Carolyn Castaño: My SoCal Art History

Carolyn Castaño.

The history of art in Southern California isn't linear; it is a fluid, multi-angled continuum made from the personal experiences of many artists from myriad backgrounds. So to trace the trajectory of Southern California art, Artbound is creating a collective timeline comprised of the decisive events that shaped artists' creative development. We hope that in the space between these personal histories, an impressionistic view of Southern California's art history will come into focus.

Today we talk to Los Angeles artist Carolyn Castaño.

Anti-Club, Radiotron, Hong Kong Cafe

How did Los Angeles clubs influence you and affect your identity?

Radiotron. | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library.
Radiotron. | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library.

I grew up in the Rampart District of Los Angeles near MacArthur Park. Echo Park adjacent. Before Echo Park was Echo Park. I went to school in Hollywood and in the Valley, Burbank, Studio City and I would go to Hollywood with my parents. I grew up going to the Cahuenga pool on Cahuenga and Santa Monica. I remember seeing the Anti-Club, which was this club that popped up near Melrose and Kingsley where my brother's girlfriend lived. It was written in fluorescent letters and these kids were hanging out outside with these shaved heads and earrings and striped leggings and cutoff shorts. It was this beacon in the distance where I instantly felt this attraction and identification with them. I think I was probably 11 or 12 years old and just coming into awareness of myself as a teenager and a person interested in art and fashion. Actually this was probably my first inkling of what art was or aesthetic concerns. Probably a year later, when I saw more of these people, I started to figure it out. I came home and cut my hair in a diagonal and cut my shirts -- you know all the flashdance -- and my fishnet stockings. I ripped them up, bought some pointy shoes, which my aunt called zapatos de cucaracha, or killing shoes. I started to form my style and my parents thought I had lost my mind. My mom took me to the psicologia and the doctor said, "You know she has just found her thing. She is into fashion. It is her trend." So my mom was like, "Okay."

There were other clubs that were active around this time, we're talking about the 1980's, right?

Like 1984 to '85. The Anti-Club was the first club and then I started going to other clubs when I could get out of the house more. The Three Twenty-One club in Santa Monica was an under-aged club. I would take the bus with my friends from Rampart, the Beverly bus down to the beach. Sometimes we would have our moms drop us off. I think about these early discoveries of these clubs and the music scene and the fashion associated with punk rock, the new wave scene as being my early formative art moment.

Another club closer to home was Radiotron, which I never actually went into, but we lived near MacArthur Park and I remember driving with my mom and seeing the strobe lights going and being very curious about what was going on there. The kids from my block were in a breakdancing crew RMC, Royal Majestic Crew, and they were a couple of years older than me and they would go there. That time period wasn't necessarily so divided between class or race. Everybody was different, Asian, Filipino kids, black kids, white kids, Latino kids and the glue was the interest in music and fashion and crossing borders. By the time I was 16 and had my drivers license, my friends and I would drive all across Southern California looking for the right party. Another great club was Egg Salad on Spring and Fourth. I think later on it became the temporary library after the downtown library had a fire. But I remember I was in a shop on Melrose and I saw a little sign that said Egg Salad and I told my friends, "We gotta go. This is the new place." We used to go to a place in Glendale called Network. We were death rockers with our heads shaved and more of the fishnets.

Photo: Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.
Photo: Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

In a way it is so cool that they really broke all of these racial and economic boundaries. Did you go to the Hong Kong Cafe?

I did. I went to the Hong Kong Cafe when it had gone from a punk rock venue to a disco venue. Disco in the 1980's in L.A. and other towns in California, was basically early house music. It was Latino and Asian kids that would modify their cars and have car clubs. It was a lot of dancing. I guess it was an offshoot of the disco thing we think of with John Travolta but it was later on.

The Radical Nuns

Two of the people who were early influences on me were the Radical Nuns or Las Monjas Locas of L.A, which are sister Corita Kent and sister Karen Boccalero. Sister Corita Kent was a nun, head of the art department at Immaculate Heart, where I went to school for a couple of years. I was there after she was there but her spirit was definitely very much felt. She used the medium of printmaking and silk screening to create politically charged posters, using art as a way to empower the people. Also, sister Karen Boccalero from Self Help Graphics who founded Self Help Graphics as a place where artists could come together and use the printing equipment to create silk screens and all kinds of prints. I discovered her much later, but I'm a former catholic school girl. I'm not really practicing but this kind of vision of taking the teaching of the Bible is really about helping people who can't help themselves and empowering others to have a voice. I see this as a predecessor to contemporary social practice ideas.

Self Help Graphics. | Photo: Memo Pisa El Lodo/Flickr/Creative Commons License

How did that impact you when were you there?

I was there in the early 80's so she was retired already, but these sisters and the sisters that were still there at Immaculate Heart and a lot of the all girls schools in the L.A. area came out of the post Vatican II, which was about stepping away from this Latin ecclesiastical veil where the priests were up here and the people were down there and you just listened and obeyed. They took more of the model of what are the teachings of Jesus about love and about helping your brother and your sisters. They were really feminist in a way. They were like, "Yeah, yeah padres, we are listening to you but we are going to take these teachings and teach young women to be empowered and to be knowledgeable and to have a voice."

So that was one part, but also taking these teachings to help people, artists in east L.A. There are other examples of nuns and priests going to Central America and working with the poor. So stepping away from all the dogmatic ideas that might make folks cringe or the Christian right. It's more about how radical that was. It's not about money or control, it's really about this generosity of spirit. So for myself, even though my practice has taken many different incarnations, I think of it relating in the spirit of my work as a teacher with young college students and at risk youth. It's really about stepping outside of being a studio artist and having that approach of generosity and love. I've also worked on large scale murals, some as a solo artist and others working with youth. I worked on the Watts house project, working on the flower house, where I worked with kids and older members of the community to paint the house. A mural can improve a house but also be a community building exercise. More recently I worked with youth from 808 Urban in Honolulu, which is a group that works with inner city kids in Honolulu and helps them learn art-making skills. But at the same time you are learning about art, you are learning about finishing something, community building, responsibility and so that is where Las Monjas Locas have influenced me.

The Suburbs

You are influenced by the suburbs. A lot of people would probably not list the suburbs as influential, right? Why are the suburbs a critical influence to you?

I grew up in the Rampart District and I think maybe because I started clubbing. In the mid 80's my parents bought a house in Glendale and we moved there. My friends then were from Glendale and Burbank and we would go to these different clubs in Pasadena and Glendale, Eagle Rock and I see the suburbs as a place in L.A. that is a real hotbed of creativity. Which is antithetical to what we would think. Like, "Oh the suburbs. Everybody is really square there or boring." Actually what happened is because these kids at that time were living out in the suburbs, a lot of them sort of post 1950's Leave it to Beaver, Anglo family model that created places like Glendale, Lakewood, it was also a place where in the 80's middle class families of color, Latinos, Asians, Black families could move to and become middle class or ground themselves in middle class America. And I think because it was boring, we would find ways to be creative and we would look at the center, look at downtown L.A., look at Hollywood. These naughty places, take what we learned from there and re-invent it. So you would see a guy with a mohawk and a leather jacket walking down Brand Blvd. in Glendale, which back then was really radical. Because a lot of the kids were middle class, there wasn't so much this question. When I say middle class there is a broad range of economic strata in that. There was less of a questioning of what your ethnicity was or too much of your income level. It was more about how you identified yourself with fashion or with your hairdo or the right kind of shoes. The pointy shoes.

Broadway in Downtown L.A. and MacArthur Park

How were Broadway in downtown L.A. and MacArthur Park impacting you, in terms of the structure of those neighborhoods?

Well, my parents came to L.A. in 1961 from Colombia. Before I was born they actually lived in the Rampart area and would go on family outings to MacArthur park to row the boats. They would go down Broadway, you know, strolling. There are pictures of them at Pershing Square, which my mom or somebody wrote on an old photograph Parque Los Locos and they would call it that forever which is, "The park of the crazy people." I found a picture of that, it's like 1961, my mom is dressed very formal with a little pillbox hat and there are all these people in the background, like there is a guy preaching and someone selling the newspaper. There's men reading the newspaper. It's just really from another time. Later on as a kid in the early 80's, we would go shopping sometimes with my aunts down Broadway. The Broadway of the 80's is more like the Broadway we see now with different stores selling car stereos, selling jeans that are way too tight for you, selling tchotchkes and I think this kind of early exposure to these different kind of agglomeration of colors and textures and sounds has played a great influence in my artwork.

That area is Latino urban L.A. It's clearly a Latin American city with all the sounds and the colors. All of that seems to have seeped through you. Do you agree?

Yes. I really have always been attracted to this clash of different architectures and patterns that come along with it. My mom worked at a bank downtown and I would go with her to the bank and hang out in the conference room during summer vacations. And so those buildings are all glass and steel structures. You know, very 60's modern and then you would walk down to Broadway and you would have the Million Dollar Theater where we would take my grandparents to go outing. We were going to see a Mexican variety show and the Million Dollar Theater is this very churubusco, ornate, Spanish baroque that has very L.A. styling with the curlicues and I think it is these two coming together that I'm fascinated with.

Photo: Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.
Photo: Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

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