Niño espejo, niño migrante, 2015. Foto: Piloto
Alfonso Piloto Nieves Ruiz’s sculptures are molded with the substance of life. As a creative force, he does not seek, but rather dreams, evokes, errs, and finds. His sculptures can be taken for devils, cherubs, or even satyrs; however, his clay figures can easily morph from vile to virtuous, and vice-versa. They seem to cohabit an earthly pandemonium that is all too human. His pieces, made of clay and iron rods, grow and fit nicely into the tree of life that is ultimately characterized by death. With roots, cement, rebars, chains, feathers and plastic bottles, he brings to life an entire zoology of creatures which serve to remind us of that part of the human condition that is dark and not always pleasant. Nevertheless, his work is not fatalistic. Yet redemption is not absent from Piloto’s work but, rather, ever-present.
His collection of work is a testament of our time. It is clear proof of a culture of consumption and excess. It is post-modern Baroque and irrefutable proof of poetry that stirs but also maims. Piloto’s sculptures rebuke what the collective body ignores. In the act of transforming the clay into a figurine, Piloto accentuates time and turns it into something that you can see and touch. He brings it to life and gives it vitality. The dreams of this demiurge materialize in his creations. His work has to do more with the realm of the senses than that of philosophical reflection. It is intuition and impulse, where the past and present converge and meet.
His work is transgressive in nature. It transgresses both harmony and good conscience. It’s “too much,” some might say, but that attests to the shallowness of the spectator. Piloto captures the attention of the observer and does not let him go. Instead, he places the spectator in front of a mirror. Borges was correct in saying that mirrors are abominable, since they multiply the number of men. Perhaps that is why Piloto questions and rattles the spectator. He rightfully perceived that in the act of trying to fill someone else’s shoes and responding to the moral imperative as well as to religious customs, the spectator ceases to be him/herself. That is the internal struggle that surfaces in Piloto’s oeuvre: the act of becoming while on a pain-ridden path. But not all of his work is characterized by solemnity; much of it abounds with humor.
Piloto stumbled upon his creative process more by accident than by calling. After a long night filled with conversation and debate among friends, he went for a walk on a sunny spring day in Chicago, when an object caught his eye. It was under a bridge that he saw the remains of a pigeon between the lines that divide the sun’s rays from the shadows. A swarm of ants preyed upon the bird’s remains. Piloto rescued its torn wings and returned to his apartment where he decided to return some dignity to the wings that would later form a part of a sculpture. At that point he understood that, “dentro de todo lo gacho, hay algo chido” (“inside of everything cruel, there is always something good”). And that was the first assemblage of an extensive collection that has been in the works, in a compulsive, creative fashion, for almost three lustrums.
Piloto forged his artistic identity autodidactically. His style is akin to baroque, which he observed at the church of Santa Rosa de Viterbo in Querétaro, the city where he was born. However, he also took in the surroundings in which he grew up. He lived a short two kilometers from the city dump. He walked the streets of the neighborhood known as Satélite with closed fists, ready to engage in disputes over neighborhood territories, as fistfights were the only way to win them. As a child, he was nourished with an iconoclastic spirit, taking apart home appliances only to reconstruct them later. He played with nuts and bolts, but also with garbage.
Niño espejo, niño migrante (detalle), 2015. Foto: Piloto
Without even having read Stevenson, he would have adhered to the adage, which states that, “he who does not have the capacity to learn on the street, will much less be able to learn in the classroom.” Although school was never his cup of tea, music and sports were and these interests allowed him to keep his head above water for some time. However, due to a head injury, he was forced to abandon sports, music, and finally Mexico.
Piloto immigrated to Chicago in 1997. What was supposed to be a short stay turned into a prolonged and definitive one. In the Windy City he joined the work force in the food service sector. He was a “jack of all trades”: busboy, runner, cook and waiter. Once enrolled at Truman College, under the tutelage of José García, he stopped firing pots and vessels, and started freely exploring with papier-mâché and clay. Creating became a challenge, considering the constant struggle with partying and work: “I would allow my partying to get the best of me, but the drumming continued to echo in my head.”
The drumming he heard in the Native American ceremonies in which he took part produced the echo he would hear incessantly. When he participated in the Sun Dance upon the invitation of his cousin Tomás, Piloto had a revelation. More than a eye-opener it was a discovery that allowed him to see that he was not an end in and of himself, but rather an infinitesimal part of the universe. He came into contact with nature and felt his bare feet caress the earth beneath them, as a child who caresses his mother. He then understood that, “one needs to be in tune with what one feels more so than with what one thinks. If you are not yourself, you will never get anywhere.”
For many years Piloto never “got” anywhere. Between actions and words was an abyss that lasted for about one lustrum. His work prior to the fire — which burned down his apartment building in 2007 — is a reflection of the crudeness of materials and lack of dedication. They are expressive pieces, sprinkled with a certain amount of late surrealism. They are also saturated pieces; what they lack in moderation, they do not lack in imagination. These early pieces not only manifest a certain rancor, but also an open wound that simply refuses to heal. Piloto bespatters and tears at his own creations. He curses the establishment, but lends a deaf ear to his own existential condition. There is an overwhelming feeling of nonconformity and being fed up. For a moment, he interrupts his creative process to breathe and think: “we go through life like birds and butterflies: migrating by necessity.” He became involved in the pro-immigrant march of 2006 and arrived at Union Park with a monumental Statue of Liberty. Between the indignation brought on by a broken immigration system and the babble, there exists a political satire. His criticisms are subtle and he laughs at just about everything.
His studio burned down at the end of 2007, but from the ashes arose a phoenix once again. Piloto began to withdraw from the world in order to become closer to his own self, and that is when he discovered that art was his calling. He began to create from a different perspective, as though he had returned from a place of loathing and begun a dialogue with his inner ghosts. If Piloto forged his artistic identity autodidactically, a few years later he explored and took his work from surrealism, to expressionism and to hyperrealism.
In the end, he would opt to separate himself from any “isms.” His school is life: to feel the clay, and to trace roots with his eyes and his senses, to give use to waste and garbage. He creates ideas and transmits emotions, often times in a manner not so sublime, since reality is not always beautiful. With his sculptures, Piloto awakens consciousness without the intent of moralizing.
The Addict, 2008 – 2010. Foto: Tim Arroyo
Piloto is not the first nor the last artist to work with garbage or discarded found objects, but he is definitely one of the most notable representatives of the current “recycled art” movement. Nonetheless, amongst such creators, he is one of the few who opted for sculpture. The generations of Mexican and Mexican-American artists who arrived or sprang up before him for the most part painted on canvas, made prints or painted murals.
Piloto belongs to a generation that arrived in Chicago at the close of the millennium and saw the wake of another century here. His contemporaries are painters such as Alma Domínguez, Roy Villalobos, the illustrator Emmanuel L. White Eagle and another sculptor, José Terrazas, to name a few. It is curious that in Mexican Art history, in Chicago as well as in Mexico, the majority of artists are dedicated to painting, making prints and collages, drawing, and recently, making installations. It was Octavio Paz who shed light on the fact that despite the metalworking traditions in Mexico over the last millennium, there are not many prominent sculptors in the country. Now the same scenario applies to Mexican and Mexican-American artists in Chicago and the rest of the United States.
Piloto is a Mexican sculptor who, like many other immigrants, found his homeland when he left it. His roots were strengthened when he saw them from afar. So thanks to having migrated, he was able to find not only Mexico, but also his calling, his voice. It is likely that he would not have explored his creative side had he not emigrated.
Now, Piloto’s work is not an exaltation of Mexican nationalism. However, it takes certain elements from pre-Columbian art, but once he touches on them they undergo a transformation. He does not pretend to extol extinct cultures nor exalt iconographies or calendars. His leitmotif transcends borders. It is universal. He is likely to stir the sensibilities of a Pole from Kraków as much as those of a fellow countryman from Iztapalapa. His work has been exhibited at the National Museum of Mexican Art, but has also been well received at the botanical gardens of Garfield Park. In the latter, his sculpture, Tonantzin, boasted an air of splendor. In part, it corroborated Mike Davis’ idea: “the tropicalization of the United States, but it also catered to certain markets in the United States, while being ecologically conscious and embracing the idea that any object that has been thrown away can serve some kind of new purpose. In many dumps across Latin America, items are found and then reclaimed. Piloto also likes to rescue trinkets he finds in the garbage and then recycle them. It is another way to live in communion with Mother Earth. The artist is well aware of the fact that we are only passing through in this life, and why not do it the best way possible?
It is worth mentioning that there is no poverty in the language of Piloto’s sculptures. He has managed to splendidly sculpt empty volumes filled with noise. He does not intend to reproduce contemporary chaos, but rather to give order within the confines of his work. He is able to assemble and synthesize the cultural contradictions of post-industrialist cities. At times, he achieves this with sarcasm, and other times he does so in a subtle way.
After having gotten so close to the work of Piloto, I cannot help but question, “In what way has the progress of the average citizen been beneficial if we continue to live in a world plagued by injustice, where the value of truth is ignored, and beauty is but a concept whose price is set by museums and galleries?” Piloto’s work does not hold the answer; however, it is an invitation to the dialogue that will surely continue on with the passing of years and the permanence of his artistic achievement.
Fue un sueño, tan solo un sueño, 2013. Foto: Tim Arroyo
Franky Piña. El BeiSMan’s Editorial Director. He has been a co founder of several Spanish literary magazines in Chicago: Fe de erratas, zorros y erizos, Tropel and contratiempo. He’s the co-author of Rudy Lozano: His Life, His People (1991). He was the editor of the following art books: Marcos Raya: Fetishizing the Imaginary (2004), The Art of Gabriel Villa (2007), René Arceo: Between the Instinctive and the Rational (2010), Alfonso Piloto Nieves Ruiz: Sculpture (2014).