Elliott Linwood

(Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter, 1992)

Artist, Jerome Caja, painting the face of a personal history.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art curator John Caldwell describes Jerome Caja’s work as “small in dimension and elaborately mounted and framed in the manner or medieval art, as a collection of magical talismans against death.” But Caja’s current show at Southern Exposure, Remains of the Day, moves past anti-death iconography into flippant yet loving memorials. In this case, the substance of death, an artist collaborator’s cremation ashes, is incorporated into Caja’s work, as we learned in the following interview.

Elliott Linwood: How did you and your collaborator meet?

Jerome Caja: I met Charles [Sexton] working at the café when we were students at the San Francisco Art Institute. I was doing a degree in ceramic sculpture, while he was getting his degree in painting. We both hung out together during the day and worked at night because that’s when you’d get things done, while it’s quiet. Anyway, we had a bet about who would die first – the loser had to paint the other one using his ashes mixed into the paint.

Portrait of Charles Sexton - gouache on "remains" and tin, Jerome Caja, 1992

Portrait of Charles Sexton – gouache on “remains” and tin, Jerome Caja, 1992

I’ve put Charles’ ashes into bottle caps, cameos, and little ornate trays, things that remind me of him, objects he would have around his house or in his life. Then I painted them. Charles and I always wanted to do a show together but it never happened. So this was a way to correct that situation and to show the work Charles had been doing before he died.

Would you consider your work as mostly contextualized by AIDS?

It’s one of those things that you just can’t lump into one category. I’ve been through a lot – I’ve been shot, stabbed, threatened, etc. – and those events all had equal impact on my concept of time, mortality, and life, and these concerns appear in my work.

Symbolism is an important component of your work.  Who are some of your favorite characters?

Saint Lucia. In medieval times, she was locked up during one of those persecution eras. She was supposedly very beautiful and had gorgeous eyes. Her father wanted her to marry this king but she didn’t want that. She wanted to be a nun. So she cut out her own eyes and sent them to her suitor, and kept her integrity for herself.

I love the story for its allegorical questioning of how far someone would go for their own freedom.  

There are lots of used condoms in your work.  Whose are they?

Mine.  I have some from as far back as 13 years ago. I’m always working on a virgin series done on used condoms. I had my condom collection on the door at the SF Art Institute, which freaked people out because I placed a magazine with medical photos of different diseases next to them.

Did you start doing drag in art school or before?

That’s a hard question because it evolved. When we were kids we played with wigs and costumes. I had nine brothers and sisters in Lakewood, Ohio. I’ve always done it because it was fun. I’ve also been go-go dancing for a while now, but I’m getting tired of that.

What is the reception to the kind of drag you do within the queer subculture?

There are prejudices in every segment of society – even in the drag world. You know, I was going to run for Empress, but they thought I was too rude. I made them nervous. I was told, “You could have pretty eyes and a pretty mouth, but we just can’t take that body.” You find prejudice everywhere.

You use cosmetics in many different ways. You paint your face, and use the same medium on discarded scraps of things you find in the street.

I’m trying to get away from nail polish because it’s so toxic. That’s why I do my work in cycles. After I’m done with the nail polish I’ll take a break and put things away for a while, and do watercolors and use eyeliners.

What do you use to paint the eyeliner pieces?

The brush that it comes with. I’m into the no mess syndrome. I don’t want to clean brushes. I only do that with watercolors.

Could you tell me a little more about how you use symbols?

First of all, I don’t construct, I just keep rewriting all the time. You hear a story then keep changing it to fit what you want. One of my favorites is Saint Theresa. The blue bird of happiness is another. Eggs have many different meanings for me, and Bozo has been a staple of mine for a while. What surprised me was how many straight dudes got off on the one I did called Bozo Fucks Death.

Do you consider the more degradable substances use in works to be process pieces?

Of course. Everything you’re looking at is a process piece!

Did you ever take performance art in school?

I love to perform but I can’t stand structure. It seems that kind of training, no matter what the orientation, would be too restrictive. It’s interesting to me that challenging homophobia might be considered performance.

Art is as different as people. The biggest harp I had in school from teachers was that I did things too little. I thought to myself, you carry it and I’ll do something big! The other thing they wanted me to do was to purge my work of its sexual content and violence. I was consistently told I should edit my work. But I love sex. I’m often using my mind, painting in isolation, attempting to depict physical intention. This act of creation makes me horny.

There’s a famous painting by Goya of Saturn devouring his children, which always makes me think of Charles. There was always this traumatic and deeply troubled aspect to Charles’ symbology. Every plant and of course every bird signified something gruesomely specific in the source that he drew from, which was symbolist painting. Charles’ most recurrent narrative was the one about Saturn eating his offspring, which he turned into the story of Dog-boy at the circus. So, I try to have some of that pseudo-religious mystique come through in his remains.