Blending bling culture with religion and street gangs with Latin American legends, Pablo Cristi's art transports viewers to the streets of East LA, his hometown. We recently caught up with him at his Berkeley studio where we chatted about the history of the burrito, the ambivalent pride that comes with being from Los Angeles, and much more.
Tell us about the figures in your paintings.
Pablo Cristi: I use a lot of popular culture and obscure California history. For instance, I did a body of work about the intersection of bling culture, street gangs, and religion. The current pope became this villainous character in those paintings. I also use the history of Latin American actors and Hollywood. In early Hollywood, it was hard for Latinos to even get a role, and they were typecast more than anything. That's an example of the paradigm of the society at the time, and the history and evolution of the Latino Actor in Hollywood has been a source for me to exploit, and use to talk about current issues with Latin American identity here in the United States. It's a visual symbol that I'll use in order to reference my critique of today. I've done a lot of Lone Ranger studies and that has to do with the history of the Southwest and the tension between the Mexican and American border.
Have you seen The Bronze Screen?
PC: Yes, that documentary talks about exactly the same issues. You hit the nail on the head. Rita Hayworth was Spanish and she was one of the first actors to have her hairline raised because they said she looked too ethnic, even though she had a white European background. They put her into the Mexican category because of her Spanish accent and upbringing, so she had to surgically change her appearance to look more European even though she was already European. I used Rita Hayworth juxtaposed with Jennifer Lopez, who is celebrated for her curves. That used to not be a good thing. It's a kind of sick flip-side, this excoticism of Latin-ness, or the stereotype of it.
I recreate history in a away -- retelling it and collapsing time, the past and the present. I try to avoid making too much of a point. I'd rather be more subtle, even though I'm using figures that are very full of information. I try to leave some ambiguity, which is like my painting style. There are some abstract elements and some very concrete, figurative elements to it.
What brought you here from LA?
PC: I love LA. It's a great place to me. I see myself as an ambassador of Los Angeles culture. My parents are from Chile. I grew up in East LA around mostly Mexican-American culture. The American culture I assimilated to is Chicano culture, which is odd because I'm Chilean, not Mexican. As a young teen, there was a lot of questioning going on about my identity. There was a point when I was around seventeen where I realized Los Angeles is not the only place on earth. I went to college in the Northwest at the University of Oregon, I lived in Mexico for a year and a half, and I moved back to LA various times. A lot of my inspiration comes from my identity as a Los Angeleno. It's an odd, love-and-hate relationship. I can't go too long without going back, but once I'm back I can't go too long without having to leave again.
That's why I call myself an ambassador of LA culture because I speak about it a lot, and even though I've been in the Bay Area for eight years, I'm still that guy from LA. LA gets a bad rap but it's a very diverse place and there are so many interesting cultural things happening. If you don't know somebody from LA to show you around, you'll go to Hollywood and do the obvious things, but no one's going to take you to that taco truck in East LA that you should go to, or that little hole-in-the-wall bar in Echo Park.
Tell us about your golden burrito sculptures.
PC: The owner of my house is a ceramic sculptor so there are a couple of kilns that I thought I should take advantage of. The burritos had no meaning to me at first. I'd just sit there and pump a bunch of them out. They're all handmade, hand-rolled. I made roughly 180. They were all porcelain and I didn't know how they related to my work until I started reading about the history of the Southwest and its relationship to food.
The burrito developed because of the cowboy culture. They needed something wrapped to take on their journeys, so it was something born on the Texas-Mexico border. The earliest known burrito was in the late 1800s. The story is that a guy used to sell them off a donkey, a burro, so they called it a burrito. To me, it became this symbol of hybrid culture. The burrito is this easy, accessible food, but it's become elevated into this higher realm. And porcelain as a material is very high culture. For my MFA show, I made a low-rider burrito cart and tricked it out with a very classic LA look, with LA colors, and then filled it with the porcelain burritos. At first they were just porcelain, but they turned into gold burritos because that related more to California history. I wanted to talk about the burrito almost as an exploited natural resource.
And the hand sculptures?
PC: They're supposed to be in glass jars, like specimen jars. I did research on Venus Hottentot, the woman from South Africa who was found by Dutch explorers. All the women of her tribe were curvy, and it was a time when the Western philosophy about beauty was forming around these ideas of Africans being more animalistic and savage. So these Dutch explorers put her in a freak show situation where people would poke and prod her. When she died, they cut her genitals off and put them in a glass jar. There's this cabinet-of-curiosity thing that mostly has to do with European explorers going to exotic places to bring back culturally fetishized tropes. Some of them are really gruesome and happen to be body parts.
It happened in California as well. Joaquin Murrieta was known as a California bandit. In Latin American folklore, he's a hero, but in Western American history he's a criminal. It's like the intersection of my existence here and in LA because Chileans claim Murrieta as a Chilean, and Mexicans claim him as Mexican. In folklore, nobody knows where he came from, but he's this hero; a Robin Hood-type. When they caught him, they cut off his head and put it in a glass jar, and toured it around California. He and his right-hand man, Three-Fingered Jack, whose hand they cut off and put in a glass jar for this exhibit of "banditos." I wanted to use that dehumanized way of exhibiting things, that disconnect, but I wanted to talk about gang culture and the communication through hand symbols. I like the fact that there's a hidden layer that's grotesque. And I paint them with automotive paints so they get really slick. I named the hand sculptures Joaquin Murrieta, Three-Fingered Jack, and El Californio.
And the tapes are also kind of like the burritos, they were an obsessive project. Nobody has seen them yet.
They're warped like when you'd leave your tapes in the car and they'd melt in the sun. That happened to my Janet Jackson tape in '86 and I was so upset.
PC: That's exactly where it came from. I have an NWA and the Posse tape that I've had since I was eleven. I've had five vehicles since I was sixteen, and I always carry this thing around with me. I can't throw it away. So I decided to make it immortal and made a cast of it. The tape is melted and screwed up, and then the castings are too. They come out all wonky. Right now they're just a nostalgic thing.
If your art had a soundtrack what would it be?
PC: Something between Bootsy Collins and Mexican Institute of Sound.
Check out Pablo's work (a denim pig head wearing a golden chicken claw on a chain) at Intersection for the Arts' Chico and Chang exhibition through August 20, 2011.