BY Carmine Iannaccone in Reviews | 11 NOV 98
Featured in
Issue 43

Victor Estrada

BY Carmine Iannaccone in Reviews | 11 NOV 98

Victor Estrada's most recent sculptures are constructed using simple, familiar techniques: brightly coloured plaster or resin of some sort is slathered over a wire armature and peppered with found objects a bit of wrought iron here, a piece of turned wood there. The slap-dash aesthetic gives each work a childish, naive quality. Toy Machine (all works 1997) for example, looks like a huge wad of half-chewed bubble gum sitting on four stubby legs with several odd appendages sticking out at silly angles. It's all just a curious arrangement of form, colour, and texture, until, circling round it, you get to the eye.

Suddenly, and for the most egocentric of reasons, this lumpy knot of junk becomes something else: it looks like one of us. As an illusion, the glass eye staring stupidly out of the gooey surface is a cheap trick, really, but what's remarkable is how effective that cheap trick can be. It transforms the sculpture from a formal construct into something much more approachable you empathise with it. No longer an impersonal object, the piece now works more like a doll. It has character, you can imagine naming it, but even more to the point, you can now be somewhat revolted by its weirdly distorted body.

That's the funny thing about Estrada's art it's often hard to tell whether he wants you to love his sculpture or loathe it. Most of his recent work is on the scale of small animals, and the more each piece is imagined as a life form, the more unpleasant it becomes. Life in unfamiliar shapes seems to hit a raw nerve with the human psyche just think of how, against all better judgement, certain kinds of insects make your skin crawl. Once they're associated with living creatures, all the quirks in Estrada's menagerie start to look much more ominous. Biological mutations are conjured up, as are deformed appendages, disfigured faces or dismembered bodies.

These tricks of psychological projection are what make Estrada's art tick, but not because they're particularly accomplished or groundbreaking; on the contrary, they're the same gimmicks exploited by party gag stores or low-budget horror films. Estrada's work is less about how startling or disturbing each of his pieces can be, than it is about how much human society loves to be startled and disturbed. This explains why the work can be cute, loveable, hideous and grotesque all at the same time.

What's more, the objects themselves seem to accept their abjection. Despite the floating eyes, bloated genitalia and dripping gore represented in a suite of pen-and-ink drawings, for example, the victim/participants depicted appear resigned to their suffering. Of course, this has something to do with the comic-book mentality after which the drawings are styled. It is commonly understood that distortion, caricature and humour are close cousins, but Estrada has a way of making that relationship volatile. On the one hand, his work has a cartoon quality; on the other, it calls to mind the tragedies of Thalidomide babies or mercury poisoning at Minimata.

It happens again in Xochipilli: a large, dented orb rises up from a welded steel pedestal like some strange cross between a weather vane and a space satellite. At the end of a long snout that grows out of one side, is the upper half of a set of teeth. The impression they create is both scary an evil, snarling grimace and ridiculous, especially when you judge, by the oversized canines, that they are probably fake vampire's teeth of the kind kids don during Halloween. Like anyone who plays upon that specific range of human emotions between fear and disgust, be it the director of horror movies, the writer of occult fiction, or the producer of circus freak-shows, Estrada knows that pleasure and fright may be strange bedfellows, but they are bedfellows indeed.