We humans are the only creatures who employ symbols to communicate. Beginning with our ancestors in caves, we made drawings and marks on walls that sent messages into the future – messages that took many forms and whose meaning we are still trying to decipher but, in the case of stone-age spirals, zig-zags, and lozenges carved into great rocks, we assume a spiritual meaning. We may also be the only creatures who imagine a spirit world and, for that purpose, each culture and belief system has developed complex sets of icons, symbols and ideograms. Oftentimes, ideograms are appropriated from one system to another, transforming their meaning. Christianity’s symbol for Christ, the “Chi-Rho,” was used by pagan Greek scribes to mark particularly valuable or relevant passages. During the reign of Ptolemy III Euergetes (246 – 222 BC), certain coins were marked with a Chi-Rho.
In his new exhibition of art work entitled, Emanations, opening at Space Create, 115 Broadway in Newburgh, NY, artist Gerardo Castro looks to the indigenous cultures of the Afro-Cuban religions in which a belief in a Divine power and a direct connection to that Supreme force are used to divine answers to specific questions or to bring about desired events. Castro uses ideograms found in these belief systems — sacred symbols — to serve as a catalyst for manifestations. The exhibition opens to the public on June 8 and runs through July 7; there is an artist’s reception on Saturday June 27, from 5pm — 9pm, that and the exhibition are both free.
Castro has, for many years, channeled ideas from Santeria (Way of the Saints) into his work and, more recently, from Palo, a religion also known as Las Reglas de Congo (The Congo Rules); he has been initiated into both. These religions, among others, were brought to the Caribbean from various regions of West Africa by captives of the slave trade; their message and the languages for the liturgy reinforced by successive waves of slaves being imported into Cuba right into the 1870s. Santeria evolved in Cuba out of the traditional religious practices of the Lukumí/Yoruba people who were from modern-day Nigeria and Benin. Palo originated in the Congo region and spread from Cuba to other islands including Castro’s native Puerto Rico. Both religions believe in a Divine power but Santeria has much greater syncretism with Christianity. Palo particularly venerates ancestors and looks to natural earth powers and objects associated with that – it is rich in abstract images and ideograms.
Castro’s exhibition at Space Create comprises 9 works on paper measuring 2 feet by 6 feet in length as well as over 20 drawings on paper ranging in sizes from 12” x 16” to 22” x 30”. The works are created through the use of fire and branding, provide a body of work that enables a connection to history and, in the process, a courageous and personal confrontation of meaning and myth.
In the larger works the starting point is a life-size branding iron in the shape of Castro’s own body. Over this is burned a variety of marks – or layers of marks – made with traditional branding irons and also found objects: tools, nuts, bolts, chains, nails; anything that can be turned into a brand that is useful for the artist’s purpose, and captures his imagination. The brands or, sometimes, a combination of them create ideograms that might be recognizable: a circular saw blade becomes a symbol for the sun. In some cases, they are suggestive of hieroglyphs – of a secret and sacred language. They are, according to the artist, “Ideograms to call down the spirit and motivate forces into action.”
Castro refers to the works as “branding drawings” and the process is of that immediate method of making marks on paper except, in this case, the marks are made with fire. One is also tempted to make an analogy with print or even painting. Although the figure is graphically articulated, there are also lost edges and movements from hard to soft; tones created through the process of burning and smoke that encompass the spectrum of values creating an effect of sfumato. The results are mysterious and compelling, and very beautiful.
Inevitably, given the brutality of the slave history of the Caribbean, the question arises as to the historical use of branding in the region as punishment and to indicate ownership, however Castro insists that this negative use of the brand is in no way connected to what he is doing here – he says: “I see my work as a powerful response to the language and culture of the past & present moment where branding takes on a magical meaning — a meaning of communication and transformation that carries the force of history and the weight of ritual, to me Art is a work of identity — Identity is a work of art.”
Gerardo Castro lives in Newburgh, NY where he and his partner, photographer Michael Gabor, run Newburgh Art Supply. They are also the force behind one of the Hudson Valley’s most successful studio tours: Newburgh OPEN Studios. This year the tour, which is free and open to the public, is on September 26 and 27. Castro obtained an MFA in painting from Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY, in 1996 and has been exhibiting his work nationally and internationally ever since. He regularly takes on curatorial projects; his most recent was Newburgh’s “Art About Water” event which was part art show and part consciousness raising about the state of our water in the Hudson Valley.
Featured image: Seducing Spirit, 2015. Detail
All images courtesy of photographer Michael Gabor
Emanations is at Space Create, 115 Broadway, Newburgh. It runs from June 8 – July 7, 2015; artist’s reception is on Saturday, June 27, from 5 to 9 pm. For information about Space Create, go to www.spacecreate.co/
To learn more about Mr. Castro, visit his website
Claire Lambe is an Irish born painter whose works have been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic; she is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and holds an MFA in painting from the City University of New York. Writing credits include contributing author to Teen Life in Europe (part of the Teen Life Around The World series), and articles and reviews for this publication. Claire Lambe’s art work can be seen here: clairelambe.net/