By Benjamin Forgey
The Evening Star and the Washington Daily News, Washington D.C., March 15, 1973
To really see Eduardo Castrillo’s art, you would have to travel to his hometown Manila then on to Jakarta, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur. The exhibition of Castrillo’s works now on view at the Agra Gallery is hardly more than a series of transportable notations on his already imposing achievements as a sculptor.
Castrillo at 29 is the phenomenon of Filipino art. Downtown Manila where almost all the modern office building in the entire archipelago are dotted with large outdoor sculptures by Castrillo. He has accepted commissions for monumental sculptures from all over East Asia, and his most recent commissions will take at least a decade to complete. At its apex will be ten storeys high and it will cover and area roughly equivalent to two football fields. He sells so rapidly that he can hardly keep work in his studio. And he says he already employs 57 assistants full-time.
However, as the present show is our main evidence, let us start at the Agra Gallery. Far and away the most impressive thing in the show is the centerpiece, a forceful set of smooth flowing volumes and inter-locking planes made of sheets of cut and welded brass. Stylistically and philosophically, it is the tradition of the vitalist sculpture of which Henry Moore is the exemplar. Castrillo also acknowledges the contemporary Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida as an important influence.
The title of the piece is The Force of the West, something that very much occupies the mind of its author, In describing it, he spreads his arms expansively. “ I want it to be like a strong wind had made it,’ he says.
The piece establishes the principal issue of Castrillo’s art. What is the relationship of modernism as an importable (and usually irresistible) cultural tradition to the countries of the Third World? The common assumption has been, even among the best indigenous artists, that modernism in culture is as necessary as Western technology, that abstract painting is in effect as much a sign of advancement as skyscrapers and steel mills. Without denying the force of Western cultural attitudes in the developing world, indeed, as the title of his sculpture implies, in order to deal with it more directly, Castrillo questions these assumptions.
On the walls at Agra’s is a jarring juxtaposition of Castrillo’s hand-crafted gold or silver necklaces, earrings, watchbands, and the like, and social protest relief panels made of copper sheets hammered from behind. This unlikely pairing reflects the artist’s background. Castrillo was educated in the humanities at Catholic universities in the Philippines and didn’t think much about making art until he’d work for a while as a master craftsman at Estrella del Norte, a luxurious jewellery store in Manila. He continues to make the jewellery even as he makes plans to build sculptural mountains, and loves doing both.
The relief panels demonstrate a number of things, among them where an artist with Castrillo’s ideals look for inspiration in the catalogue of Western art. It should come as no great surprise that he took to the Mexican muralists, who comprise the most recent great art in the repertory that allies itself to social and political programs and attitudes.
The panels then, perforce, remind one of the situation throughout the have-not world and particularly of Castrillo’s country where an aggressive oligarchy of some 100 families control virtually all of the property and much of the politics consists merely of jealous quarrels among the top dogs. Furthermore, since last September, when President Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law, the Philippines has been a one man police state.
Of course it is my reading of pictures such as The Victims and The Fallen Heroes that say they relate to Filipino events. They could just as well be about American Indians, South African blacks or Latin American peasants, for all the local color in them. One striking difference between Castrillo and the Mexican muralists is that they were insiders , operating after a successful revolution with the full backing of the government. Castrillo on the other hand is an outsider.
Castrillo has not met his own self-set goals, at least in the reliefs, to establish a composite style that takes from Western art and competes with it on terms of quality, while at the same time, expressing the highest aspirations and deepest dilemmas of the Filipino people. The panels are persuasive and disturbing on political and ethical levels, and extremely skillful as craft objects but they are not great art.
Even the articulation of this aesthetic and social ambition however, puts Castrillo in the front ranks of the art of his land and area. It bespeaks a personal attitude of the highest artistic seriousness and a cultural ambience of surprising vigour. It also makes evaluating Castrillo’s performance more difficult. A lot of this has to be done from photographs on hand at the gallery, and even these are incomplete. One’s evaluation of the whole project obviously must remain incomplete as well, but there is no question about Castrillo’s energy, drive, sensitivity and intelligence.
One of the startling things about Castrillo’s work is its architectural, public, scale. He literally burst upon the Filipino scene seven years ago with a one man show that sold out, and immediately he began receiving commissions of architectural size. Castrillo’s keen appreciation of the limitations and the opportunities–the necessities–of sculpture of this kind is exceedingly rare and all the more extraordinary in so young an artist.
His energy and endurance in applying this gift in the following years is truly breathtaking. Impressive too, is the variety of his work, its openness to the needs of the situation. He has made doors or extraordinary beauty, ingenuity and fittingness of an old and lovely chapel; he has covered an entire room with abstracted panels of hammered brass; he has interpreted the history of Singapore in continuous panel 50 feet long and 20 feet high.
Castrillo’s relationship with the west is complex and many sided. He respects much and he rejects much, but you feel most of all that he wants to break free, to do something in his art that would be persuasively and decisively Filipino, or, he might prefer, Asian. This is not so unusual, a mix of cosmopolitanism with nationalism (with more than a pinch of the pan-Asianism) among students, the intelligentsia and liberal middle classes throughout the Third World, but it is quite unusual among artists of the Philippines. Filipino art since independence (the 7,000 islands were virtually an American colony up until 1946 and a Spanish colony for 350 years before that) is by and large a pastiche of international modernism, some of it good some of it not good and all of it aloof.
Castrillo comments acidly that “most Filipino artists come to New York or Paris and make a small reputation, and they go back home and claim that they are big–but they’ve lost their personal creativity.” Perhaps this explains why Castrillo’s first visit to the United States, while in the past five years, he has roamed all over Asia seeking out the art. He speaks with passion and awe of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and of the monuments of ancient art in India. It boggles the mind to realise that this impatient under 30 artist wants to, and apparently will, build in the Philippines monuments of equal size and, in his own hopes, comparative grandeur. It boggles the mind even more to think that he might pull it off.