Stratum, Element and Process
Amalia Mesa-Bains


Archaeology, in popular language, is a science associated with unearthing and revealing objects that bring cultural and human understanding. Images of ancient civilizations, excavations and remnants come to mind with the term and in this sense the new sculptural assemblage works of Rimer Cardillo can be placed in an aesthetic that carries the tone of the archaeological.

Cardillo, an award winning printmaker from Uruguay has exhibited in Europe, Latin America and the United States. His movement from print to mixed media sculptures has been a gradual extension of themes and materials refined over time. His concern in the use of his materials has been towards revealing surfaces, textures and sources which can be described as archaeological in their intention.

Cardillo is among a growing number of Latin Americans in the United States who are working with both the ancient and the contemporary in a new vocabulary of forms. This new aesthetic of the Americas must be understood to express a multiplicity of meanings. Rather than a single code or a symbol, his work offers us a complex set of signifiers. In approaching this complexity we can use the concept of a plural text as described by modernist critic, Roland Barthes. In reference to the visual arts, Barthes suggests that the critic must read, or in this case view, the text as holding many meanings and carriers of substance.

This essay seeks to provide a critical discourse which breaks free the elements and experiences from which the artist creates.

The stratums of meaning present in Rimer Cardillo's work are connected to aesthetic and cultural experiences. To shake loose this visual vocabulary requires us to observe and trace the three stratums most particular to his work. It is in the historical memory and traces of these stratums that we can see the sources of his forms, the altarpiece, the memorial, the reliquary and the totem.

STRATUM: The Personal
Rimer Cardillo's family provided the earliest context for his artistic aptitude. Memories of his father's watercolors; the use of bricks, mortar, wood, zinc in the construction of their home and the value of rejecting discarded objects in a society beset by economic limitations, all led to Cardillo's involvement in constructing and building at an early age. But these childhood memories give way to a repressive period in Uruguay's democratic history, and Cardillo's personal stratum is marked by the military coup of 1973 which resulted in a long and traumatic dictatorship, memories of a Nazi-like fascism, time in which denouncing, silencing, imprisonment, disappearance and torture were commonplace events. It is at this source of repression that the artists work moved towards the metaphorical and allegorical and the unconscious move away from the explicit which was for many so dangerous. The image of this period are of insects pinned, trapped, pressed and muffled in gauze.
The other transfigurations of the personal spring from the artist's move to the United States in 1979 and his adjustments to a new North American Society. Like other Latin American artists forced into immigration to avoid repressive dictatorships, Cardillo's distance from home and country provoked a critical look at the cultural history from which he was separated. In this retrospective search the artist gained a new knowledge of both the colonial and indigenous past of which he had been part. The references to ceremonial and spiritual meaning in the stratum of the personal stem from this sense of reclamation.

STRATUM: The Ancient
The cultural archaeology present in Rimer Cardillo's work is linked to the reclamation of an ancient heritage. Because Cardillo's life in Uruguay was marked by the absence of an indigenous presence, his need to discover the archaic past was intensified. In traveling through Brazil's rain forest, other parts of Latin America and while visiting religious sites of the old world, the artist encountered aspects of geography and ceremonial artifacts of his own continent. Scale and detail of stonework provoked a remembrance of the collective heritage particular to the continent of his birth. This stratum is perhaps most apparent in the use of reliquary forms, works on paper of a labyrinth like nature, use of monumentality in wood and ritual spatial arrangements of box, paper and found objects.

STRATUM: The Natural World
Cardillo's involvement with the images and use of natural phenomenon is most related to his experience with the terrain of his continent. Implicit in this natural cosmology is the circumscribing of space and the locating of forces which imbue the geography with spiritual meaning. The perils of deforestation and destruction are the subtext of his natural world. The expansion of this stratum has been Cardillo's ability to extricate the elements of nature as source and material for his metaphoric constructions.

Rust - Cardillo's use of rust is reflective of the nature of aging, change and time. It has become a symbolic material for the city of Montevideo as a catalyst or change agent in the sculptures.

Wood - Much of the wood is transformed by additions as well as animal fat. The sense of history embedded in the pieces is carried to new meanings.

Paper - Because of Cardillo's long tradition of paperwork, the paper in his hands returns to its source, the tree bark, and becomes allegorical of old interiors.

Stone - Fossils are most compelling in its metaphor of fragments. Like remnants of time, the chips, the particles and the dust signify the remains of history, destroyed and recovered.

In a reflection of ongoing themes of destruction, conservation and regeneration, Cardillo takes the discarded materials and reinterprets them with additional surfaces and new textures. Painstakingly he reworks the materials and elements in an act of reparation. Found boxes, windowpanes and paperworks are recombined to produce reliquaries and diptychs. Containers gain new life with the addition of latches, closures and corner detailing. The elements assert themselves in his constructions through a process that Cardillo has invested with his own ritual order.


Spiritual regeneration, environmental conservation and cultural preservation are the balance in the artists revisioning of space. In particular, his use of large works on paper act almost as wall maps indicating primordial blueprints of ancient ruins. They serve as companions to locate the placements of remnant structures in the altar constructions.

The holocaust, historic genocide and repression are perilously close to our view as we confront broken pipes, bolted door and the burned ashes. Cardillo affixes disparate objects in the ceremonial aesthetic to code these dualities of ruin and rebirth. In this function the archaeological implication is one of both antiquity and hopeful vision.


In the sculpture "Amazonia Altar" the triptych form brings a monumentality to the sacred site in a large scale wood structure and rubbed paper back. It reverberates like the last standing sentinel facing a force of destruction and acts as a lonely reminder of nature's grandeur. This scale, and relationship become a holy order that silently invokes the gods of another age. Cardillo's form never pursues the explicit but rather provides us a greater language that can only elicit our own private denotations.

"Silent Barrack" present separate elements including print in a large scale, standing frame, metal rod, ceramic sink and wood fixture. The eerie image of an amorphous torso, the repetitious use of the wooden form and the seemingly random placement of the found object require us to draw relations and associations that are both disturbing and compelling.

The artist's memories of a friend's disappearance during the dictatorship and his first childhood view of a hanging slaughtered lamb are fused in a chilling imagery associated with the clamp and sink with its residue of ashes.

In "Memorial Diptych" the metal rod now serves as bolt and lock and the reliquary form is extended in a flat floor piece. Cardillo's handmade paper works retell the wooden surface in river-like patterns where nature is released and recounted as its own mirror. "Memorial Diptych" remembers years lost in the solitude of prisons and a sad homage to an age of survival. Images of tombs, burials, death, mourning, and loss come to us in the memorial view.

The relationships of print to sculpture is one of the most demanding aspects of these new works. Evolving from earlier pieces which included prints of boxes to prints with boxes, the new combinations completely separate the print from the container. Yet we are struck by how integral the print image seems to its companion. Most often the works on paper serve to contextualize the construction like a choreographic pattern of pageantry to which the structures once belonged.


The layers of meaning accrued in these works gives a plural text by which the viewer in their own silent and private departure can draw substance. We are taken back to a primordial time where the pagan spirits resided in the rivers and trees giving protection and power to the believer. At the same time we are never far from the political and cultural histories of the Americas by gesture and representation. In such a plural text with all its sediments of experience Cardillo has revealed a universe of meaning. This shifting text gives us each our own aperture for significance.
As his new works take form, the artist engages in a ceremony of memory and refinement. His constructions make use of objects saved for years waiting for their use and like a clairvoyant who sees both the past and future he recalls the history of use, as he anticipates its new function. This artistic recycling lends archaeological power as old totems are given new rubbings, bindings, appendages until their very nature is given new life through a process of regeneration.

Amalia Mesa-Bains ©1989

Amalia Mesa-Bains holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and her major scholarship has been in the area of culture and identity. An installation artist, she has recently curated CEREMONY OF MEMORY, a traveling exhibition sponsored by the Center for Contemporary Art of Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is a member of the board of directors of Galeria de la Raza, and has been recently appointed Commissioner of Art for the city of San Francisco.