Jeff Casto’s “Future Tense” at 1305 Gallery

Jeff Casto’s shadowboxes and assemblages in “Future Tense,” his current exhibit at 1305 Gallery ending July 15, 2011, conjure Joseph Cornell’s Utopia Parkway workshop, as well as Pee Wee Herman’s Playhouse, extracting wistfulness from detritus, seriousness from folly.  The toys, junk and other materials used in Casto’s art have the allure of Saturday-morning-TV kitsch as well as the spiritual afterglow of Catholic relics, and when all of this stuff is organized into carefully orchestrated tableaux and dioramas new but strangely familiar worlds are born.

Casto is a master of serendipity, using whole shelves of stuff from Goodwill and the litter from gutters to invoke precise, iconic depictions usually (in this exhibit at least) of old-school sci-fi:  planets teeming with robots, rockets, insects, and astronauts.  In the large and epic “In the Year 3000,” tossed-aside action figures, painted-over cell-phone covers, pill-bottle lids, computer innards, etc. are repurposed to create a moment that merges Dystopia with Utopia, a sort of blending of both the Gates of Heaven and the Gates of Hell, with a glossy George Lucas splendor.  It’s an over-the-top piece that escapes being gaudy because of its innately organized storybook structure.

Frames are very important to Casto’s worldview:  each of his assemblages and boxes has an antique furniture finish which registers as handsomeness and solidity, but also reveals a little bit of a staid and tragic quality.  Casto is a perfectionist, using his junkyard finds in tight-knit groupings that have a precision that sometimes verges toward preciousness (as in “Robot De Refuse”), but usually ends up having the ache and purity of boyhood dreams turning into intricate glossy hieroglyphs (as in “Enigmatic Astronaut,” a portrait of just that but with a decoupage strangeness that feels both crafty and lofty).

“User” is my favorite of the dozen or so works in “Future Tense.”  It has a spare, mean-spirited grace about it that allows it to stand apart.  A toy grasshopper is housed in a square box.  It has two dish-washing-liquid bottle lids for eyes, and is painted sloppily (on purpose).  There’s an abstract backdrop made from a torn apart computer motherboard, and in front of the grasshopper are a group of miniature Coca Cola bottles lined up.  That’s about it.  Unlike many of the other more maximalist assemblages in the show, “User” has the short tight momentum of an epiphany – that moment when the junk Casto has used realizes it is something else, and the toys/trash/trinkets coalesce into a dream-trophy, a relic from some planet where objects are subjects, the abstract concrete.

“Sometimes objects just insist on being themselves.” Robert Rauschenberg, another great assemblage artist, has said.

Casto takes that insistence and uses it to reinvent a mysterious yet somehow universal boyhood, creating three-dimensional narrative poems.  In much the same way Cornell did:, Casto resurrects the saddest and most useless of objects in order to recreate a new sort of Eden, a silent-movie garden populated with lost dolls, secret-keeping astronauts, and God-like grasshoppers.    Each action figure and piece of ephemera Casto collages and assembles transcends its landfill destiny to become a depiction of the end of a world and the beginning of another.

-Keith Banner


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