Osvaldo Ramirez Castillo
Galerie Robert Poulin, Montreal
By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, October 2019
“Rise and demand; you are a burning flame.
You are sure to conquer there where the final horizon
Becomes a drop of blood, a drop of life,
Where you will carry the universe on your shoulders,
Where the universe will bear your hope.”
― Miguel Angel Asturias 
Over the borderline of the safe and assimilable, beyond all rumours of sanctuary and refuge, far past the signposts of hope and of despair, Osvaldo Ramirez Castillo puts his stake in the ground and hatches furies as visceral, telling and, frankly, terrifying as anything drawn or painted by George Grosz or Hieronymous Bosch before him. In another sense, he drives a stake through the heart of some sacred and not-so-sacred orthodoxies, and invokes the preventive power of memory.
Castillo’s art is profoundly interrogatory and unsettling. It is fabulously brutal and has monstrous radiance. He is the dungeon master sans pareil. The intensity of his renderings is acute and everything depicted is a cascading, calamitous annunciation of the apocalypse. His allegorical drawings explore issues of collective memory and the unconscious, historical hurt and unholy havoc with brio. He uses animal and human bodies and a melding of the two as sites for mining malignant metamorphoses and immanent trauma in terms of a deeply personal and wayward iconography. He foments a hectic and enlivening collision between Old Masters and latter-day prophets of the End Times.
The El Salvador-born, Vancouver-based artist disinters from the crypts of memory charged experiences that speak to the necessity for remembering in the form of narratives that goad, galvanise -- and rupture the gonads. The unholy triad of trauma, testosterone and triage that informs his work is riveting and unforgettable in its mien. His mythos runs deep and indelible and has a volcanic core. He never pulls his punches and the sense of wilfully pushing things into hyper-drive abides. His construction of memory as mythopoeisis is powerful enough to defeat taxonomy and overcome all vestiges of apathy and forgetting.
The anthropomorphized devils in Castillo’s work reach right back from present day catastrophes into medieval canons and address the darkness still in our midst, the dementia of abusive power and the collateral damage of war. Like his confreres Daniel Erban and Henriette Valium, Castillo is unafraid of the monument or the mortuary, louche censure or legends of the Fall. Like Bosch -- who is no mere historical footnote to Castillo’ endeavour but a clear precedent –the artist engages sorcery as an aesthetic device. There is strong evidence that Bosch strongly believed in visible witchcraft.  Castillo surely does. As Hemphill said of Bosch: “His paintings show an obsession with fears of metamorphosis, absorption, penetration and teratogeny.” . Castillo has produced scores of malformations or monstrosities and invented new demons to trouble and terrify both the guilty and the innocent in our unhappy world.
Castillo was born in El Salvador in the midst of a particularly brutal civil war. From 1980 to 1992, that bloody conflict caused a massive upheaval in the Central American state, claiming the lives of approximately 75,000 Salvadorans. This huge bloodletting left a visceral impression on the young Castillo and the jarring sound of machine gun fire on his family’s doorstep still reverberates in his work. He seeks catharsis in mining his memories and transmuting them into topical and pressing present day realities. Using watercolour, acrylic ink, and pencil crayons on translucent Mylar, he conjures an unforgiving cosmos. He penetrates the epidermis of suffering to reveal a tremulous, secret heart beating beneath.
Castillo draws upon an exhaustive knowledge of ancient cultural traditions to pursue his abiding interest in the social world of art in its contemporary incarnation. “I’m just reinventing memory,” Castillo says.  He reinvents in order to confront the deplorable truth of the catastrophe visited upon his birth country and to bring us into close quarters with the mindless violence, dynamism and oppression of the war years, perhaps as an act of self-reparation, surely as a means of working through in the psychoanalytic meaning of that term. Recasting memory itself is nothing less, for him, than a survival move, escape from the cauldron or better call it an alembic because he was largely shaped within it. The topicality of his work is acute and yet his is a vision that hearkens back to Goya’s searing Disasters of War from two hundred years ago.
This artist draws upon impressive technical skills and a vast repertoire that spans everything from religious iconography, newspaper accounts, ethnographic art and folk tales to medical drawings and horror films. All of these are grist for his unstoppable dark mill. At the heart of Castillo’s art practice is his great love of drawing. As his preferred mode of narrative expression, he can make it sing – or scream.
Close study of Castillo’s work calls to mind the drawings of the great George Grosz (1893-1959), the famed German-American draughtsman and painter. Grosz, who was born in Berlin, served in the army in 1914-15 and again in 1917, but spent the rest of the war in Berlin where he made violently declamatory anti-war drawings, and other works that served as a vital critique of the State. Apocalyptic, uncompromising and christened in darkness, his work still has the power to shatter our complacency. Ten years ago, the exhibition “"George Grosz: The Years in America: 1933-1958," Sept. 16-Oct. 31, 2009, at the David Nolan Gallery in New York demonstrated that Grosz continued making powerfully expressive and satirical paintings and drawings not just through the war years but throughout his entire career. "I start to paint a nude, sun, dunes, Arcadia and grass, a good fine imagination," he said, "but alas, the more I go on with my work, it changes and all of a sudden there is fire and ruins and mud and grim debris all over…as if somebody more knowing and utterly destructive is leading me on."  This remark calls Castillo’s process and propensities to mind.
Consider Grosz’a God of War (1944), for example, in which the presiding deity who takes pleasure in human suffering and abjection is anointed with brushstrokes of pink, blue and white. Cain or Hitler in Hell (1944) foregrounds a humungous sweating Fuhrer sitting on a makeshift throne in an ash-blackened inferno in front of a heap of tiny skeletons he has harvested.  Now look at Castillo’s (Soldier) Becerillo (2008) with its eerie helmeted protagonist holding a noose in one hand. He is riding a multi-headed carnivorous dog that is salivating over a decapitated head in the lower right quadrant. The field is smudged with blood and bloody entrails as he surveys future victims. Cruel Best for El Salvador (2008) depicts a severed arm waving a flag with a demonic beast below ejaculating flames from its midsection.
In Grosz’s The Grey Man Dances (1949), an image of utter dismay and degradation, the Grey Man of the title prances before a ragged flag. His ears are hammered shut with blocks of wood, his mouth is sewn shut, and spirals of barbed wire press in. Grosz’s luminous nihilism is even more pungent in The Painter of the Hole II (1950), a portrait of a bug-eyed artist with tubes of paint strewn across the ground, where a legion of rats crawl over canvases. In Castillo’s Sans titre (2011) 'Carnivalissimo #10' (2010), a work of singular depravity, a Jabba-the-Hut like creature lolls indolently with a glass of blood in one hand. He is nestled against three decapitated heads. Another work similarly titled Sans titre (2011) 'Carnivalissimo #5' (2009), goes Leon Golub one better with a bevy of decapitated mercenary heads with toothy grins erupting into flames.
Castillo, like Grosz before him, makes furious and incandescent collages and is a hugely gifted draughtsman. There is a curious morphing in Castillo’s works where the human and the animal and the obscene meld in outrageous new forms. His is a riotous assembly of body parts that echoes what happens to the badly stitched-together body of Mick Travis in Lindsay Anderson’s brilliant cult film Brittania Hospital (1982). But Castillo’s wounds are gorier, more gratuitously brutal and brutalizing, and his stitches better.
Castillo left El Salvador with memories of the conflict permanently etched into his forebrain.
He has said:
“As a native of El Salvador living in the diaspora, I use drawing as the primary tool for storytelling to deploy elements found in pre-Hispanic mythology, Salvadoran popular folklore, iconography sourced from Western art history and contemporary vernacular culture. My studio process is a constant act of revision that manipulates appropriated imagery into personal mythic narratives in a multi-layered fashion onto paper. The human body is used as a symbol and site for trauma in reference to personal and collective experiences of war and loss that marked El Salvador during the civil war years in the 1980s -- a time that family and I witnessed, and as a result of which, immigrated to Canada.” 
Castillo’s imagery is marked by a phantasmatic dementia ignited by what he witnessed in the war zone of his childhood. He was permanently transformed by the war. Perhaps the only way to exorcise the demons of the upper air that continue to possess him was by executing surreal fantasias in which flesh and spirit are both put through their paces mercilessly and on the threshing floor of drawing.
Castillo’s longstanding concern with issues of collective memory, historical trauma and identity in a global context insulated him against accusations of unseemly excess. His is a sharp political statement explored through multi-media approaches to drawing including stop-motion animation video, printmaking and installation work. As noted, his practice is grounded in an intuitive construction of memory as a form of personal myth-making that acts as a defense against rather than a denial of nihilism. It nurtures resistance and promises reconstruction and healing.
And, as Megan Bradley has argued cogently:
“Castillo…portrays cyclical narratives of life and death rendered in deft detail that is both horrifying and captivating. Castillo is a remarkably skilled draftsman; his work is often contextualized by a history of old master drawings reminiscent of Francisco Goya or Jacques Callot. The compositions of 15th Century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch are alluded to when describing Castillo’s visual storytelling as we consistently pull from the past to paraphrase the present.” 
These cyclical narratives possess bracing authenticity. When he emigrated from El Salvador with his family at the age of 11, he arrived in Canada as a member of a community of immigrants who wanted to share what they had undergone as confession and critique. It should be noted that the civil war in El Salvador was as notable for its atrocities as was the case with Vietnam. The 1981 killing of 1000 civilians by soldiers in El Mozote has parallels with the My Lai massacre (one of the most horrific incidents of violence committed against unarmed civilians during the Vietnam War when a company of American soldiers brutally killed most of the people—women, children and old men—in the village of My Lai on March 16, 1968). In this sense, his private memories achieve communal authenticity as testimonial and critique.
Castillo sources his imagery promiscuously from a host of archives including current news, found photographs, contemporary art magazines and personal memory. In the latter case, he makes private memory public, and his status as a witness is crucial. Public memory is attached to a past (here, the civil war in El Salvador)) and acts to ensure an open future of further remembering of that same event so as to see that it not be repeated.
It need not be anchored in a public monument carved in stone. It may be embodied in a drawing of modest dimensions that has a profound visceral impact on the viewer. Castillo’s work also functions as a potent eulogy -- just as a simple photograph of the devastated Pentagon or the fallen Twin Towers can be only more so. Castillo invests such unfettered rage in his drawings that they function eminently well as blazing icons of public memory.
The crucial dovetailing between past as lived and a future still to be is at the heart of public memory. The compression of the temporal is felt everywhere in Castillo’s work. The civil war in his birth country was as unforgettable as the terrorist attacks that were launched in New York and Washington, DC, on September 11, 2001. Castillo’s unfettered bestiaries and grotesqueries are not just his way of remembering unpleasantness but assume a wider shared reality as public memory. His works are cautionary tales told by a victim who seeks to reclaim something like reconciliation and relief.
Public memories are crucial to building a shared horizon of the past, based on a shared ethic and the powers of affect.  Castillo’s work is loaded with affect and he summons all the powers of horror with awesome concentration in his renderings. As Melissa Gregg and Gregory Seigworth contend, affect consists of “visceral forces beneath, alongside, or generally other than conscious knowing, vital forces insisting beyond emotion”.  Affect is deeply lodged within the human body. So the affective dimension of Castillo’s work enjoys hegemony. It ensures that the artist’s memories are somehow transferred over to us, his viewers, as we recoil in horror from such brutal images, only to come back and look at them again.
We can think of Castillo’s drawings as migrating memory sites, as “experiential landscapes” that invite us to enter them so as to understand the tenor and scope of his pain. Thus, Castillo welcomes his viewers to assume a position up close and personal with horror, loss, mutilation, upheaval and crisis. Such experiences are often defined as trauma, which Cathy Caruth understands as “the response to an unexpected or overwhelming violent event or events that are not fully grasped as they occur, but return later in repeated flashbacks, nightmares, and other repetitive phenomena” 
The overwhelming experience of trauma can break the individual’s psyche. Julia Kristeva contends that trauma entails a kind of “shattering of psychic identity” . This shattering is profound. We experience Castillo’s works as staggered flashbacks. The experience of trauma that is revisited in terms of flashbacks -- as the shattered psyche attempts to reintegrate both itself and the traumatic experience that affected it – is mirrored in our experience of Castillo’s works in a staggered series of manageable doses. Public memory scholars have observed similar processes at work in the collective psyche.
The trauma that Castillo identifies and works from in his work is eminently shareable and is the result of, as Marita Sturken notes, “compulsive repetition is a response to trauma”  In exploring metaphorically the viscera and the desouevrement of the civil war in El Salvador, Castillo “invites participants to experience the past viscerally through the liminal space that performance opens, and consequently, to participate in the affective construction of traumatic memory”. 
Castillo’s drawings and animations examine unflinchingly the morphoses and limit experiences of the organic order of life. They have a rare alchemical power to disrupt and provide a perfect ground for public memory.
As Megan Bradley has pointed out, the Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano has had a pronounced influence on the work of Osvaldo Ramirez Castillo. The author has written the history of a continent that was created through a process of annihilation, rape, pillage and war. The paradox of creation through destruction is symbolic throughout Galeano’s work and particularly pertinent to Castillo’s practice. 
As Hemphill points out:
“The great fantasies show a world under the domination of devils who seem to vanquish and torment mankind. In these strange landscapes many synthetic and distorted objects within- natural fruit, flowers and creatures, glass tubes, globes, bivalves and other things occur. Scholars have recognized many of these as symbols of medieval mysticism and alchemy, and have argued that Bosch expressed himself in symbols and allegories whose meaning was comprehensible in his day, but has now been lost. This explanation fails to take into account other aspects of his work, particularly the metamorphoses of the living creatures.” 
Discussing Bosch’s gift, Hemphill further says:
“He had exceptional visualizing powers, and the content of his pictures and the evolution of his creations were determined by his belief in witchcraft. He perceived the world in this light, and the transformations of trees and other objects were unconscious and not contrived. We can assume that he painted the world as it appeared to him.”  Similarly, the dark carnival of the abject and grotesque we find in Castillo’s work segues closely with his own experiences.
Castillo’s obsessional tropes – brutal murders, transmogrification, hallucinatory encounters with the unnameable Other, the mysterium tremendum – shares much with Bosch. “The primitive obsessional fears of metamorphosis, transformation and absorption, of penetration and of distortion of sexual and procreative powers that Bosch revealed persist today in the fairy tales of Northern mythology, the terrors of children, and archaic delusions of psychosis.”  And they also persist, we might add, in the artworks of Osvaldo Ramirez Castillo.
Rudolf Otto's concept of the "Numinous" enters the fray here as significant content.
Otto was one of the most influential religious thinkers in the first half of the twentieth century. In his The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational, Otto identifies and explores the non-rational mystery behind religious experience which he called the numinous.
As mysterium, the numinous is "wholly other"-- entirely different from anything we experience in ordinary life. It evokes a reaction of silence. But the numinous is also a mysterium tremendum. It provokes terror because it presents itself as overarching power. The numinous galvanizes the mind with Dread and provokes silence and shudders. The numinous has another aspect that co-exists with the mysterium tremendum, the power to fascination. The numinous dread and the fascinating "combine in a strange harmony of contrasts". Otto terms this the mysterium tremendum and fascinosum. There is no doubt that Castillo touches on this in all his creative work. His strange harmony of contrasts fascinates even as it fills us with dread. The nightmarish entities that populate his drawings – the demon dogs, for instance – are wholly Other, spectral hauntings that yield an involuntary frisson and lead us further inwards. 
Miguel Angel Asturias (1899-1974), the Guatemalan diplomat and writer whose lifelong struggle against all forms of injustice in Guatemala caused critics to view the author as a compassionate spokesperson for the oppressed, wrote in his 1967 Nobel Lecture The Latin American Novel Testimony of an Epoch:
“To bear witness. The novelist bears witness like the apostle. Like Paul trying to escape, the writer is confronted with the pathetic reality of the world that surrounds him – the stark reality of our countries that overwhelms and blinds us and, throwing us to our knees, forces us to shout out: WHY DO YOU PERSECUTE ME? Yes, we are persecuted by this reality that we cannot deny, which is lived in the flesh by the people of the Mexican revolution.” 
To bear witness. That is what the apostolic Osvaldo Ramirez Castillo does in each and every work that he executes. With their haunting auguries of war and witchcraft, Castillo’s works are a bulwark against the forces of subjugation and oppression. His legacy as a witness is irremediably wed to his ability to give a harrowing human face to all the powers of horror. WM
1. See Miguel Angel Asturias, Barefoot Meditations.
2. See Charles D, Cuttler, “Witchcraft in a work by Bosch” in Bosch in Perspective, ed. James Synder (Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall. 1973), p. 138.3. R.E. Hemphill, “The Personality and Problem of Hieronymus Bosch” in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine 1965, p. 138.
3. R.E. Hemphill, “The Personality and Problem of Hieronymus Bosch” in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine 1965, p. 138.
4. Cited in Megan Bradley, Osvaldo Ramirez Castillo (Montreal, Galerie Yves Laroche, 2013)
5. See Elisabeth Kley, “Gotham Art & Theater” http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/reviews/kley/george-grosz-fernell-franco11-10-09.asp
8. Cited in Megan Bradley, op. cit.
10. Casey, E. S. (2004). “Public memory in place and time” in K. R. Phillips (Ed.), Framing public memory (pp. 17–44). Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
11. See Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigwort, The Affect Theory Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 119.
12. Cathy Caruth, Trauma: Explorations in Memory, JHU Press, 1995 –
13. Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. Originally published in French as Soleil Noir: Dépression et mélancholie. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1987.
14. Marita Sturken Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero. Duke University Press November 2007
15. Ehrenhaus P. and A.S. Owen. 2004. Race Lynching and Christian Evangelism: Performances of Faith. Text and Performance Quarterly 24(3/4): 276-301.
16. Megan Bradley, op. cit
18. R.E. Hemphill, “The Personality and Problem of Hieronymus Bosch” in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine 1965.
21. See Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy. Trans. John W. Harvey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923; 2nd ed., 1950 [Das Heilige, 1917]):
22. See online text at https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1967/asturias/lecture
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James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.