Santiago Cal

When most of us want to relive memorable moments in our past, we look to snapshots. That two-dimensional depiction of a birthday party or graduation ceremony is what we identify with that moment in time. The sculptor Santiago Cal, however, instead takes out a block of basswood and cuts and trims away at the malleable material, shapes and sands until he creates a figure that embodies a pivotal moment in his past. “I think it’s easier for us to relate to or imagine a past experience by looking at something that is two dimensional,” Cal says from his studio workshop in Lincoln, Nebraska. “With sculpture, though, you think about time differently, for its very form and textural dimension catapults you into a different place. Your experience of the past, if depicted by sculpture, is going to be a wholly new one.” Cal’s first New York show, “Giants and Gentility,” at Rare Gallery (October 16–November 13, 2014), presented ten 18-to-22-inch-high figures secured to stands that represented not only the artist’s life, but, perhaps, our own, too. In that sense, Cal has helped articulate our lives.  

Santiago Cal<i>The Good Life, </i>2014<br/>COURTESY RARE GALLERY, NEW YORK CITY

On the occasion of his fortieth birthday, in 2013, Cal decided to begin a “40 Rings” series of what would become forty sculptures, each representing a historical moment in time that coincided with that particular year in his life. Although Cal admits that he was not aware, as a one-year-old in 1974, that India had successfully set off its first nuclear bomb test, as an adult he realized the gravity of that moment. His Smiling Buddha sculpture, named for the secret codename devised by the Indian government for the bomb deployment, depicts a middle-aged man, sporting a less-than-flattering pot belly and concealing behind his back a miniature mushroom cloud, which at first glance appears as a benign bouquet of flowers that he is ready to present to someone.  

“Honestly, I could have selected any one of numerous events for every year of my life, but I was determined to only choose those that were metaphorically relevant and that I felt compelled to make into sculpture,” said Cal. Prior to the horrors of September 11, 2001, the Taliban, in a kind of test run of its diabolical actual and metaphorical arsenal, blew up in March a pair of ancient Bamiyan Buddas, carved stone figures, some 150 feet high, that had occupied mountainside niches in Afghanistan since the sixth century. Later that year, of course, the attacks in America occurred. Cal’s Things to Come is his response to both events. As the only non-human figure in the show, Cal carved a coiled cobra, its red tongue a multi-pronged lightning bolt that issues from its mouth. Incised in the reptile’s twisted girth, Cal positioned two miniature versions of those obliterated Buddhas. “We all had such an emotional response to the events of 9/11,” said Cal, “and as an artist, I had an emotional response to something physical that was lost, something that was symbolically charged with meaning.” By creating something symbolic himself, Cal responded in kind. Words, images, sounds, none of them would have seemed proper means for articulating the response Cal felt.  

While the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981 (Stay Calm), the eradication of small pox in 1979 (Sleep Tight) and the death in 1975 of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco (After Franco) are recounted in Cal’s works, not all of his sculptures in the show are related to personages and periods outside of his personal realm. His Good Life references not only the state motto of Nebraska, where he has lived since 2000 as a professor of sculpture at the University of Nebraska, but also the place where he met his future wife. In that work, among the most visually exhilarating in the show, a young woman, clad in a teal-colored dress, stands with one arm raised and a tower of braided blond hair rocketing into space. That tightly coiled golden hair appears to rise into the air, tracing a visual and discernible pathway to a bright future. His son, Jude Jeronimo, born a year ago, is shown safely ensconced in a cradle-like setting in Cicada. And when Cal was a young man living in Detroit, trying out a life as an urban pioneer, he was besieged nightly by a vagrant who would rap on this door, asking for money. Cal recalls that year of his life in Night Willy, which shows a wearied figure trying to quash the noise of the outside world with a pillow over his head.  

Although Cal was born in Belize, his family came to Pennsylvania when he was 13. Given his mixed ancestry of what he calls an Anglo mother and a Mayan/Spanish father, the artist feels permanently rooted in two cultures—not so unlike the basswood, which grows in many parts of the world, although under different names. He remarks: “Basswood allows me to make carved sculptures that are more crude, more aligned to the crafts traditions practiced where I grew up in Central America.” He remains cognizant, too, that the very wood he uses is often harvested from trees that are about forty years old. Were someone to count the rings on the raw wood, they would equal those of the number of years Cal has been alive. “My goal is to make forty of these works, perhaps within a year’s time, or soon enough so that the theme of this project relates to this pivotal age I’ve attained.” Rare Gallery, 547 West 27th Street, No. 514, New York, New York 10001. 

—David Masello


 American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2015, Volume 32, Number 1