- Bryan Rindfuss
Birthplace: Edinburg, Texas
Big impact: In addition to curating impactful exhibitions involving cultural exchanges between San Antonio, Austin and Mexico City, Moody Castro creates contemporary art “experiences” tailor-made for visitors to her adopted hometown.
Little-known fact: She’s a classically trained vocalist who once dreamed of becoming a book editor and recently recovered from a debilitating case of writer’s block.
Money quote: “She is definitely a bridge builder: an optimist who wants to find a way to make it happen, create the dream, bring people together.” — Blue Star Contemporary Executive Director Mary Heathcot
Navigating a city’s art scene can be a complicated and time-consuming affair riddled with big personalities, uncrackable cliques and esoteric ideas. Becoming embedded in a city’s art scene requires patience, perseverance and hard work. Self-described “itinerant curator” Leslie Moody Castro has managed to accomplish all that and more by winning over the trust and respect of artists, galleries and museums in San Antonio, Austin, Mexico City and points in between.
Born in the Rio Grande Valley city of Edinburg, Moody Castro moved to Austin with her mother as a child, later landed in a magnet program at Johnson High School and began studying art history as a sophomore. Upon graduation, she moved to Chicago to attend DePaul University as an English major with hopes of becoming a book editor. Art history, however, kept conveniently syncing up with her schedule, and before she knew it, she had a double major on her hands. As she dove deeper into art history, she developed an affinity for both Latin American art — specifically Colonial work and devotional Christian exvotos — and contemporary art but didn’t find much common ground between the two seemingly disparate genres.
However, they began to mesh when she relocated to Mexico City in 2004 with a mission to embed herself in the contemporary culture of a Latin American city. As a fearless 22-year-old, she approached a gallery director and asked for a job. Since she did not yet speak Spanish, they devised an arrangement that involved Moody Castro working in the gallery for six months without pay while she learned the language.
After three years in Mexico City, Moody Castro returned to Texas to pursue an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin. Based on her interest in ways galleries can spark communication and incubation while connecting artists with the general public, she opted for a program in museum education and museum studies rather than a traditional course rooted in curatorial art-history. While living in Austin, she also worked as an events coordinator for Mexic-Arte Museum, became familiar with key players in San Antonio’s art scene — including beloved artist Cruz Ortiz and Contemporary Art Month Executive Director Roberta “Nina” Hassele — and landed a graduate internship at Artpace San Antonio in the summer of 2010.
Armed with her master’s, Moody Castro returned to Mexico City in 2011 and has since established herself as a mover and shaker with one foot firmly planted in the Lone Star State. In her artfully decorated apartment in the city’s Roma Norte neighborhood, we quizzed the multitasker about her curatorial practice, her current projects and the differences between the art scenes she moves in.
While some curators become known for visual, stylistic or thematic hallmarks, Moody Castro views every exhibition as a distinct challenge that begins not with artists or their work but the exhibition space itself.
“And it’s not just the physical space,” she explained. “It’s also the place that the space is in, who comes to that space, what the programming is … All of these questions come to my mind when I think about curating. Mainly because I don’t want to do exhibitions just to do exhibitions. I want them to be relevant — whether that’s to artists, the art world or whoever comes in off the street.”
Her interest in the unpredictable, important conversations and exchanges that exhibitions can inspire extends beyond her role as curator.
“There is obviously some agency [in curating], but that’s not to say that because I’m the curator my voice is the be-all and end-all of what should happen and how people should think when they come to the show or the space … Once the exhibition is completely out of my hands, it has its own story and narrative and life. And I like that. Curating is not just about what I’m looking for, because it changes every single time I’m doing something.”
At this point in her career, Moody Castro has curated 30 exhibitions informed by hundreds of studio visits. She cited four Texas exhibitions as significant turning points.
One of the more memorable highlights of Contemporary Art Month 2011, “MixMasters: This Is Who We Are” united Moody Castro and Nina Hassele for a two-part exchange that took Austin artists to San Antonio and San Antonio artists to Austin.
“I have always known Leslie to be organizing and collaborating on projects inclusive of bringing the art scenes from one community to another,” Hassele said. “She is talented and bold with a loud and passionate voice of artistic exchange.”
Organized in collaboration with Mary Heathcott — ;who met Moody Castro in Chicago in the 2000s, formerly served as deputy director of Artpace and is now the executive director of Blue Star Contemporary — 2013’s “Transitios” brought the former Artpace intern back into the fold as co-curator of a group show featuring four Mexico City artists.
In preparation, Heathcott traveled to Mexico City to attend the Zona Maco art fair to meet with Moody Castro and local artists.
“Spending time with Máximo González, his partner and fellow artist Ivan Buenader and Leslie, I came to understand how she had found her community in Mexico City and how beloved and respected she was by the artists there,” Heathcott recalled. “She comes to her work with a great amount of curiosity, and because she is so engaged, passionate and likable in every way, you want to work with her. She is definitely a bridge builder: an optimist who wants to find a way to make it happen, create the dream, bring people together.”
The following year, Moody Castro was invited to curate Contemporary Art Month’s CAM Perennial at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. Following a string of studio visits she chronicled in a guest Current column titled “The Curator Diaries,” she narrowed the selection down to just two local artists — Mark Menjivar and Christie Blizard. Aptly dubbed “Untitled (Public Display),” the unconventional show evolved over time, relied on community participation and featured such diverse programming as a four-leaf clover hunt, a creative trek through the West Side and a community potluck. “Untitled (Public Display)” sparked an ongoing professional relationship between Menjivar and Moody Castro.
“I have gotten to work with Leslie in several different capacities over the years, and I have always appreciated the way she is able to seamlessly flow between her various roles and contexts,” Menjivar said. “She is extremely thoughtful about each of her projects and functions from a place of deep generosity.”
In arguably her biggest resume notch to date, Moody Castro was chosen as the curator and artistic director of the 2017 Texas Biennial. Taking a fairly exhaustive approach to the selection process for a statewide survey of contemporary art, she set off on a road trip to conduct 200 studio visits in 27 Texas cities.
“It was big,” she said. “I was on the road for seven and a half weeks [and] there was so much magic that happened along the way. I made lifelong friendships in Tyler, I fell in love with Lubbock, Laredo was fucking amazing … As exhausting as that experience was, it was also energizing to be in the places I was in, and to be welcomed in the ways that I was.”
The resulting exhibition — which included work by San Antonio artists Cruz Ortiz, Ana Fernandez and Jennifer Ling Datchuk — took place in the unexpected confines of a furniture showroom in South Austin.
“I wanted that space for a lot of reasons,” she said. “I was really fighting [the idea of] being in a clean white cube. It was immediately [after Trump’s election]. I was traveling around the entire state and I was seeing the anger about the new president, and I was seeing the race issues really bubbling to the surface and people saying, ‘The white cube is not working for us because we do not identify with those things — the things the white cube represents.’”
Making what she described as “really strategic choices,” she pushed the unusual space even further from the white-cube aesthetic by designing the temporary walls to hit the floor at odd angles and even painted some of the walls black.
- Bryan Rindfuss
- Mexico City artist Miguel Ángel “Wimpy” Salazar (in back) explains his work to a group of Texas State University students attending a study abroad program facilitated by AtrevesArte.
In 2005, Moody Castro met Mexico City-based California native Tanya Diaz through mutual friends. In the years that followed, both became versed in the myriad aspects of Mexico City’s cultural landscape and unsurprisingly emerged as go-to contacts for visiting friends and acquaintances seeking recommendations, lists, passes to art fairs and plenty in between. In 2013, the pair put their heads together and launched AtrevesArte as a means to monetize and expand on the services they were already offering.
A marriage of the Spanish words for “traverse” and “art,” AtrevesArte is not necessarily a tour company but an outlet for curated excursions and “learning trips” built around the specific interests of tourists, students, collectors and others.
“I consider them experiences,” Moody Castro said. “Because that’s really what happens. It’s not like it’s me saying, ‘On your left is the Angel of Independence.’ No, we’re going to go to Tlatelolco, we’re going to talk about the massacre, we’re going to talk about how the city was designed and laid out, and the urban structure. So, it’s a very different way to see the city culturally.”
AtrevesArte is at its busiest in February, when the global art world descends upon Mexico City to attend the Zona Maco and Material art fairs as well as gallery openings, museum shows and up-and-coming spinoff events. As a gift to special friends they might not otherwise get a chance to visit with, the duo organizes fast-paced, marathon-like gallery tours aboard the AtrevesArte “Chupebus,” a hired van equipped with free-flowing mezcal.
“Tanya had this brilliant idea: Let’s get everyone drunk on a bus,” Moody Castro said, laughing. “We’ll give them VIP passes for everything, we’ll break down all of the events happening throughout the week, we’ll give them a suggested itinerary and then we’ll highlight which things we’re going to be at, so we get to see each other and hang out a little bit. If we put them on a bus and get them drunk, then everyone becomes insta-friends, and that means they can take care of each other. And it worked!”
At the moment, Moody Castro is in residence at Fundación Marso, a multipurpose art space housed in a stately old mansion in Mexico City’s burgeoning Juárez neighborhood. As the inaugural resident of a newly established program, she’s admittedly something of a guinea pig and took a fittingly experimental approach to her endeavors there, which comprise two exhibitions and an unusual series of workshops.
Suffering from debilitating writer’s block since November, Moody Castro decided to turn one of the gallery spaces into an office of sorts where she invited friends and collaborators to join her for “therapy” sessions based on famed artist John Baldessari’s Fourteen Disparate Assignments.
“They’re really meant for photographers,” she said of the assignments. “So I just modified them to work as writing exercises. You basically come in and you pick a prompt and then you pick a therapy to work with that prompt.”
Moody Castro conducted roughly 20 sessions — no two were alike — and filled two notebooks chronicling the therapies. In a third notebook she keeps at her bedside, she started recording the first thing that she sees or thinks each morning.
“It’s just one sentence [and] you can tell I haven’t had any coffee,” she said with a laugh. “It’s really funny because it’s the messiest. I can barely hold a pen, it’s literally the first thing I do when I sit up.”
A quick peek at said notebook revealed brief thoughts such as “the most profound, beautiful color of green.”
That deep shade of green factored into the first of her two Marso exhibitions, “La Tierra Antes del Diluvio (The Earth Before the Flood),” a two-person show addressing natural history, evolution, paleontology and dinosaurs — both the extinct kind and the outdated Microsoft operating system known as Windows 98 — through the eyes of artists Miguel Ángel “Wimpy” Salazar and Carlos Iván Hernández.
“What this show is doing is sort of looking at the parallel lines between science and technology and how science in many ways evolves,” Moody Castro explained. “At one point in time, people thought the Earth was flat. And, at one point, Windows 98 was the height of all technology.”
Simultaneously pensive and playful, “La Tierra Antes del Diluvio” came together in an array of “laser drawings” rendered in toner on paper, a video mimicking a retro screensaver of a desert scene, a 200-pound concrete sculpture of two dinosaurs fighting and smaller sculptures inspired by the graphics from the Windows 98-era computer games Solitaire and Minesweeper.
Moody Castro’s residency at Marso will culminate in November with the opening of her second exhibition there, a pairing of artists Daniela Libertad and Fabiola Menchelli.
When asked about the differences between the art scenes in Texas and Mexico, Moody Castro instead pointed out the similarities.
“There’s very much a family unit in all of them — Austin, San Antonio, Mexico City, Texas in general — which I love and don’t take for granted by any means. It’s funny because Mexico City is so fucking big, but it’s still a pueblo. And we all know each other … It’s really fantastic.”
From her perspective, differences emerge within conceptual practices and the general approach to spaces in which art is shown.
“Austin’s moved into a very sort of clean white-cube aesthetic. And so it gets hard for people to kind of push those boundaries a little bit, whereas people [in Mexico City] do it all the time [by showing in] parking garages, buildings slated for demolition,” she said. “San Antonio I think has a lot more tendency to play with alternative spaces, which I think is exciting … One of the things I love about San Antonio is that the institutions work with the grassroots community — everyone plays well with each other for the most part.”
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