Into the Woods: Santiago Cal’s sculptures reveal histories, personal and global

After Franco, 2014, Basswood, maple, aluminum, paint

The basswood trees from which Santiago Cal carves his sculptures usually have about the same number of rings as he. Upon turning forty years old in 2013, which would translate to forty rings on one of his basswood trees, Cal decided to embark on a series of sculptures that reference pivotal historical events in his lifetime, coupled with personal ones. He has completed ten so far, the goal being forty within a year’s time.

“Honestly, I could have selected numerous historical events from the year of my birth, 1973, all the way to 2013, but I wanted to select events that were metaphorically relevant for me and other people, too,” he says from his studio and home in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he teaches sculpture at the University of Nebraska.

He used the lightweight, fast-growing wood to fashion the ten figures that appear in his first New York solo show, “Giants and Gentility” (through November 13 at Rare Gallery, 547 West 27th Street, no. 514), for its malleability. “It’s a wood that because it has no character whatsoever allows carvers to be ourselves. To draw a comparison, basswood is like a tapioca custard without the tapioca, just a blank, bland yellow. Unlike a highly grained wood, which a carver would have to work around, this material allows us to respond in the ways we want. Nothing gets in the way.”

Peter Surace, the owner of Rare Gallery, says that one of the reasons he took on the work of Cal was because, “I like craft, I like to see artist’s hand in something, and Santiago’s technique is visible everywhere.”

Like the basswood (harvested wood from the linden) and the its varieties, which grow all over the world, though under different names (limewood in Europe, ceiba in tropical zones), Cal, too, thrives in many locales. Though he was born in Belize to what he calls an Anglo mother and a father of Mayan/Spanish ancestry, his family moved to Pennsylvania when he was thirteen. Cal has lived and worked in places around the United States and abroad, before settling in Lincoln, with his Nebraska-born wife and infant son, Jude Jeronimo, who figures into many of his works. 

Apart from the practical benefits of working with a soft, forgiving wood, he chose the material, too, because it allows him to make “carved sculptures that are more crude, more aligned to the crafts traditions practiced where I grew up in Central America—unlike the more concise, refined wood sculptures you find by northern European Renaissance artists in Germany and France, as well as in contemporary wood sculpting.” Cal’s process involves first roughing out in a drawing the figure he wishes to create; then he turns on a band saw for an initial cutting. Using a variety of carving tools, he hews and chisels, scrapes and sands away until the 18- to 22-inch figure he had envisioned in his mind comes to stand in full relief, whereupon it is secured with screws to a wooden plinth.

Things to Come, 2014, Basswood, walnut, paint

What events in the course of Cal’s lifetime has he decided to articulate in a three-dimensional mode? Cal’s response to 9/11, which occurred when he was 28, was to chronicle in wood a related event that happened earlier that same year. Things to Come is a coiled cobra, with a red lightning bolt of a tongue lashing out at the viewer. Earlier that year, Taliban “fighters” had aimed their weaponry and dynamite at a pair of monumental carved stone Bamiyan Buddhas, which had remained in their niches in Afghanistan since the sixth century. “We all had such an emotional response to 9/ll,” says Cal, “and as an artist I had an emotional response to something physical that was lost, something that was symbolically charged with meaning.” His hissing snake is a perfect example of how Cal’s artworks need not rely for their impact on an understanding of the scope of the project, for carved in the meaty belly of the snake are two miniature versions of those now-lost Buddhas. Given the work’s title, the prevailing imagery, coupled with those two symbols within a symbol, the code is broken, and a viewer understands the message and the context.

Stay Clam, 2014, Basswood, maple, paintStay Calm, at first glance, depicts a handsome young man/boy, shirtless and clothed only in a pair of teal-blue shorts, and evidencing red wounds in his stomach and elsewhere on his body. In each hand, he clasps reinterpreted crosses, or what some might think are telephone poles, with a white dove, a symbol of peace, perched on one of the spokes. The work represents Cal’s attempt to articulate his response to the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul in 1981. “I could have done a figure representing the shooting of Ronald Reagan that same year, but for me, the personal idea of the Pope, riddled as his term was with some terrible decisions, I still felt that his forgiveness for his attacker, his reaching out to a person who hates so much as to try to kill him, well, that was profound to me.”

Sleep Tight, 2014, Basswood, cherry, paintAlthough Cal was only six years old in 1979, the year that small pox was officially eradicated from the earth, it was as a forty-year-old adult, with an infant child, that the full import of that scientific development infected him, in keeping with the metaphor. His monochromatic figure, Sleep Tight, reveals a scarred figure in a spoonlike enclosure, evoking the notion of a spoonful of medicine. “The joy of the eradication of something so devastating is what I am responding to with this,” he explains. “But here’s the crux of the piece: I think about the scientist who sits in his lab looking at that virus, marveling at its inconspicuousness and its potency, and who makes the decision about what’s good in life and what’s bad, what needs to remain and what needs to be eradicated.”

Smiling Buddha, 2014, Basswood, cherry, paintOther works in the show, include Smiling Buddha, which references the year 1974, when India set off its first nuclear bomb explosion test—and the secret codename for which was, ironically, the name Cal has given his work. A seemingly benign, pot-bellied, middle-aged man is seen holding behind his back a mushroom cloud that could be read initially as a tight bouquet of flowers. After Franco is an homage to Cal’s favorite poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, and acknowledges 1975, the year of the death of Spain’s dictator, Francisco Franco, who had likely been responsible for the death of the poet in 1936, the year Franco assumed his role.


Other works are less politically charged, such as The Good Life, which references not only the Nebraska state motto, where Cal has lived since 2000, but also the place where he met his future wife. This figure shows a young woman, clothed in a jewel-blue dress with a braided expanse of blond hair rocketing high in the air, a kind of visual and actual pathway that leads Cal into a bright future. 

The Good Life, 2014, Basswood, walnut, paintWhile Cal is keenly focused on the shape, actual and metaphorical, that his figures have assumed and will assume as he continues on the series, he is also aware of the import of having a solo show in New York. “I think growing up as an artist, I had always thought the moment of having a one-man show in New York, the mecca of art, was the pinnacle of success. At the same time, as I was walking around the city and seeing all of the wonderful exhibitions in other galleries, all I could think was that I still have so much growing and learning to do, so much still to aspire to. Having this show is just another step on the ladder, not in a sterile business sense, but in the sense of artistic growth.”

So, like the trees from which Cal fashions his works, he, too, continues to grow, sprout branches and sink ever deeper roots as an artist. 

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