Author: Günther Oberhollenzer
Representation is always invention.
Every work of art invents the world anew,
the world as it was, as it is, and, most importantly,
as it might be.
Michael Scharang, Austrian author 1
Nature ablaze with colour, and exalted, almost romantic, landscapes, fantastical scenes and mysterious settings, rooms shrouded in darkness and stark interiors flooded with light – Giovanni Castell’s works of art overpower us. They overpower us with their sensuous nature and vibrant colours, their exuberant richness in complex scenery and elaborate detail, and then again by the precise way in which they are stripped down to a few significant details. But what are we confronted with? What kind of pictures are these? Their technical realisation reminds us of photographs prepared on photographic paper, sealed in a layer of acrylic glass using the high quality Diasec process. And yet are they really photographic images?
A photograph is created when light falls through the objective lens of a camera onto light-sensitive film or an image sensor. It displays, according to the current definition, a “cropped image of reality”, though this expression is of course only relative, as the properties of the camera will have an influence on how the result of this imaging will appear, a whole series of techniques will allow processing or manipulation of the image, and finally the subjective eye of the photographer will also play an important role. As a consequence, photographs are similar in many ways to the drawing frames and aids used in the past in painting (think for instance of the “camera obscura”) to assist the artist in his endeavour to capture a slice of reality as accurately as possible on his canvas. In both instances we are looking at a projection of a space onto a surface – onto the surface of the canvas or the surface of the sensor or film. According to the current definition there is a significant difference between these two processes, namely that the painter can create whatever picture he wants from the projected image, according to his own wishes and ideas, whereas the classic photographer cannot but restrict himself to what his surroundings are offering him or whatever he can create in an actual space for his photographic representation.
Castell is not concerned with merely reproducing an actual three dimensional space on a two dimensional image plane. His intention is not to imitate or interpret, but to create a new reality. The artist has perceived his spaces and landscapes – but not in reality, but rather in his mind’s eye, and he turns these into images, just as a painter does. His artworks are not photographs, they are paintings.
When using the latest digital editing techniques, photographic and painting elements merge: Castell mixes fragments of his own photographs and elements he has come across on the Internet with renderings, i.e. virtual drawings and paintings which he has created himself, with the photographic fragments being pushed increasingly into the background and then as it were disappearing completely, as for example in the new series of landscapes. Everything here has been created digitally. “I can use my computer to take pictures from every angle. This is just the same as going to the easel to paint, and finally completing the work after several layers”, is how Castell puts it. As an unfettered creator he knows no boundaries. In this way a pond comes into being with multi-hued reflections on the water, a ribbed vault floats across a landscape, a flower meadow in bloom in front of a glacier massif, or a cavernous, dark, empty hall looking out over a wood shrouded in mist. Locations and buildings are suffused with bizarre, eerie stories, silence glows in white light, objects only emerge from the darkness sufficiently to enable them to be perceived. The gloomy twilight endows motifs, which would perhaps appear banal in a brighter light, with deeper meaning. Castell describes it thus: “The dark fascinates me, this ‘non-light’ in my pictures. There is something really picturesque about it.”
The spaces and landscapes are constructed and composed with the aid of technical possibilities which simply did not exist a few years ago. “And now they do”, says Castell, and the challenge is to use them for artistic purposes. New kinds of paintings are created, for which we do not as yet have the proper words and terminology. “Virtual painting”, “digital painting”, “sampling-painting”, the latter by analogy with creating music by sampling, but none of these terms truly captures their essence, since they sound somewhat cumbersome and prosaic. Of course they are powerless to describe the enormous poetical and sensual force which can be inherent in this new artistic medium, assuming of course that the artist who wishes to use this force has it under control. The danger of producing a complete and flawlessly constructed world, a surface both too smooth and too sterile, is indeed enormous. For a picture to convince, it should not be too perfect, it has to include some jarring elements and also some surprises, both sharpness and fuzziness are aesthetic requirements, as are consciously added mistakes and inaccuracies. This is probably why these pictorial compositions are believable, because this is an artist who is in complete mastery of his craft. Castell studied in Germany, France and Italy and for many years, before dedicating himself to artistic photography and “sampling-painting”, he worked as a fashion-, design- and product-photographer, originally using analogue technology, and not just any old analogue, but those large, old-fashioned glass plates, and later on, digital technology as well. Now, with his painting, he is able to put his understanding of classic photography to excellent use.
Castell draws inspiration and creative impulses from moments of peace and contemplation. According to the artist, this is rather like dreaming. Much is stored in our subconscious mind and can be conjured up in moments of peace and quiet. The pictures created in this way refer less to actual events or definite stories, but rather portray an underlying mood, the inner feelings and sentiments of the artist, although they are also to do with allegorical symbols and collective thoughts. Motifs and images from different worlds and times, fragmentary traces from the past, the present and a projected future, are grouped together and give rise to a plethora of interpretations and associations.
Composition and setting remind one more than once of a stage, and despite the frequent absence of human beings, their presence is nevertheless always palpable, and the pictures, like portraits, have much to say about human existence. Again and again we encounter the motif of the window, the threshold between the inside and the outside world, the landscape being viewed from within, the interlacing of different levels of existence adding an element of tension which imbues the paintings with vigour and is reminiscent of art works from earlier eras. Castell knows his History of Art and enjoys drawing on well-known topics and themes to enhance his compositions. This may be why the pictures appear so familiar and intimate to us spectators, despite the strange and novel appearance of their new techniques. Many of the scenes are permeated by an underlying sense of melancholy. The first picture in the series “Aporie” (Greek for helplessness or hopelessness) shows a naked woman, rigid with fear, who is observing an explosion from her window. Castell tells us: “The world we live in today is so completely saturated that many feel and experience a sense of impending doom, and that we need to change. It seems to me that we are living in a new kind of Biedermeier period.” The threat is already hinted at in the pictures, at times one has the impression that they are pointing towards a new world, an existence beyond the catastrophe. But we are not sure whether this is meant to be a utopian or a dystopian point of view.
The splendid panoramic views make us realise that what we see initially or consider a certainty, may not be the full or the only truth. Castell dissects and challenges our perception and our idea of truth and reality. His artistic inventions ride on the steady interplay of projection and reflection which constantly flow from the inner world to the outer and back again. It is of no consequence here whether this artistic world could withstand being measured against the real world. Art cannot be a reflection of reality. It should rather be seen as the triumph of the artist that he can actually create a new reality. A world of a higher order perhaps than the one we live in. Benefitting from experience and knowledge, he is privileged to imagine his own world, endowing it with his own rules and his own laws – a creation which at the same time illuminates our lives and provides a narrative for our existence.
“As I see it, photography has done its best to steadily kill off reality,” affirms Castell. “It has allowed it to disappear.” Before we are able to experience a particular landscape in the flesh, we already know it from photographs. We have lost our ability to see things consciously. In an age when we are daily bombarded with thousands of digital images, no sooner seen, already forgotten, the individual photographic image loses its significance. “Photography has lost its magic. I want to move on and achieve a new technical and artistic dimension.” By coalescing pictorial and photographic processes, Castell makes us conscious of the fact that the historic polarisation of painting versus photography has become obsolete now. For a long time, there has been a consensus on the status of painting as fictional, as artistic imagination, whilst the essence of photography was considered to be the more or less authentic capture and reproduction of reality. The artistically autonomous, but nevertheless ‘illusory’ art of painting was contrasted with the, as it were, ‘truthful’ art of photography with its automatically generated images. This conflict has, in the age of new media and the deluge of digital images, finally become irrelevant. Advanced photo- and computer technologies have given rise to a wide spectrum of possible hybrids based on both photography and painting, and such images no longer try to provide an accurate depiction of what is there, but rely on the interpretation of a reality conveyed through the medium of digital technology or else on complete invention.
Castell is an explorer and visionary in the use of these new possibilities. He creates paintings both cheerful as well as melancholy, overwhelming as well as touching, romantic, dreamy places of longing, mysterious, surreal urban landscapes, beautiful, impressionistic nature scenes. And he provides a totally personal reply to the question as to what painting – even more than photography – can mean today.
The quotes from Giovanni Castell are from a conversation between the artist and the author in his Hamburg studio on 12.12.2015, as well as from an interview by Esther Harrison with the title “Giovanni Castell. Heller Lord der Fotografie“ (“Giovanni Castell. Luminous Lord of Photography”), 07.10.2013, on behalf of www.artberlin.de
1 Michael Scharang. “Wiens Moderne – geschändet” (“Vienna’s modern artists – defiled”), an essay in the Austrian daily “Die Presse”, 2nd January 2016. “Spektrum” Supplement, page I.