As interim curator for the dA Center for the Arts in downtown Pomona, Rolo Castillo’s focus this year has been to bring credibility to the dA as a gallery space. A perception exists of the dA as everyone’s gallery, with open shows that, for an entry fee, welcome all-comers. Tell something like that to Castillo and he casts a sidelong glance before opining, “If you play things safe, then you’ll end up with mediocrity . . . Why not go for a bigger concept?”
But the dA has traditionally been a bit schizophrenic with its mission. The organization seeks to exert regional influence, yet functions a bit like the sitcom bar, Cheers, where “everybody knows your name”—a social club where the art often has been incidental. Castillo recalls, “You literally had people pulling the same painting out of their closet each year for the Simply Red show.”
Castillo accepted the temporary assignment—fully disclosing his intention to leave after a year—on the condition of complete autonomy. Chris Toovey, the president of the board, first approached Castillo about curating at the dA in February 2006. Twenty-four years after the gallery first opened, Toovey is the sole remaining founder on the dA’s board. He recalls the period between 1984 and 1990 being marked by raw energy, performance, and a sense of excitement. Toovey remembers, “Things got staid—every five years we need to shake things up.” He knew Castillo had a penchant for challenging people, and he had taken note of Rolo’s aesthetic as well as his unyielding energy, and he thought—who better to re-invigorate the dA and the Arts Colony?
When Castillo lived in the downtown Los Angeles Arts District, he organized gatherings in unlikely, informal places, such as alleys and abandoned railroad docks. These were essentially parties where artists showed their works informally, musicians performed, and things happened. The idea of a transient venue that allowed artists to show new, experimental work (sometimes under an assumed name) without waiting for a show or seeking gallery representation—well, it was a statement of autonomy. Castillo’s style was forged in this improvisational environment. He created a sense of spectacle and an element of surprise. There was also a sense that, if you missed it, you missed something extraordinary.
Castillo’s engagement in the Pomona Arts Colony has followed this template, and there’s no mistaking that he enjoys taking risks. It’s easy to see with Rolo that if nothing’s at stake, he’d rather not be involved. When asked if he was influenced by Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone, Castillo replied that Bey’s book was more a realization that there was a name for what he was doing. He’s a correlative sort of gambler.
And he’s also inwardly driven. In the shows he has curated at the dA, Castillo has worked to out-do himself with each new exhibit. He hopes that this will set high expectations—with artists and audiences alike—for the open shows that the dA continues to host, and for curated shows moving forward.
His efforts are showing up across the board.
In January, the opening night of The New Traditionalists dazzled. The gallery’s transformation for Castillo’s inaugural show was magical, and it silenced the skeptics. There was a buzz of expectation. The work, by five different artists, was strong, and the public response was overwhelmingly positive. Changes to the walls and lighting provided a more open space able accommodate larger work. Three of the artists in the show—Robert Reynolds, Richard Ankrom, and Anthony Mendoza—made work that was politically pointed. Implementing one of his many ideas to cross-pollinate the Pomona and LA arts districts, Castillo chartered a bus to bring in artists and writers from downtown Los Angeles.
Although Castillo insists that the purpose of the show was not to stir up controversy but to put strong, challenging, opinionated work in front of an audience accustomed to seeing the same things over and over again, he did seem a little disappointed that there wasn’t more debate surrounding it given some of the content. Thus, his next curated show was—one suspects—an effort to stir some up. In March, In Like a Lion gave prominent placement to the explicit paintings of Emmeric Konrad. Konrad, a charmer in a sympathy-for-the-devil kind of way, has a chameleonic appearance. Changing his hair color from dirty blond to bone white at a whim, he has a gleam of mischief in his eye when he smiles, and he winks as if to signal that he is letting you in on a secret.
Konrad’s paintings from In Like a Lion were sexually unequivocal, and, to some, unnerving. They exuded the energy of blunt-force-trauma. Most of Konrad’s paintings from this particular show featured a provocative, violence-prone love-bunny. In some paintings, the bunny held a gun in a threatening manner; in others, it was clear the gun has just been used. The women in the paintings were always cast in compromising positions. The combination of raw sexuality and comic book violence led some to suggest that the show was too provocative. In fact, the Pomona schools canceled gallery visits for their art students on opening day. However, there was support for the show and, on the part of the dA’s Board, a commitment to Castillo’s curatorial choices. In the end it was hard for anybody to dispute that the work was anything less than stunning.
In a nod to commerce, Castillo’s latest effort, the father and son Miripolsky show, brought a celebrated artist to the dA. Arguably, the Miripolsky show had no organic connection to the dA or to Pomona; however, it succeeded in raising substantial funds for the gallery. Perhaps the real connection was Rolo himself, as the curator has known Miripolsky for years, and that connection hit home.
Now that the end of his year at the dA is in sight, there’s a realization from the Board of what Castillo has accomplished in six short months. Rolo says he’s more than happy to move onto other projects once he finishes out his commitment, and he would prefer to keep the spotlight where it belongs—on artists. In this self-deflecting way, perhaps his biggest desire is the one closest to fruition as he moves on—that the Arts Colony should succeed.