Symbols and Shamans: Experience the Art of Matthew Castellano

Matthew Castellano talks fast. He has to keep up with the speed at which his creative ideas are tumbling through his thoughts. Talking to him is a lightning-quick trip through evocative phrases. He’ll mention a powerful folklore archetype in his work, but without elaborating, trusts the listener to get the full meaning from his quick riff, like a skateboarder jumping to coast the edge of a bench for only seconds before speeding on to a new challenge.

Skateboarding led Matthew into art to begin with, when he was a teenager in South Florida. Street art appealed to him, but as he grew older, he and many of his fellow street artists chose to move to studio art as a way to explore a wider variety of media.

Though Matthew moved to Arkansas in 2010, his connections here go back to childhood, when his grandparents retired to a house in the northwest part of the state.

“I visited a lot as a kid and fell in love with Arkansas,” Castellano says. “I still like to go to Lost Valley because it brings back good memories.”

Artistic side began with boyhood Legos

His grandmother, an artist, and his mother, an English teacher, both noticed his propensity for artistic creation at an early age.

“When I just kept taking apart and reassembling Legos over and over in new ways, instead of building something and leaving it, my mom thought, ‘maybe he’s a creative.’ And Grandma said, ‘You need art supplies.”

From there, Castellano’s art education proceeded at an art magnet school, fueled by his own interest and his involvement in skateboarding and street art. But what distinguishes his work is not only art education and technique, but also the use of symbol and folkloric layers in his minimalist, fantastical drawings.

Bringing life into balance with death

We’re sitting in a coffee shop. To start the discussion, I open an image file of one of his works: Archer & Light Infantry. And for the next twenty minutes, he takes us on a complex, constantly expanding journey behind the scenes of his creative process, based just on that one piece and the world he built in his imagination in order to create it.

There are 48 pieces in the show, and 20 more he did not have room to include. “A word people sometimes have applied to me is ‘prolific’,” he says.

Archer and Light Infantry is disturbing and thought-provoking, despite a drawing style that makes it look initially like cartoon panels. I’m shocked when Castellano tells me that occasionally, gallery owners have responded to his work with, “That’s cute.”

“You’re kidding,” I say. He chuckles.

The small panel depicts two figures, one standing, one sitting. Both are wearing toothy animal skulls as masks. The standing figure holds a knife to the mask of the sitting figure. There is a bright line of blood under the knife. Still, it is a cartoon style, so the troubling quality of the work doesn’t come from gore, but from the mysterious figures and their action, a cipher to be decoded by the viewer.

“For the world I’m doing, I love the scavenger idea—tribal people who live off the land. They’re not warring, but survivalists taking from the earth,” he explains.

“I started drawing these types of figures, and I liked what I had produced in their bodies, their hands. . .” Castellano jumps over his ellipsis to the next thought, “But the round heads weren’t working for me. And so I thought, what if the round heads were smushed into masks and can’t hear or see—the masks cover the eyes, so they do lots of feeling around with sticks. I’m very into tribal life and folklore, which is why I used the skulls as masks in a way that’s common in some tribal societies.”

Archer and Light Infantry has several pieces: Castellano ran wire through the top wood panel, the second wood panel is on a bracket and then, surprisingly, the wire hangs down to a terrarium to hold a plant.

Large Dog Head and Cactus

“I’ve seen a lot of death in the last few years,” Castellano says. “I’ve lost a lot of friends, my granddad is in hospice, I almost lost my mother to a brain aneurysm. So I want to show the life-death balance—the figures may be taking away life, but the terrarium brings life into the piece. I wanted people to have art in their house that brings life. So they can choose the plant, and the piece is always giving back and changing.”

He sees his round heads in the masks as a representation of humanity, with no religion or orientation or other identifiers. His goal is to allow room for the viewer to read a personal meaning into the piece. He does use male and female body types, though the differences are subtle and wouldn’t necessarily denote one gender.

He riffs again on the reasons for his choices in depicting figures. “There are lots of feminine sitting styles I like that come from deities or icons from different cultures. In my earlier work I used a lot of hand gestures from saints—holding out two fingers, three fingers,” he says. “And all those gestures had meaning, so some people would eventually figure out that there was a code in the work. I’m into encryptions, and I plan on doing a picture book with encryptions incorporated, then putting out a decoder ring to go with it.”

Similar to his round-headed figures but existing in a different cosmos are his depictions of “dog heads.”

“I took a trip to the Southwest and New Mexico and got really into the Hopi stories of dog heads and dog warriors, and I was also into Anubis and other black dogs in folk traditions,” he says. “And again, the round heads don’t work, so this is another aspect of that.”

Resting Shaman

Resting Shamans

A third product of his avoidance of round-headed figures is the series called Resting Shamans. These pieces feature recognizable Native American motifs, and Castellano used a time-submerged dyeing technique on the paper that gives a washed southwestern gradient to the background. In fact, many of his minimalist backgrounds have a southwestern feel.

“I went to New Mexico twice in two years,” he says. “Just seeing the Georgia O’Keefe museum twice would have been enough to inspire me for the rest of my life. She looked at the world around her and put boxes around the things that inspired her and painted those.”

Castellano describes the newest piece in the show, which is next to the resting shaman pieces and inspired by them.

“It’s full of handmade vessels like pots,” he says. “The burden of all the complexities and the vessels—how do you balance everyday life? The handmade pottery and jars show the effort to capture every little memory and experience. The figure is representative of you, the viewer, and the vessels are memories. They also represent things in my own life, so I used symbolic color schemes—smoke, sparkliness, metallics, and other techniques depending on what I was remembering, using symbolism and anthropology.”

To experience the depth and symbolism of Castellano’s work, visit the Bookstore at Library Square Monday through Saturday from 9 am to 5 pm. His exhibition, “Plateau,” will run through December 5.

(Artist photo by Dean Davis)

feature article by Rosslyn Elliott