguishes us. The adjectival-harrowing in Dogged Life reinstates a loathsome paradox embedded in the human condition, but the language brooded from Xolotl has not stopped it from seeping as its owner’s very own.

For Indira Castellón, the self-critical assessment brings her closer to Kandinsky’s formalism in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, than to Frida Kahlo’s oneiric, retablo or Mexican altarpiece-like imagery, which by her own secular confession she never used to paint dreams, but only her own reality. The toolboxes diverge. Dogged Life exudes the same universal air of pertinence whereby the nocturnal color metaphor reigns. It is not a matter of cherry picking Kandinskian precepts to fit the analogy, but rather to establish where exactly has Indira Castellón shifted the focus of her transfiguration.

The compositional elements of her painting set a mood through which the colors speak. Yellow reinforces the notion of “blind madness, attack of rage.” Blue “has the overtone of a mourning that is not human.” Green regards “the world with stupid dull eyes.” Black conveys “eternal silence, without future and hope.” (The Aztec codex depicts Xolotl in a black curly coat. Is that the center figure in Dogged Life?) Gray is “immovability which is hopeless.” The absence of white, which is “pregnant with possibilities,” renders the painting a bleak outlook. Brown embodies the “dull”, and “hard.” Red often represents “pure joy,” but it is absent even in the suggestion of blood….

Once again, the celebrated psychopomp returns from the depths of tradition and obliges to rethink the meaning of an identity that remits us to those unsuspected places where we are all, and we are not.

--Egberto Almenas

Independent literary and art scholar associated with The Maitland Art Center.


1. The self-styled Crack Generation in Mexico supersedes the literary “boom” dominated by Latin American’s Magical Realism since the 1960’s. Its proponents, in essence, assume a broader scope free from the many formulaic approaches modeled after the Magic Realists.

2. Octavio Paz, “Tamayo: transfiguraciones”, El signo y el garabato. México: Joaquín Mortiz, 1973, pp. 167.

3. Diego Rivera, “Los retablos: verdadera, actual y única expresión del pueblo mexicano,” and “La pintura mexicana: el retrato,” in Arte y política, ed. by Raquel Tibol. México: Editorial Grijalbo, 1979., pp. 55-58, and 59-62, respectively. See also, “Frida Kahlo y el arte mexicano,” ibid., pp. 239-48.