Surrounding Chiloé

I’ve always believed that an important part of a curator’s function is to test out unexplored possibilities for locating, nurturing, and presenting art. Not only do the most time-tested modes of exhibition-making deserve to be regularly turned on their heads and shaken vigorously, but exploring the outer limits of what constitutes contemporary art, or art in the broader sense, is a duty that none of us should be trying to shirk. This is especially important the further one drifts from their personal geo-cultural comfort zone, where long-held beliefs about how art is made, and how it exists in society, eventually need to be revisited and possibly even revamped.

I went to Chiloé to figure out what I was supposed to do there. It’s the simplest explanation for five exploratory trips in eight years, and yet it’s also the murkiest and most open-ended, but I’ve chosen to make my peace with that aspect of it. Within the range of what constitutes our motivation for doing certain things, a good case can be made for a portion of what drives us to remain slightly out of reach, part instinct and part wonder. Artists often work this way too, and I’ve often felt that some things in life are much clearer if you ask yourself, “What would an artist do?”

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It’s fundamentally important to this research to emphasize that Chiloé is a heavily rural part of Chile, and that the artists who make their home there live a profound, quotidian relationship with the natural environment that surrounds them. Only two of the artists included here live in a city of any size, and one of them plans to join her colleagues by moving to a tree-covered hilltop sometime in the near future. Finding a way to support artists working in a primarily rural environment comes with its special challenges and rewards.

My steps in this research have been guided by a lot of people’s advice, most importantly that of Patricio (Pato) Rojas, Chilean photographer and proprietor of the Palafito Patagonia in Castro, who in 2015 introduced me to many of the artists with whom I’ve stayed in contact on successive visits, and exhibited some of their work in his gallery-cafe. Some of those artists have in turn introduced me to the work of other artists, and over time that larger group has been condensed down into a core of the eight more or less essential figures whose work I’ve focused on here. This isn’t to say that there isn’t other highly meritorious art being made in Chiloé, merely that these are the artists whose images have stuck with me consistently over the last several years.

— Dan Cameron, Curator

One thing this trip has driven home for me is that since hardly anyone (except myself and a handful of others) comes to Chiloé to look at art, nearly any meaningful contact with current developments requires a studio visit. This isn’t always as easy as it sounds, because we’re interacting with many folks for whom the motivation for being in Chiloé in the first place is deeply rooted in a need for solitude, so making and confirming appointments, not to mention arriving at locations that are effectively off the map, aren’t things one can take for granted. Impossible-to-follow directions are the main reason we arrived two hours late for one appointment and four hours late for another, but no one seemed to even notice. On the other hand, Silvia Rivera confided that she’d dreamt of our visit weeks before, and had been waiting for us to arrive. Unexpected discoveries are always imminent: at the end of a long evening chat over tea, Clara Yañez, who with her son Pablo Carvacho are the primary instigators behind the future Blue Chapel exhibition space, revealed herself to be a full-time artist, busy carving wooden saints for a 19th-century chapel associated with a religion she’d abandoned a half-century before.

Its range of limitations — along with its obvious strengths — make Chiloé the perfect subject for an email exhibition, since to date there’s no body of documentation or exhibition history one can point at to sum up the scene here, just fragmentary experiences that linger on in photos, stories, and conversations after the fact. Also, there are no art galleries, few local collectors, and the public spaces I’ve come to know through past visits don’t seem to prioritize the local art scene to the extent that I believe it merits. One curious result of Ramón Castillo’s bona fides as a Santiago-based curator and historian is that we’ve spent a chunk of time on this trip dazzling rapt Santiaguino art pros, here for a visit or at second homes, with tales of visits to artists who live here all year round, but whose names remain largely unknown to those for whom some type of artist-patron relationship would be the most mutually beneficial. Being interlocutors between a widely-dispersed, half-hidden informal network of artists and a more clearly defined, if seasonal, patronage infrastructure is one of the roles we’ve apparently taken on in this trip, and if we can begin developing ways for artists to receive more exposure and support, without having to compromise their chosen, precarious existences, we’ll consider our work here a success.

Nonetheless, in choosing artists and works for the exhibition, it became important to not ignore Chiloé’s 19th century history as a hotspot of local resistance against military efforts by the Chilean state, firstly to incorporate the island into a fledgling country newly liberated from Spanish rule, and second, to eradicate leaders of the Huilliche/Mapuche communities who led that resistance. Today, this perspective is critical to understanding the peculiar mythology of warlocks and witchcraft that continues to hang over the island’s touristic self-promotion, because the lethal repression that followed was purported to be against warlocks, when in reality it was carried out against whomever remained from the previous indigenous resistance. As a result, it’s difficult to spend time here without eventually coming to the conclusion that a revisionist history, one in which massacres and details and names registered, will become a subject of increasing importance to the next generation.

Andrés Ávila, “Untitled” (2021), Song of the Salmon series (photo by Dan Cameron)

Andrés Ávila — A printmaker and high-school art teacher in the southernmost city of Quellón, Ávila has turned his attention in recent years to the growing environmental crisis triggered by the large-scale salmoneras — fish farms that employ thousands of the island’s residents while flagrantly violating laws to protect the local seas and marine life. His graphic publication, Song of the Salmon, delves into the tragedy of individual fish desperate to share their experience with the outside world, despite their bodies being mutated by the salmonera conditions.

Pablo Carvacho, “Untitled” (2020) (photo by Dan Cameron)

Pablo Carvacho — As co-founder of Comarca Contuy, Pablo runs both the farm and their famous tree-house Airbnb, and maintains a beautifully equipped darkroom containing multiple enlargers. Conducting photography workshops and activities centered on the Chilote traditions carried on by his rural neighbors, his prints emphasize the artistry of those who have farmed, fished, woven baskets and built Chiloé’s wooden palafito houses for generations.

Guillermo Grez, “Untitled” (2021), lithograph on paper (photo by Dan Cameron)

Guillermo Grez — Grez didn’t plan to be a visual artist when he moved to Chiloé from Santiago some fifty years ago, and for years, the objects he made were relatively modest, to be sold at local artisan markets. Beginning in the late 1980s, however, he slowly transformed himself into an accomplished painter, printmaker, clothing maker, and installation artist, whose work explores the overlapping areas between close observation of nature, thinly disguised homoeroticism, and a deeply rooted quest for recognizing the spiritual dimension of everyday life.

Rafael Lara, “Weichafe, Nancupel, Chilwe, Memoria” (2019), lithograph (photo by Dan Cameron)

Rafael Lara  Lara, who teaches printmaking to high school and younger students at the Academia de los Artes de la Isla al Sur, moved to Chiloé twenty years ago from the Mapuche region around Valdivia, and his primary passion continues to be introducing children to the expressive capabilities of visual art. His own heavily-worked etchings and lithographs abound with ancestral imagery and scenes, and he remains one of the few artists on the island whose work constitutes a living connection to ancestral beliefs and practices.

Silvia Rivera, “El Viaje” (2015), oil on canvas (photo by Dan Cameron)

Silvia Rivera — Rivera dreamed of being a painter as a young girl growing up in Castro, but it wasn’t until she was in her late twenties that she bought her first brushes and tubes of paint, and began teaching herself how to represent the city of Castro as she knew it when she was growing up, along with historic and mythical scenes characteristic of Chilote culture. In her paintings, the deep poverty that characterized the island’s reality until recent years becomes a medium for re-imagining her own life through powerful mythological symbols, such as those depicted in “El Viaje,” which depicts a typical Chilote wooden house undergoing a form of minga, in which it is transported across water to a new, and presumably safer, location.

José Triviño, untitled work in progress (2022), acrylic (photo by Dan Cameron)

José Triviño After nearly completing a degree in painting from the Universidad Católica in Santiago and working a few years as a freelance painter of restaurant and theater murals, Triviño moved back to his native Chiloé more than twenty-five years ago, and today he lives and works on top of a hill overlooking one of the island’s many breathtaking bays. Witness to the growing explosion of new home constructions and the exploitation of Chiloé’s natural resources, Triviño’s commitment to realism is predicated on his belief that the faithful depiction of reality reveals its beauty and sadness in equal measure.

Anelys Wolf, “Tres Tristes Tigres” (2021), acrylic (photo by Dan Cameron)

Anelys Wolf Wolf’s family has been in the Puerto Montt/Ancud region for several generations, and her art has long internalized a type of introspection in which the external world appears murky and distant. Having recently moved to a secluded corner section of the island west of Ancud, her recent paintings include imagery that merges film stills from the less-celebrated corners of Raúl Ruiz’s oeuvre, with partial glimpses of the island’s coastline. The construction of historical narrative through a fusion of photojournalism, cinema, landscape and personal fantasy constitutes a continuous thread running throughout her oeuvre.

Clara Yañez, “Angel in Agony” (2019-20) (photo by Ramón Castillo)

Clara Yañez — Yañez spent much of the Pinochet dictatorship outside of Chile, working as an illustrator for scientific and medical publishers in Baja California, Mexico. After moving back to Chile in the 1990s with her family, she found the challenges of adapting to metropolitan existence increasingly unsatisfying. In 2014, she and her son and daughter-in-law founded the Comarca Contuy cooperative farm, bed-and-breakfast, and artist residency, and within a few years she had turned her attention to sculpture, using traditional wood-carving methods to build ingenious toys, architectural fixtures, and sacred figures from Catholic theology.


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