CREATIVE FUSION: The Stuff of His Own Life – Juan Capistran / Los Angeles

Talking to a crowd of about 30 people at the FRONT Porch in January, LA-based Juan Capistran described himself as a “post studio, conceptual artist,” which is not a term a person hears very often in Cleveland. Northeast Ohio artists for the most part not only have studios, but outfit them to work in a specific medium, and define themselves as such: we are painters, print makers, photographers, sculptors, and so on. Cleveland is often described as a manufacturing town, and the history of making things applies to the contemporary art scene here, as well.

Capistran was visiting Cleveland as one of the Madison Residents, supported by the Cleveland Foundation to research and develop work for possible inclusion in FRONT International Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. He was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, immigrated to Los Angeles with his parents, and grew up in the South Central neighborhood of that city in the 80s. Racial inequity has percolated and boiled over in protest in South Central LA for decades. When Capistran was growing up it was a mostly African American neighborhood where over-aggressive, militarized police tactics eventually led to the Rodney King riots in 1992. The artist was 16 at the time.

Juan Capistran, Sunday, March 3, 1991

Juan Capistran, Sunday, March 3, 1991

Capistran says his earliest artistic inclinations involved graffiti in the late eighties. His conceptual turn came with a BFA from Otis College of Art and Design, and an MFA from the University of California at Irvine. The neighborhood’s history —especially the Black Power movement and the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots, filtered through punk rock and hip hop– is a significant source of material for his work.

Rather than practice in a specific medium, he works with whatever fits a particular concept. Therefore it is less about technique than the medium itself. For example, several of his text-based pieces note important dates: Sunday, March 3, 1991 (Rodney) marks the date that Rodney King was beaten by police. Wednesday, April 29, 1992 (Fidel) marks the date of the LA riots, during which Fidel Lopez was beaten by a mop of people and doused in gasoline before pastor Bennie Newton used his own body to shield Lopez, saving him from being set on fire, and ultimately saving his life. The works are compositionally as simple as tomb stones: just the dates in plain lettering. But they are written in smears of Capistran’s own blood, sweat, and tears.

In another text-based work–Put Very Little Trust in Tomorrow–the words “I Am Hoping To See The Day” are spelled out in huge letters, written with hundreds of boulders on the gallery floor. It creates the effect of desperation to communicate with the available materials, like someone stranded on an island, hoping their shout is loud enough to capture the attention of a passing plane.

Capistran was still finalizing his FRONT proposal as CAN went to press, but it will involve “a text-based work composed of 5 or 6 phrases, questions, or statements, [which] would exist as vinyl lettering installed on [the windows of] a building facade.” A second part of the work would involve a run of posters, in the style of the Colby Printing Company—the famous Los Angeles printer that made posters for rock shows and other promotions using large black, block-lettering on neon backgrounds. Capistran would print a small edition in his own blood, sweat, and tears, and then a larger commercial run to be installed across the city on utility poles, fences, walls, and other surfaces.

In conversation at the Front Porch, Capistran showed slides and answered questions. Asked how he measures success, he noted that he is “here” (gesturing around the room), and said he is able to make a living exhibiting art in galleries. A student from the Cleveland Institute of Art asked how he balanced his message with the privelege of his position. There’s certainly some tension at play, riding social criticism to Art World status, but Capistran’s work appropriates nothing: he arrived at his career as a Latino immigrant who grew up in the conditions and during the events that inform his work. It’s the stuff of his own life.