If an artist is willing to look beyond the details of his own life, using them not to affect an emotional self-referentiality but rather to point to the commonalties of our shared experience, then he can speak to us in a way that provides a sense of context by relating individual experience to the experience of our whole tribal group. Even as we societize ourselves into smaller and more exclusive units, there must be people willing to speak to everyone, there must be someone who can attempt to draw these fractured worlds into a larger society while still maintaining an intensely personal vision.
From September 12th to October 6th, the Tribes Gallery at 285 E 3rd Street provided a space for one such artist to show us what it means, for him, to be human, and to tell us what it means to be living and working in this, one of the most dynamic cities in the nation. The Andrew Castrucci: (Recent) Works installation, comprising twenty-four pieces, was a vibrant illustration of the themes and images that are important to Andrew, and since this city and the people who live here are obviously a constant source of motivation for him, it also offered a striking portrait of Andrew's vision of what it means to be alive here, and of what it means to be alive at all in a time when so much is uncertain and shifting, even as our lives are drawn toward regimentation by the addiction to habit that so often offers our only hope of stability and regularity.
In fact, many good artists have suffered a decline in their work at precisely the point where they begin to lean to heavily on the patterns that have provided them with a sense of artistic (or commercial) security, so it is a very healthy sign that even after decades spent making challenging, visionary art, Andrew maintains an inherent distrust of the societal magnets that keep people chained to a banal and spiritually dangerous, if not empty, existence. Look at 4 People You Can Not Trust (2002) and you will find that Andrew offers his skepticism to "politicians, lawyers, doctors, and art dealers," four classes of people who would pretend to benevolence while subtly serving their own selfish ends. There is the strong warning that one must own his own independence, that trust belongs in the self and not in those who would take profit from it.
By honoring the themes and mediums that have long informed his work, and yet always allowing them to evolve and take on new meanings, Andrew has expanded and developed his vision, and ours, growing our understanding of the world that shapes us and of the way that we relate to and color our perception of that world. Most of his art seems to occur at that dynamic point where our perception of the world merges with its representational reality. His work is more than surreal: it is created at and explores the point at which reality is created.
The Tribes Gallery (which feels much more like an artistic salon, a place where art is theorized and created, where artists and their work are offered safe harbor, than it does a commercially oriented art gallery) is the work of Steve Cannon, and it offered the perfect forum for the work of Andrew Castrucci. As I climbed the stairs that lead to the second story space, the first piece, titled Diagram: Related Elements (1997) presented itself to me. An engaging and aesthetically balanced flow chart of sorts, with words plotted around and inside and outside a large circle, joined together with lines plotting the movement of ideas on that circle, it is a powerful synopsis of the world as seen by Andrew Castrucci. Utopia (joined to Dystopia, which is one of the outer points on the circle), Metaphysics, Futurism, and Enlightenment are placed outside the circle, though joined to it, and related to each other through an intricate web of connection that includes everything from the rise and fall of industrial society to the implications of emotional and consumer culture. At the center of the circle, and at three points outside it, there is a hook, which is and has been one of the most dominant images in Castrucci's work. The piece, a comprehensive representation of the construction of reality and history, sited directly at the top of the staircase that leads to the gallery door, makes it clear that Andrew is an artist with a vision of the world, and that what was held inside the Tribe Gallery was a presentation of that world, of that vision. The space was filled with, had been inhabited by, the work of Andrew Castrucci.
But when I opened the door to the Tribes Gallery on Sunday, October 6, Andrew Castrucci was not there yet—he was in traffic on the way back to Manhattan from New Jersey, his birthplace, and the place from where he must have first seen and observed the power and grand scale of the island, looking across the river at it as a young boy in the late 1960's and early 1970's. The river. I come from Pittsburgh, which is now a post-industrial city but at the time of my birth had been booming industrial, owing largely and significantly to its position at the convergence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, right where the Ohio river is formed, so I have looked across boyhood rivers, too, at the worlds that are distant and often different planted and rooted on the far shore. To go there one must cross, must take action and go through force of will, and Castrucci knows the perils of that step.
As evidence, the central image of his installation was the hook. Hanging in the main gallery was a sculpture titled Hanging Hook #1 (1999), its human scale forcing the viewer to realize the possibility, indeed the reality, that he is a fish, is a target, and is in danger. In Buddhist literature there is the idea of "going over," of crossing the stream and reaching the "other shore" of enlightenment. Castrucci's work reminds us that, as we make that passage, the forces that would hold us captive to our own desires and addictions are constantly surrounding us, confronting us, and vying for our attention. The hook is what keeps us held to our desires and sufferings, what holds us from exploring our freedom. Thus we see hooks dangling from a humanoid lure in Squid (2002), warning us to move carefully as we cross the river, and, again, reminding us that trust must be in ourselves, for we cannot know the entangling motivations of others. There is no escape. In the back yard, where fresh air and quiet could be hoped, Hanging Hook #2 (1999) hung from two huge tress, suspended from roof level and resting just at human height.
Still, amid the warnings and the dangers, we must live. The Tribes gallery was alive with people, as it almost always seems to be, on the night that I attended the closing party for Andrew's show. Steve Cannon was lying back on the couch; the guiding force behind Tribes enjoying the opportunity for people to come together to celebrate both the art and the artist. John Farris was there, and Norman Douglas, the two men representing two generations of writing in New York City. People were pouring wine, were sweeping the floors, were answering phones, were lighting cigarettes and emptying ashtrays. Back in the kitchen, I could hear people talking and planning the last minute arrangements of wine and cups. It was not a fear driven shut in experience—it was alive. Tribes is not just a gallery, it is a home. Here, we know what the hooks are, and where they are, so we can feel safe. Amid the fast motion of the party's beginnings, I was almost immediately drawn to the well paced and visually striking art that hung on the walls of the living room where I stood. Above the couch there hung a photograph of the artist' back, titled Portrait of Artist (1997). Not yet a cicatrix because the blood showed bright red on the marks, there was a hook cut, by way of a broken bloody line, into him. The scar tissue was forming: this image would not go away, would not leave the artist.
Castrucci is an artist whose work is often deeply connected to the body, and he explores it and examines it in many contexts. He shows us the body as a sensate organism, and he shows us, as in Untitled (1999) the extent to which we often use ourselves as objects. This oil pastel drawing shows as a woman's body, her breasts presented as a separate entity from the rest of her body and a huge smile painted onto her face in the manner of a young woman who has had too much to drink and who needs too much attention. She has no arms or legs or genitalia, just a hook dangling behind her distorted form. She is at once the prey and the hunter, inviting her target into the void of her affect and then holding him by force of the pain that is painted into her empty eyes.
To examine that work is to see several of the themes and images that concern Andrew drawn together into one piece: there is the humanoid form, a sign of the danger that results when we lose our individuality in the name of maintaining our individual role; there is the hook, the malice and pain that tie us to our suffering; and there is the pink flesh tone that runs through many of his works, always providing a reminder that these works are not mere abstractions and do not merely concern ideas, but that they concern life, that what we are seeing are representations of the human condition. In Tagliato #1 (2001), a metal square with a gash cut into it rests a few inches above a red background, but that piece is most fully understood in its relation to Tagliato #2 (2001), which is cut from the same pattern, against the same red background, but with a pink flesh tone replacing the bare metal of the first piece as a contrast to the bloody opening. These two pieces, taken together, show a move from the idea of suffering to the human reality of that suffering, while even amplifying the resemblance between the shape of the gash in the metal covering and the female genitalia. "All I see are abandoned factories and naked women," he writes on The Fish Hook Sleeps (1997), and we here we see what he means, and, more importantly, we see the relationship between the two. We see their shared pain laid bare.
Castrucci's installation at the Tribes gallery worked like the music of a jazz composer, returning to thematic images and ideas, and then further exploring them in new contexts and arrangements. To fully appreciate his ability to weave poetic developments throughout his body of work, one must first visit the School of Visual Arts to see his Twin Towers (1994). The scale is huge, roughly 6'6'' tall and 6'8''wide, and although we only see the middle sections of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the effect that is generated by that cropping is to provide a sense of how truly monumental those buildings really were. Now, Andrew gives us another Untitled (2002) piece, a painting that is about half of the size of his original Twin Towers. A dusky gray silhouette of the two towers set against a darker gray background and framed in metal, the painting serves as a silent and moving elegy. The grand scale of the first painting is gone, brought down to more manageable dimensions, and the result is that, again, Andrew Castrucci has forced us to consider life on our scale. He has shown us what we have lost. The majesty of the Twin Towers is gone; silence and sadness stand shadows in its wake.
Although his closing party is since finished, you can be sure that Andrew Castrucci is not. The hook, the pink of flesh, the disassociated humanoid and the sadness will keep moving, changing; they will find new places to appear in his art, and new reasons to do so. Andrew is an artist with a vision of our world, of our city, and his art will continue to grow with us. There are no easy answers to be taken from his work. There are no solutions offered. We should be thankful, still, that there is at least one artist, and, more importantly, that there is at least one man willing to step beyond the confines of his created life and see, creatively and with honest eyes, for us all. Andrew Castrucci paints a difficult picture of the world, but the wise among us would not look away from it; rather, they would face it bravely, as he has done.