Leo Castaneda’s solo exhibition “Items in Varied Renders” at IRL Miami features paintings, drawings, video, interactive sculpture and virtual reality. Playing with ideas of mixed reality, Castaneda merges real and virtual worlds that inform each other across various media via conceptual explorations, imagery, and textures.
The exhibition’s title borrows from the vocabulary of video games, where the word ‘item’ describes objects of value, tools or even characters with artificial intelligence. In video games, collections of items are assembled in various manners: from menus to showrooms reminiscent of furniture stores. “Items in Varied Renders” functions as a multi-layered physical showroom including the gallery space, the virtual reality space and the conceptual space.
Castaneda blurs the distinction between human and object as he denies figures any interaction with the external environment and by unifying monochromatic textures pulled from the artist’s paintings, photos and drawings. Personal photos from a trip to the Amazon sit next to appropriated images from diverse sources on the internet and screengrabs of instances in the creation of artworks, various origins and histories blend together as they become abstract textures and patterns. The resulting in-between space takes the viewer somewhere between the past, present and speculative future that merges interior design with videogame arcades, while also inevitably highlighting the design of the exhibition itself.
Introduce yourself please
I am from many places but I was born in Colombia. I come from a family of artists and architects so the Colombian-ness that influenced me is this derailed modernism from South America. When I grew up I was always around artist and architects and when I was around 10 years old my parents decided to move here. My dad’s family lived in New York so we went there but it was too cold for them so I was in Miami for Middle School and High School. I went to New World School of the Arts. After that, I went to Cooper Union in New York for undergraduate, came back here for a little bit and then went to graduate school in New York. I have been back here in Miami for one year.
What is it like to be back in Miami?
It’s good. I think it is a mysterious place. I still cannot decipher it all the way. I miss New York a lot and the intensity but then Miami ends up delivering more and more. There are good institutions like PAMM and the ICA and YoungArts. There is a lot of growth happening so it’s almost like there is a lot of opportunities here. A lot of my grad school friends had to survive in New York and I have tried that before. If you are an emerging artist and you are not living off your work yet, then you are just working to survive and you have about one day a week to do art and sometimes not even that because there is so much social life.
Please tell us more about your practice in general
At Cooper Union I found myself at this crossroads of having too much pressure to do art because there is this really intense intellectual pressure, so I went to study abroad in Barcelona and I realized I really just wanted to go back and make art. When I was a child I would constantly draw characters and environments, almost like different mythologies. There would be a lot of influence from anime and video games but also an abstract influence. I tried to combine art with building different spaces so I decided to use the structure of video games to create art.
The exhibition features painting, drawing, video, interactive sculpture and virtual reality. Why did you choose to combine traditional mediums with interactive components?
This exhibition was always meant to have multiple mediums. A few years ago, when I was starting this series, it was only painting and drawing but I figured since I was already working with video games as an idea and with interactive computer simulations as a model, that I could use that technology as well to do art. One thing that is interesting in virtual reality and video games is that the viewer participation is always in first person, and using the vocabulary of the first person. It is not a displaced being on the screen. I thought that was pretty interesting to work with, or maybe even subvert it. For this exhibition I created a sculptural attachment for the virtual reality experience as it enhances the performative aspect of this first person engagement, of becoming a participator. They get lost in this world for a little bit and become part of the artwork. They merge with the art piece through their performance. Also interesting is that in video games you have this progression of stages. They are usually called levels. Each level has an antagonist at the end. I thought that was a good model to work from to be able to work between abstraction and representation. I have a set of abstracted landscapes and abstracted characters.
When it comes to this exhibit, the title also uses video game vocabulary. Why did you use the term “items” and what connotations does it have?
Video games have a category that is pretty interesting word-wise, which is the “item.” The objects of the world could be different trophies or artificial intelligence or it could be tools and weapons. It also encompasses the real world. Today, I went to Target and the self-check-out says “put your items in the basket.” I have been working with that vocabulary for a while and this show is an extension of that. At first, the series started with paintings and drawings to potentially map out a virtual world or video game but in the last two or three years I started using video game software and also for a few years I have been doing interactive sculpture and different mediums to try to figure out how the virtual reality industry relates to art or the history of painting. The show is titled “Items in Varied Renders” because two years ago I started designing these sculptures for virtual reality and they are called “items” as well. Beyond art the items are these forms that start as machines for virtual reality and in my video they change scales, too. What if it’s the size of an earring? It becomes this piece of jewelry or maybe a headphone or something else.
Are you interested in the form as well as the function of the item? Does it have to retain the function once it changes form?
I usually look at a lot of industrial products of the real world or even creatures of the real world and combine them into one so one may look like a high heeled shoe or a motorcycle. I was looking at motorcycles, high heeled shoes, and old cameras. I was looking at machine guns and irons for ironing, trying to find this average form. Not averages as in “bland,” but average in almost a mathematical way, so it gives you attributes to blunder. So, to question function and aesthetics or the origin of the aesthetics it could be modernist from the 1920 like Henry Moore, or these weird organic sculptures, or science fiction, or these Zaha Hadid-type of studies where things just have angles for no reason almost. Certain parts do not really mean anything but they are just for the sake of looking futuristic, so it is playing in between. You don’t really know what part works and what part doesn’t work, and if it is just a sculpture on a table or if it is actually something else.
You are merging real and virtual worlds. Are the worlds informing each other or is the virtual reality some kind of escape?
The virtual world definitely does not exist but it has remnants of the real world. The first thing I wanted to have was almost like a luxury apartment showroom of these machines for virtual reality. Then I started adding textures of paintings, and textures of photos that I would take, and maybe some textures from the internet, just playing with that. Then I started photographing the space and started making paintings from the photographs. The paintings were done based on a virtual sculpture I took a photo of. It creates this feeling of a hybrid presence. It creates almost like this presence that is charged with the past of itself. 90% of the pieces in the show are part of that process of creating a space through images of painting and working with 3D models and taking photos. There is only one painting that is not part of the process. It is this atmospheric abstract painting I did as an homage to the company who has the software to create this. It is called the Unreal Engine, which, I think, out of context, can mean other things.
The works are connected via imagery that appears in different forms and looping ideas. Can you elaborate on both, imagery and prevalent ideas?
One thing that connects them is that they are all part of the same creation process. I started the space with a model on a program and then I started to put textures and layers of paintings, manipulating the space. Breaking down walls and adding my own furniture. I decided to wok more with the aesthetics of the video game of the time that I started this series, which is almost like this romanticism period with full on explosions, and really gritty and science fiction. I was trying to figure out how that also correlates to art in romanticism or the symbolist painters in the 1800s that also had this kind of dark tones. I like to mix romanticism and minimalism from the last century that also has these perfect flat shapes in black and white. To a certain extend I am very drawn to these in between elements like water and rocks and smoke. They usually have gray tones. The water that’s moving under the bridge in my video is one of the slightly hidden biographical moments from when I went to the Amazon in Brazil.
What was your experience in the Amazon like and how does it feature into the works?
I went on this family trip and it was amazing. I would like to do an artist residency there. What would it be like to be between high tech and the lowest tech, which is the Amazon? They are both really immersive experiences. When you go to the Amazon you really have no technology. You are immersed in nature and in this out of the world psychological space. I am sure there is already some kind of virtual 360 degree version of the Amazon. In the video, there is this loss of meaning almost, because when I see this texture I see the experience in the Amazon but to someone else, it looks like moving water or static. Through the color being really homogeneous there is this loss and gain of meaning. There are always different worlds and they can be in the same space but they can also be overlooked. Like, that water could be from anywhere. It is meaningless. But if you actually know those moments, then the decoration gains history, which also happens in the real world because we are constantly around objects and we have a history based on what we know about them. To me, the water texture is associated with a specific memory.
What was the curatorial vision behind this exhibition and what were the main considerations and decisions for the use of space?
It was a collaboration with Eddie Negron but I knew the space had this three room system and there were three primary mediums – painting, video and virtual reality – it was probably the hardest part of the show to come to terms with was how to create relationships when having so many things together. There were a third more works that I made that we edited out. I wanted this to feel like Disneyworld. You start at an entrance and you see the paintings and videos of what you are going to experience and then you actually experience the thing. I wanted the exhibition layout like that. In the virtual space you can see the paintings and the video and everything, but in miniature and you can really look around. When Eddie first asked me to create something for this gallery I started by creating the gallery in 3D and with an arrangement of how this show could be done so in the virtual reality you can also see 12 iterations of what this show could have been but it was not.