Excerpt from Impressions (and other images of memory)
Dr. Karl Emil Willers
Throughout the 1980s, Cardillo continued to further explore box-like forms and images in his art, mining the subject for its broader historical, social, political, cultural, and psychological meanings.The artist’s fascination with boxes and their contents emerged early in life, and still resonates with very personal associations. Cardillo’s father began his professional life as a barber, and then returned to operating a barbershop in Montevideo while in semi-retirement. Found within this place of business were boxes of all shapes and sizes, each holding different tools and appurtenances of the trade: boxes of cigars, of straight razors, of scissors, of hand clippers and sundry other items. Cardillo has now inherited these containers, still filled with sharpened instruments for cutting hair and shaving beards. Looking at them, one cannot avoid the more horrific analogies to stashes of arcane devices for torture. Cardillo also recalls that his mother kept photographs, letters, and postcards — the entire history of both sides of the family — preserved in old canisters and other saved containers. Cardillo recalls his childhood curiosity about these caches of seemingly secretive information being stacked up and stored away. According to Cardillo, the kitchen of his family’s home was also filled with tin and cardboard containers that held the sweets — biscuits and cookies, bonbons and chocolates — that would be a focus of any child’s attention. Storing his accumulations of trinkets and baubles, souvenirs and knick-knacks in boxes was undoubtedly the most natural of compulsions for Cardillo. He had, after all, been raised in a house that had a box for everything (and Cardillo would be the first to read such a statement both literally and figuratively — the box not only organizes and displays, but also mingles and conceals).
During the mid 1980s, Cardillo began assembling collections of disparate objects. Items of a similar type or genus were sometimes grouped together — a collection of smaller boxes, each holding miscellaneous items, or an assortment of real and fake Meso-American artifacts combined with odd knick-knacks. These Collection Boxes of 1984-85 (see catalogue Plate XIII, page 18) and the seemingly (but not necessarily) random things they contained, became for Cardillo a way of bringing together and juxtaposing images and forms that held some significance for the artist.There are obvious precedents for Cardillo’s Collection Boxes in surrealist practices of juxtaposition and assemblage, of making the familiar strange or the ordinary precious. However, Cardillo’s assorted objects defiantly lack the aesthetic finish of a Joseph Cornell vignette or the cunning gamesmanship of a Fluxus accumulation. Cardillo’s boxes are more unceremoniously assembled and casually arranged so as to almost defy consideration as works of art. This quality brings them close to the found objects of Andre Breton or the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp, but by comparison Cardillo’s maneuverings are far more fussy in their combinations and finicky in their classifications. For many years, Cardillo has maintained a close friendship with a world-famous Uruguayan entomologist. One of Cardillo’s prized boxes contains a single insect with his associate’s card attached to the lid: The entomologist’s surname is identical to a brand of cigars that also name another of Cardillo’s Collection Boxes — a chance wordplay, but nonetheless one that Cardillo appreciates. Cardillo’s impulsive clutter evokes a pre-surrealist temperament that has something of an affinity with the encyclopedic compulsions of realism: the categorizing, cataloging, inventorying, and registering recorded in literary works by Honoré de Balzac (Bouvard e Pecuchet) or Henry James (The Spoils of Poynton) or Isidore Ducasse (Les Chants de Maldoror). The resulting accumulations are undeniably personal and adamantly playful, sometimes eccentric and always idiosyncratic — but such strategies guarantee that meanings and purposes remain slightly opaque, references and allusions stay willfully open-ended.
For Cardillo, the box itself possesses a metaphorical plurality and psychological dualism; in some cases an object gathered into a box had already appeared in a print, while in other instances items accumulated within a collection would only infiltrate into the artist’s printmaking repertoire with time. Eventually, the Collection Boxes and their contents became the central subject matter and primary source materials for Cardillo’s art. This is nowhere more evident than in the Caribbean Rounds monotypes of 1985 (see catalogue Plate X, page 12) in which Cardillo portrays a commercial cigar box containing a tree branch from Uruguay (eaten by worms and insects and covered with lichens and mosses), as well as mica stones found near Cardillo’s 23rd Street studio space in New York (hard objects with shiny glints amidst a grimy dullness). Symbolically unifying the duality of Cardillo’s native and adopted lands, this idiosyncratic collection of worthless souvenirs no doubt holds very personal value. Skillfully enacting multiple variations on this single theme, Cardillo produces these monotypes — or unique prints — by painting on Plexiglas and then laying a sheet of paper over the still wet surface and passing it through a press.
Repeatedly, these and other works reveal Cardillo’s ongoing interest in using printing methods not to make multiple identical impressions, but rather to produce an image that has the look of having been imprinted. Throughout the 1980s, Cardillo increasingly used printmaking less as a tool for reproduction, and more as a set of procedures for creating unique works of art. The image Cardillo wants can only be achieved via transfer, a procedure that has fascinated many post-war avant-garde artists. This look of the copy, the reproduction, the replica, the duplicate, the imitation, the simulacrum, the counterfeit, and the derivative is all-important to Cardillo’s work — but not to interject a theoretical and critical apparatus for its own sake. These processes consistently call attention to that which is absent or lost, that which is elsewhere or other — concepts that resonate with the very purpose and significance of Cardillo's imagery.
Birds of Gardiner
The correspondences between casting and printing — both means of making impressions and imprints — run throughout Cardillo’s recent work. The images used to produce the Birds of Gardiner photo-silkscreens of 2003 (see catalogue Plate XVII, page 26) come from a series of wax casts. To produce these sculptural objects, plaster molds were taken of the dead bodies of small birds Cardillo found on and around his property, located near the town of Gardiner in New York’s mid-Hudson Valley. The plaster is poured over the carcass through a grid of metal screens or wire meshes that keep the plaster rigid and stable once it has dried. From this first “negative” cast of the bird, other “positive” casts can be made. According to Cardillo, he can sometimes obtain both latex and wax pieces from one plaster cast. The direct casting maintains the actual scale of the animal's bodies, and this, combined with the bits of feathers or hair or scales trapped in the casts, can make a creature’s physical presence quite palpable.
“I learned casting techniques at the school of fine arts, first in Montevideo and then in Germany, from master craftsmen who made amazing plaster casts of clay or wax models in the process of producing bronze sculpture. These professors were amazing, possessing secrets about technical processes that had been passed down for generations.”
Using the techniques that he became well versed in during his artistic training, Cardillo has also produced a series of Bronze Casts (see catalogue Plate XIX, page 30) at foundries in New York, Mexico, and Uruguay. Always relishing the process of production, Cardillo left some of his bronzes with their casting channels (or troughs) intact, and with bits of sand and plaster still adhering to their surfaces.
Cardillo recounts the accidental deaths that initiate each work in the Birds of Gardiner series — the birds fly into the windows because they see the sky reflected in the glass and think it is open space. It is a simple, matter-of-fact explanation, but one that clearly both fascinates and troubles the artist. These flying creatures have not naturally evolved the ability to distinguish between real and reflected light on a vertical surface. Such a difficulty in perceiving depth and flatness is, no doubt, of exceeding interest to a visual artist so self-consciously involved with the incremental translation of three dimensions into two. A failure to see accurately is (for humans no less than other animals) a common cause of accidents and destruction. Townspeople who build houses in the countryside (the artist being among them) did not intentionally set out to harm these delicate creatures, but they had a role in their demise nonetheless. Though on a small scale, for Cardillo these prints record yet another destructive consequence of man’s intrusions upon the natural environment. Premeditation is not the issue, but the damaging results of building construction and land development are being scrutinized. The modesty of Cardillo’s imagery makes such insights “hit home” in a literal (and thereby very strategic) way.
In some of the Birds of Gardiner prints, as many as eight colors of ink have been applied to create the rich texture of the final image — and a single color could be passed through the screen more than once to create a dozen or more layers of ink on each sheet. Cardillo describes his procedures and aims:
“The images are prints and paintings at the same time. It is a process of translating from three dimensions to two dimensions. Photographs of the wax casts are first manipulated on the computer. From these revised and modified images, acetates are produced for the silkscreens — each image uses two or three different screens. Each print is built up of many different layers of screened information. Later layers often cover up much of the information underneath, but it makes a difference in the final print. Sometimes I think a print is lost, but then I screen one more layer and it comes back, but in a way that is different than if each one of the previous layers were not beneath the last.”
For each of the ten images in the series, there is what one might call a more-or-less standard version, usually printed in a muted shade of brown, olive, or black. However, unique variations were also made in which Cardillo began by sponging ink directly on the paper to form an intense puddle or stain on which the image was then screened. Cooler and more brilliant shades such as lavender or rose were also used to create, from one screen, an array of variations — with both subtle and striking differences.
Dr. Karl Emil Willers is the Executive Director of Newport Art Museum and Art Association. Recently was the Curator of the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz. As a scholar of American and European art of the 19th and 20th centuries, he has served as Chief Curator and Curator of European Art at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach and as Director of the Downtown Branch of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Dr. Willers was Associate Curator and Administrative Coordinator for The American Century: Art and Culture 1950-2000 exhibition, held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2000. He has organized many exhibitions and accompanying publications, including Milton Avery: Works on Paper (1980), The Prison Show (1981), Roy Lichtenstein Graphic Work 1970-1980 (1981), Universal Limited Art Editions (1982), Spectators of Life (1983), Made in the Sixties (1988), The Gestural Impulse 1945-1960 (1989), The Experience of Landscape (1990), Between Mondrian and Minimalism (1992), Innovations in Printmaking: The Work of Jacques Callot (2000), The Iconographia (2001), Alice Neel’s Feminist Portraits (2003), and Out of the Studio: Hudson Valley Artists (2003 and 2004).