For those who are unfamiliar with the sanguine-soaked artwork of Vincent Castiglia, now is your time to take note and hold your breath before delving in. Over the course of his highly respected career, he has explored the space we as humans occupy between life and death. The fleeting and sometimes too short existence that we march through every day. Vincent has managed to not only explore and learn from these themes, but evolve along with them and in himself, as an artist. A highly touted career, covered by written and televised press across the globe, his first solo exhibition was featured at famed artist / Oscar winner H.R. Giger’s museum in Switzerland during 2008. As he has progressed throughout the years, he has mastered a process where he siphons the blood from himself over a period of time, utilizing it to create pieces that are in fact, direct extensions of him as a human. Even adding more weight to these pieces is the absolute attention to anatomical detail in these paintings, where each painting seems to be revealing not just their living side, but the inevitable decay and collapse of its existence. In 2010, Vincent crafted the cover for the debut release “Eparistera Daimones” by Triptykon, and just recently revealed a commissioned portrait of comedian Margaret Cho. While prepping for this newest unveiling, Vincent was gracious enough over the course of a month and a few emails to offer a glimpse into his work and psyche.
Photo by Nathaniel C. Shannon
The first experience working with your own blood must have been a rather powerful moment. Not only in regards to opening an expressive door into yourself, but also finding the medium that spoke to you the most. Even after all these years, can you give a little insight into what you were feeling during that first moment when the idea to use your own blood came to you? When you first saw it upon canvas with your own eyes, can you recall what that feeling was like?
Vincent: I’d worked in every medium, and was at a place where I was happy with the content of the work (the images themselves) but still did not connect with the substance with which I was rendering the work.
The work embodies a lot of extremely intense emotions and experiences. Pain was the operative force at that time; so I felt, what better, more accurate way to communicate this than with a literal act which pain was a part of, and would cause a release of the one substance that is so essentially a part of me? It was there that I started experimenting with using my own blood in the work. I fell in love. It was the first time I’d ever felt truly one with my own work, and that something entirely truthful was being conveyed. It started in small amounts. But as the process evolved, using it at first for highlights and backgrounds, to painting exclusively with blood, the requirement for more blood grew.
Every artist has their own personal feelings in regards to their work and what it means to them, regardless of whatever medium it is that they work in. Over the entire process of creation for one of your pieces, from the withdrawing of your blood, the applying of it, and to finally finishing the piece, do you find it to be cathartic experience? Or is it more of emotional bloodletting? Perhaps even a mixture of the two?
Vincent: It’s absolutely cathartic. This is what it began as, and is still to an extent today. I say to an extent, because when this started 12-13 years ago, there was much more that needed to be purged. The work was how I understood, coped with, and related to the world. In each piece, I posed questions and received answers throughout the creative process, and resolve accompanied each painting’s completion. The inspiration has shifted slightly in degrees over time. And although much of my visual language may still be intact (decay, transmuting limbs, and the overall anthropomorphization of existential gleanings), the subjects tend to be less painful, with less violence to the flesh than years prior.
Would you say that this shift, the diminishing of violence and pain in your pieces is a result of growing with your work and as a person?
Vincent: Part of it has been a conscious decision to turn my attention to new areas of human experience, to explore some new ground. The elements of decay and temporality are still an integral part of my visual language, and probably always will be. But the profound suffering and identification with the pain of this world has lessened in the work, really because it’s lessened for me to a greater degree (through the process of expressing my mine in the work). I can oscillate. Familiar pain, and the reality that we really exist in a volatile and seemingly merciless universe, in which anything can happen at any time will always be there. But new relationships, the death of old ones which were toxic, and new experiences which have been positive and pivotal for me have definitely influenced the work to a degree.
You have stated that H.R. Giger has been a massive influence on your paintings and tattoo work, which resulted in you being the first American to have a solo exhibition at his museum in Switzerland in 2008. Unfortunately, the world lost a deeply original voice and visionary figure with his unfortunate passing earlier this year. I have to apologize ahead of time if this stirs up any unhealed wounds, but having your work acknowledged by someone who directly influenced you must have been a crowning achievement for you personally. Would you mind giving some insight into all this passed and even your personal relationship with Giger?
Vincent: Giger was certainly my greatest inspiration as an artist, decades before I’d met him, then a mentor after we’d met. You’re correct, in that receiving a solo exhibition invitation from Giger to exhibit my paintings at his Museum Gallery was, for me, the most incredible experience of my life. This was my very first solo show. And honestly, it could have been my last, and I could have died in peace. Having been acknowledged by Giger in this way was just the most astounding honor. I’m still humbled by this selfless gesture, and feel forever indebted to Giger, as well as to his wife, Carmen Giger. They are the loveliest people I’ve ever been fortunate enough to know in this life.
Are there are any singular pieces by other artists that have stayed with you over the years? Something that has resonated with you emotionally still to this day?
Vincent: There are many, many of Giger’s, Dali’s and Bacon’s works that continue to reverberate, as well as others…just too many to cite.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you suffered a collapsed lung a few years back, which may or may not have been related to the over-drawing of your blood. During the initial experimentation with the process of blood-letting, was there any unforeseen events or lessons that might have happened?
Vincent: For one thing, I’ve learned to keep the amount of blood I’m collecting limited to about 15 tubes at a time. They have to be specific blood collection tubes as well, treated with an anticoagulant inside to prevent the blood from clotting. When I’d first started using blood, I didn’t think about any of this, and would just let the blood into spoons, and work as quickly as possible as it coagulated, then sometimes used the coagulated clots in the art also. But obviously, this wasn’t going to work in the long run. Now it’s collected using Vacutainer tubes, in moderation, and refrigerated.
Switching gears a bit, you’ve also made a name for yourself in the tattoo business. For those unfamiliar with you or even that aspect of your art, how and when did you get your start? Also, do you shift preference between mediums, or are they both driving passions?
Vincent: I started tattooing in 2000, and experimenting with blood as medium right around then also, although they were completely unrelated. The year 2000 was a transformative year for me. I’d moved away from a lot of negativity (people, places, and things), so my sensibilities kind of ‘woke up’. I’d been tattooed pretty extensively by Brooklyn tattoo artist Mike Perfetto, who I cite as my informal mentor in tattooing. Mike was from the old school, was tattooing since the late 60’ early 70’s, and was a New York legend. I hadn’t really planned on tattooing or considered it seriously until 2000 (and had been getting tattooed by him since around ’95). And at once it struck me – I was already an artist, always creating my own art, and that it could translate onto skin. That was really it. It took a short while to get used to new tools, but having the art background really just shortened the learning curve. I didn’t struggle with any of it, at any point. It’s probably the best decision I’d ever made in my life. I grew up in Gravesend, Brooklyn, in a dead-end situation (to put it lightly). Tattooing allowed me to put my creativity to use while making a living. I’ve met many great people, and some not so great people, and have enjoyed the whole ride nonetheless. It certainly beat washing dishes at the seafood restaurant I’d worked at, and busing tables at the catering hall. I think minimum wage was $5.25 an hour at the time when I’d started tattooing, and I had to continue to work that catering hall job, most of the time double shifts, sometimes 8-16 hour days on my feet to pay my bills for a while. But my tattooing took off like wildfire shortly after this, and I thankfully never had to look back. My time has always been split about 50/50 between painting and tattooing. Around 2004-2005, I was tattooing for a week or two, then taking 2-3 weeks to paint, and painting until around 6am every day. I didn’t waste a moment of my days. As the years went on, I’ve learned to pace myself a bit better, and not work so maniacally. Yes, you can get a lot done if you’re moving at 180 miles per hour for weeks straight, but this inevitably burns you out, and the body revolts. A lot of major events took place between 2006-2008, including the lung collapse and surgery you’d mentioned, and after this, I just needed to slow down a bit and pace myself better, if I wanted to remain above ground.
You also played guitar in the New York city based metal band Human Decline for a bit. Have you been exploring any music projects lately? Is there any desire to start heading down that road again?
Vincent: Writing music and poetry was a very important outlet for me. The material I’d contributed to the band is just as valid for me today as it was when it was written over ten years ago, because it marked very specific events in my life, and overcoming insurmountable difficulties. In a sense, it wasn’t written, it was blood-let from scars so deep they continued to bleed for decades. And just like my paintings and the medium I’d stumbled onto trying to release what could not be communicated in any other way, so the musical aspects of my life served their own purpose as a sincere means of letting go of what I couldn’t contain anymore. I’d love to work on a new music project, but my time is so limited, I’m not sure when I’ll find the time to do so. There’s been an ongoing discussion with one of my best friends, Vince Matthews, former vocalist of Dying Fetus, to work on a new project which I’m all about. I’d just have to carve out the time to work on it, if it’s ever going to happen. However, my former band, Human Decline will finally be releasing our “Remedy for The Living” CD as a split CD with Vince’s current band, Criminal Element, on a European record label sometime next year. Despite this happening posthumously (since the band doesn’t exist anymore), and literally a decade later (we recorded it in 2005), I’m very happy it will finally be heard and experienced. It was so much work we’d all put into it, writing, playing, it was meticulous. And after all of this, to just disband because of trivial differences, it was just a tragedy. So, at least next year, our material will exist publicly and have it’s chance to work it’s magic and touch some people.
While each creation has a special meaning to every artist in there own individual way, is there a particular piece that you’ve done which has stuck with you over the years? One that perhaps marked a milestone for you personally and professionally?
Vincent: This would be hard, as there are several which are very special to me. If I had to choose one, it would probably be “The Sleep”. This painting so perfectly and entirely embodies the nature of human life: transient, illusory, dream-like. It portrays mortal man asleep in the arms of a power greater than itself, a blind force, at once benevolent and volatile, beautiful and horrific, responsible for all phenomena, existing only as an indescribable, indiscernible meta-structure behind all of the known and unknown world, “the uncaused cause”. Mortal man is pictured completely insensate and oblivious to the preeminent reality existing outside of the shroud of his limited handful of senses and perceptual capacities. A stoic figure, embracing him, looks intently into his expressionless face, almost jealous of his oblivion. Small seeds of man’s existential epiphanies fall upward out of his seemingly empty mind, retreating back to their source, the Void, ‘falling upward,’ signaling his actual position in the universe as being upside-down, or backwards, relative to it’s vastness, and mankind’s vanities and trivial pursuits. This painting sold to Martin Eric Ain (formerly of Celtic Frost) in 2008, prior to it’s inclusion in my solo exhibition at the H. R. Giger Museum Gallery, titled, “Remedy for The Living”. The piece hung for six months in this show, and to my knowledge is still in Martin’s collection.
Personally, while I think some people are born with inherent artistic skill, it takes years of practice to come into your own, to find yourself. There always seems to be a catalyst and a decisive moment where the artist finds their own voice/vision. Growing up, was there a initial guiding force behind the development and your interest in art? Were you pushed to pursue it or was it something buried inside you all along, something you tapped into?
Vincent: To speak candidly, my circumstances growing up and living conditions were a nightmare; I barely escaped with my life and my sanity (which is arguable anyway). Making art was how I survived. It started as the most effective way to dissociate from everything around me, where I found fleeting bits of reprieve from the horror. Then, as I kept doing it, making art just became something I did naturally, obsessively, and couldn’t get away from. Eventually, it became a kind of salvation, and place to put absolutely everything I couldn’t express in any other way. It was the one place I could create beauty out of the incredible monstrosity which was reality at the time. And today, it’s actually my ‘guiding force’. If I didn’t have my work as an outlet over the course of my life, I’d certainly be dead or in prison at this point.