By Mandy Messina
It’s fair to say that most graduates of formal art training, funnel through three main pipelines: artist, teacher and (museum) guard. Entering full-time art production after university is akin to winning the lottery. Chances are slim, and only the winners are represented. The more established trope is for the rest to find an arts-adjacent job, where they can lick their outstanding loans. Alternately, in order to produce art full time for a few semesters more, some return to their academic parents to delay that reality.
For Eliseo Casiano that timeline is a bit more disjointed. Both parents came from working-class backgrounds, giving practical but unexpected advice: pursue your interests, because you can always find work to pay the bills. Despite encouraging parents, and an enjoyment of painting, Casiano never saw anyone that looked like him engaging with art. It was not within his range of experience. This lack of representation made the idea of becoming an artist feel about as tangible as trying to flip on a lightswitch in a dream. Skeptical of college, he instead applied to be a local prison guard. His sister intervened in his plans and he was soon enrolled at a small college just north of the Texas-Oklahoma divide. Now, 10 years later, Casiano gift-wraps emotional discomfort in paint.
Take Beach Cholo, for instance. It opens on the aftermath of what reads as a compromised piñata. The colours are loud, unmixed for long stretches, and resembles paper that’s been ripped. Layers of pink and lime green have been torn away to reveal an internally expanding universe. An incident has occurred, and somebody’s responsible. In the foreground of the rupture, stand a measly gang: a boy in a skeleton costume, and a labrador-sized lobster. Their mismatched exoskeletons affiliate them. Like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, they loiter awkwardly in front of this breach. Could this anxious iteration of Bonnie and Clyde be responsible for that rip in the space-time continuum? Their uniforms are debris free, but the boy’s face and hands are suspiciously speckled with confetti, while the lobster stands literally red handed.
“I can’t describe that uncomfortable feeling of being at a beach and being discriminated against,” says Casiano, “but I can expand everything, I can make this more uncomfortable image to where you kind of get that feeling.”
Casiano’s process is of our time. Using his phone, he copies and transfers his voracious readings of family albums, product labels and pop-culture references to a digital repository. The artist has an extensive image bank. These franken-form feelings rely on the chance reaction between individual images – usually executed in Photoshop. With such contemporary methods, why return to a medium as old and technologically irrelevant as painting? Because painting is an excellent Trojan horse. Casiano’s work is designed to act as a procedure, with the aesthetics acting as the anesthesia. Once administered, it lulls the viewer into a world of dream-logic, until they slowly sink into awareness of an uncomfortable reality waiting outside of the art.
The artist is perhaps aware of this dynamic in his work, because he tells me that he’s trying to build a relationship with paint – to sophisticate the image further, to see objects through the lens of paint. However, he brings up a professor who dismissed his flat painting style, instructed him to “just make screen prints, because you’re making screen prints”. Whatever the intention behind that comment, changing the process would be detrimental to the work. That flatness, traces a fascination with product labels, the style and process of sign painters (quick and efficient), and more specifically, the traditions of Mexican muralists.
That mural or hand painted sign, is site-specific and therefore community specific. In a similar manner, Casiano works within a niche visual language and he knows his audience intimately.
“I care more about my parents looking at the image and understanding it, than (…) someone who doesn’t have the intention to learn about my heritage.” he explains.
He describes a rancher friend, who in giving an account of a situation gone wrong, christens it fucked like a soup sandwich. The artist tells me, his sole ambition is to paint that metaphor. One of the most successful examples, relies on the combination of common Western Art images – known to the point of cliché – folded in with divisive experiences around immigration in contemporary America. The composition – a slightly-turned-away figure against a tiered landscape – reminds one of Mona Lisa, with hints at Dalì’s melting timepieces in The Persistence of Memory. The artist’s sister as a young girl, physically melts before us. Her carefree, childlike smile is immediately slapstick because of her singular disregard for her existential situation. She maintains focus on something just out of frame. Heat distorts the horizon to look as if it were a ribbon undulating from a fan. Dollops of her happy face threaten to detach.
The title, Migrant Sunbath, is especially well-constructed to draw the line between verb- and noun-connotations. What this does is illustrate the distinction between those that have and those that have not. Sunbathing (verb) is an optional, indulgent activity for the rich and resourced, but a sunbath (noun) is an unavoidable punishment encountered while trying to make ends meet. Sunbathing is a benefit of having just enough control, within the platitude of The American Dream, to feel autonomous. A sunbath, in contrast, is just one more soup sandwich to get through.
One could argue that we are living through an embarrassment of riches. Collectively speaking, we have plenty of soup sandwiches to get through today. More and more frequently references to the 1970’s seem to be made in relation to today – not least for the current American political spectacle. The 1970’s were a period that contemporary historians consider one of the most pivotal decades for global economic upheaval (respective Oil and Energy Crises), attempts at social progress (Decolonization of Angola and Mozambique, Wade v. Roe in the US) and ideological combustion (The Khmer Rouge, Bloody Sunday, the Soweto uprising).
We are now, twice removed from the phrase, Yes, We Can. First used in 1972 by César Chavez to mobilize for the rights of farm workers, Si, se puede was revived and anglicized in the run up to Barack Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign.
Casiano mentions that after the 2016 elections “everyone was bummed, everyone was complaining, everyone was just sad, and I was thinking of something I could do. I was listening to this song.”
Yes, We Can Can (1970, Allen Toussaint) is an earworm, pertinent to the timeframe. It was performed by two separate acts in the span of four years, attesting to its relevance and popularity. Funk rhythms repeat an uplifting message of taking advantage of a sensitive time to unite in respect for one another.
Casiano was so inspired by the sentiments that it informed his MFA thesis show at LSU (Louisiana State University). He structured it around the idea of fundraising to create a sustainable material scholarship for women and non-binary artists at his alma mater, in Ada, Oklahoma. The merit-based scholarship is granted by the East Central University faculty each year. One body of work sold to sustain the scholarship, is a collection of 54 paintings depicting Casiano’s interpretations of the classic game of chance, Lotería.
“(I)t’s basically BINGO, but instead of using numbers and letters you’re using character cards. (…) I was thinking of chance and all the different occurrences that could happen in your life that could put you in that position.” Casiano explained.
His sister as a young girl, appears as merged versions of herself and the associated card image. The same carefree smile mentioned in Migrant Sunbath, is repeated with each card character she plays. She climbs a corporate ladder (La Escalera card), camouflages as Ana Mendieta’s Tree of Life (the El Arbol card), and twice appears submerged in a river (the El Pescado and La Sirena cards).
The living scholarship is named after his sister, April (also an alum of ECU) and their mother (who didn’t attend college). You’ll recall, that before her role as muse, Casiano’s sister played an instrument of fate. Intervening in his plans to become a prison guard, Casiano applied to ECU on the very last day for applications.
He’s aware of the role of chance in not only his personal life, but in world history. Which he reflected in a drawing series started in 2018. These graphite and colour pencil drawings are of the imagined intersection of his family and global history. In one, despite the impossibility of their paths ever crossing, the artist as a 1980’s baby, sits on the lap of JFK sometime prior to 1963.
These in-jokes are made for family and friends. He gifts completed drawings with only a digital ghost for his archives. One drawing, depicts a gas station ice box. On the sloping, front side of the ice box are two doors. The left door presents the face of a baby. It’s that same baby – taken from a former president’s lap – whose face is now plastered on an ice box. Snow capped, sans-serif, block letters spell ICE on three different sides. This could refer to frozen cubes of water and hint at a very literal pictogram for a Vanilla Ice song – a trivial reference to 90’s pop culture. However, it’s also the acronym of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) which is currently associated with holding children they have separated from their families.
The ambiguity of the reading reinforces the sentiment of Migrant Sunbath. Namely that for some, this image might more easily read as a comedic image about the only cultural trace of a farcical white rapper. Evidenced by the words ICE, ICE, and then the image of a baby. Their projection on the image is relaxed, since it’s only a joke.
However, contrast this with a reading informed by experiences of a marginalized group living in fear of the government body called, ICE. It becomes a projection of the separation of children from their families to coldly deter future migrants and asylum seekers. The work takes on the same process as a Rorschach test. Do you see a tragedy or a farce? It depends on your experiences.
Growing up in small towns between Texas and Oklahoma, Casiano also fell between the respective ideological spaces held by different communities in the region. He talked about his love of 90’s country love-songs, and still taking comfort in spaces and cultures that aren’t necessarily made for him – or people that look like him. He also accounted instances where his fluency in two contrasting sets of experiences, did not extend to his white schoolmates.
His father worked at a hospital in the ER and would offer refuge to hurt migrant workers who had been abandoned by employers. “I’d go to school and people were saying these really racist things – I would hear people talking about these illegal immigrants, but I have an undocumented teen at the house that I’m not talking about.” he remembers.
Despite such memories, when I ask him what he’s looking to do in the next few years, he answers straight away that he’d prefer to settle in a rural Southwestern community. “There’s a way to subvert and disrupt that’s also peaceful.” he says, “I want that sense of community and adding to a dialogue or discussion.” Most graduates of formal art training defer to either art teacher or art guard. Casiano tells me he got his MFA not to be a full time artist, but specifically to teach. His intention with the work he does is to not be the only person benefiting. “(I)t’s nice when you see someone’s learning something from you, and you learned that from someone else.”
Find Eliseo Casiano online at:
If you’re interested in making a donation to the ECU fund, please feel free to call the Fine Art Department at 580-559-5471 or firstname.lastname@example.org
A brief video version of this essay is available at the Critical Canon Youtube Channel February 1, 2018