Ruben Castillo: Images of Intimacy

“My work is about the image of intimacy,” says Kansas City artist Ruben Castillo, a second-year Charlotte Street Foundation Studio Resident who teaches in the printmaking department at the Kansas City Art Institute.

Castillo is known for his sensitive etchings and ink wash drawings of ordinary domestic objects — sofas, chairs, closets and hangers, a pair of toothbrushes sharing a single cup. Some works are as small as a postcard. Most of his images present objects in pairs, an allusion to his shared life with artist Derek Dobbins, his partner of seven years.

“Our home is an intimate space,” he said during a recent studio visit. “What makes our home our home? Our clothes, our bed, our furniture — all the objects we own. It’s a space where we can just be who we are.”

The couple’s pillows are the focus of many of Castillo’s prints and drawings. For a while, he said, he would photograph their pillows every morning when he got out of bed, well aware of whose footsteps he was following.

“Felix Gonzalez-Torres haunted my work,” he said, alluding to the late Cuban-born American artist’s giant billboard of an empty bed. “I am paying my respects.”

But where Gonzalez-Torres’ 1991 image evinced an elegiac tenor reflecting the losses brought on by the AIDS crisis, Castillo revels in the domestic ordinariness of it all, keying off some of the ideas of Kathleen Stewart, who explored the dimensions of cultural politics latent in the ordinary in her 2007 book, “Ordinary Affects.”

“The ordinary is a huge foundation,” Castillo said. “The queer individual in an ordinary space is super important.”

Recently, he has been creating small works on paper featuring IKEA products that attract him. “Things I Want From IKEA” is “about desire and dreams of a nice home,” Castillo says in his artist statement.

Stacks and clusters of patterned pillows are a recurrent subject of his IKEA-inspired “Make Room for Comfortable” series. Another group of works, “Pink Couch Fantasy,” re-envisions IKEA couches by endowing them with pink upholstery, inspired by a pink bedroom Castillo and his partner once had.

Castillo acknowledges that his desire for comfort and normalcy puts him in fraught territory. “There’s anxiety politically right now,” he said, “extreme anxiety, and not just from the policies and attitudes of the current political administration.”

Is the embrace of “normalcy,” equated in the larger culture with heterosexuality, detrimental to queer culture — and society as a whole? Castillo cites Michael Warner’s influential 1999 book, “The Trouble with Normal,” in which the author counters the move toward conformity and normalcy exemplified by gay marriage with an argument in favor of different ways of living. As Martha Nussbaum summarized Warner’s position in her review in “The New Republic,” “A democratic culture needs to encourage, not to stifle, innovations and deviations in living, in order to discover the most fruitful ways to realize its ideal of human dignity.”

Fraught though they may be, Castillo says he finds peace in the quiet process of focusing on a chair, a collection of hangers in a closet, a lamp, a potted plant. “When I draw, I’m meditating on that moment,” he said, “being still with it.” He captures many of the same objects in his prints, which provide a different experience. Prints “take time and condense the image into a copper plate,” he said. “It’s a moment, stopped in time and printed.”

Castillo’s output also includes video and sculpture, including the mixed-media installation “Drawing of Our Closet (Love Notes),” shown in the artist’s 2017 thesis exhibition at Haw Contemporary. Filled with what the artist describes as “ready-made objects . . . treated in a variety of manners that queer the objects and the space they occupy,” it’s a replica of Castillo and Dobbins’ shared closet.

Two of Castillo’s large pillow etchings are on display at the Crossroads Hotel, which recently purchased the works for its collection.

Alice Thorson

Alice Thorson is the editor of KC Studio. She has written about the visual arts for numerous publications locally and nationally.

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