Like millions of other Chileans of his generation, Victor Castillo’s life is marked by the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The late dictator and his government ruled the country from 1973 to 1990 using repressive measures like censorship, kidnappings and executions of dissenting voices. It is thus unsurprising that he uses his art to reveal the dark truths masked by the shiny veneer of nostalgic propaganda, as he does in one of his most recent works, “Hollywood Dreams.”
“Hollywood Dreams” is also the name of a documentary short film, just over six minutes, featuring Castillo where he explains his artistic ideas as a number of his paintings come to life for the first time thanks to the animators at art collective & design studio Loica and Barefoot Productions. The paintings feature characters that have become his trademark: children (adults are rare in his universe) and animals with long, red noses and deep, dark and hollow eyes.
“It wasn’t my original idea,” Castillo admits. “It was Matias Rivera’s idea, a producer at Loica, and he reached out to me.”
The short film features animated versions of his characters blown up to gigantic proportions. A little girl in pigtails, for example, stands many stories tall and starts excavating a newly industrialized region of the country. Meanwhile, CGI versions of his characters appear alongside him in real-life settings such as the annual Halloween party and parade in West Hollywood and inside a bar where Castillo enjoys playing pool.
“I’ve always wanted to create an animated film or featurette,” says Castillo of this first foray into animation, “but I don’t know many animators, nor do I have a completed script. What I do have are short stories because each one of my paintings is a short story that could also be a minute-long, animated short or maybe less, but I think I can have one day have a script for an animated film about 30 minutes in length or at least 15 minutes in length.”
Castillo’s art style utilizes a classic Americana style of the 1950s reminiscent of Norman Rockwell, but painted with a more innocent, cartoonish brush. It is also similar to some of the classic cartoon styles of that era of animation including some of the first cartoons by Walt Disney such as “Steamboat Willie.” Ironically enough, these characters and their corresponding style where born during a dark period of his life before he left his hometown of Santiago for Barcelona, Spain.
“I had no future ahead of me during that time,” he recalls. “It was terrible, agonizing, and very frustrating and it was during that moment that I saw these characters. They appeared in a vision telling me that everything was a lie and I was surrounded by an American culture imposed on us by the dictatorship.”
Castillo was born in 1973. That same year, Pinochet came into power after he and the Chilean military overthrew president Salvador Allende in a coup supported by the United States and the CIA. He grew in Santiago and one of the only outlets for his imagination then was a cheap black-and-white television his parents purchased. He was fascinated by American culture as represented in the works of fiction of Disney cartoons and films, the Merrie Melodies, Looney Tunes and Star Wars, to name a few. Years later, he learned that the same country whose culture he loved played a significant role in the coup that brought Pinochet to power and led to the suffering of millions in his country. That dark realization led to his first visions.
“Suddenly, there appeared from the television a character with a hideous Pinocchio mask with an enormous nose, and I immediately began to draw it,” he recalls. “I drew many of these types of characters and it quickly became an obsession…it’s very curious because this iconography, which is very personal and super interesting to me, was born out of a crisis, out of a true and real experience. It grew from that and is now its own little universe.”
Castillo left for Barcelona in 2004 where he was invited to paint a mural at an arts festival. The owner of a local gallery loved his work and invited to exhibit his works at the gallery. Just like that, his career in the arts, which had stagnated in his native country, took off. The global economic crisis of 2008 put a halt to that as Spain fell into a deep recession (as many other countries did) and the gallery he worked at closed. Luck was on Castillo’s side again as a gallery owner in Los Angeles invited him to exhibit his work in 2009. He’s lived and worked here ever since.
“Hollywood Dreams” is the continuation of a body of work that critiques numerous aspects of American life and its many structures of power. The first such exhibit was “Gameland” in 2011, which showed the sinister side of a child’s paradise or fantasy land. Next came “Dreamland,” a painting of a nightmare world, an obvious twist on the definitions of both that leads viewers to the sinister underbelly of the world. Finally, there’s “Hollywood Dreams,” in which he flips the literal script on Hollywood and the nation’s myth of industrial development and the American dream.
“I’m playing with this notion of the land of freedom, the land of opportunity, the land of dreams from an ironic point of view,” Castillo explains, “because, at its core, that has been the grand narrative of the United States — [that] is the land of opportunity and liberty when it most clearly is not. It’s an illusion. Independent of all the wonderful things in this country, I don’t see it as a positive reference point, not at all, when you consider the social degradation, the cultural degradation and the foreign policy of our time.
“I’m sure someone who is profoundly nationalist would tell me [to] get the hell out of here then,” he continues, “but many circumstances have brought me here and I feel I have a right to be here considering my life story especially how the United States has influenced so much my life…therefore, if they decide to change my country’s history to benefit themselves, then I believe I have the right to be here and try out this American experiment.”
“I don’t, however, see myself staying here forever,” he says with a laugh.
Top Image: Still from documentary on Victor Castillo, "Hollywood Dreams" | Courtesy of Loica and Barefoot Productions
Editor's note: The story has been updated, removing the reference to Victor Castillo's childhood in the slums of Santiago. While this was the case, he eventually moved to upper middle class neighborhood. It also removes a quote that was said in jest to the writer. "Dreamland" is also a single painting instead of a series of paintings.