Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Art as burning passion

John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art
51 Trumbull Street, New Haven, (203) 624-8055
Figures in the Carpet: Work of Edward Castiglione
Through Nov. 14, 2010

Artist Edward Castiglione, according to Figures in the Carpet co-curator (with John Slade Ely House director Paul Clabby) and longtime friend Stephen Kobasa, "painted only for himself, always." Castiglione died earlier this year. He spent decades painting and drawing in his New Haven studio yet rarely exhibited his work. After Castiglione's death, Kobasa, with the cooperation of Castiglione's estate, examined the works left behind. Conscious as he was of Castiglione's immense talent, Kobasa writes, "I was unprepared for what I found in his studio after his death. Turning one canvas after another from the wall was like being in some new cave at Altamira with its pageant of visions."

Kobasa describes the show as "a miscellany" rather than a retrospective. Castiglione neither signed nor dated his works; the creation dates for many of them are speculative.

Whether the imagery is figurative or abstract, an inner flame of intense passion lights Castiglione's work. What animates these canvasses and works on paper is both virtuosic technique and an incandescent spiritual core.

Flames and anguish are common threads running through this exhibition. For many artists, the act of creation is a form of joy and refuge. Perhaps this was so for Castiglione. Still, the pain of personal existence and the cruelty of social existence is a searing presence in many of these works.

Sometimes this anguish is literalized. In two oil paintings dating to the 1970's that evoke the crime of the Holocaust, emaciated bodies are piled or huddled together. It's almost a travesty to call these works "beautiful," suffused as they are with suffering. But Castiglione's rendering of the figures is so fluid as to imagine him trying to caress and comfort the bared flesh, to offer solace with strokes of his brush. Painted more than two decades before the Iraq War, they also evoke the war crimes of Abu Ghraib to come: prophecy in the form of witness.

In a nearby room, with a series of works made around 1990, Castiglione took a more metaphorical approach. On one wall is a painting of three bundles of sticks—unbound fasces, a symbol of Roman authority adopted by Mussolini's Fascists in the 1920's. Facing the painting are six large drawings in pencil and watercolor. The drawings constitute "a narrative on La Repubblica di Salo, the final manifestation of the Italian Fascist State," according to Kobasa's necessarily fragmentary catalogue for the exhibit. Over the course of these six drawings, the bundle of sticks comes undone, sparks and is consumed in an inferno of orange and yellow flame and black smoke. In the concluding drawing, the sticks resemble bones. The bones of the dead, the poison fruit of war, are scattered and scorched in a miserable gray circle.

As for Castiglione's abstractions—what an immense, commanding talent! On facing walls in one room are two paintings in which Castiglione wedded light, shadow and color to a vision of remarkable depth and emotion. One of the paintings, apparently part of a menorah series dating back to before 1990, is a long, horizontal work depicting eight rectangular panels. The motif of flames illuminates this work, a meditation on gradations of heat and fire. Castiglione has not painted flames in this work. Rather, he painted the idea of flames—their consuming energy, their active motion, their symbolic and spiritual resonance.

On the facing wall is a huge abstract painting that could be a vision of monumental canyon walls. It is a work of complex, thoroughly controlled beauty with nary a brush stroke out of place. Yet, while beautiful, it also provokes deep unease. This is not soothing abstraction for the corporate boardroom. There is the sense, if these are rock walls, that the viewer—or artist—is trapped. The sky may be glimpsed above but there is no way to scale the walls, no escape from this claustrophobic, if awe-inspiring, existential trap.

In his final years, Castiglione worked on a series of paintings inspired by Persian carpets. Perhaps in part a commentary on America's Mideast wars, they deconstruct the patterns on dark canvasses, the imagery sometimes threatening to catch fire. There are hints of fractal geometry, the dark recesses of time and history, the comfort of cosmic order. Although derived from decorative and utilitarian objects, these paintings have metaphysical heft. It is as though the swirling secrets of galaxies are contained within these luminous, ornate spirals. Perhaps, were Edward Castiglione with us today, he would say they are.

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