Review by Carlo McCormick, 1999
In the retrospective accumulation of the river speaks Andrew Castrucci offers up a meditation of a life spent on one side of the river or another, a distillation of place and time that is at once deeply personal and acutely social. Raised in the proximity from west Hoboken to Cliffside and environs on the New Jersey industrial expanses of the lower Hudson River-front and for decades now my neighbor in the Lower East Side of Manhattan’s more dearly renovated and enriched real estate across that river, Castrucci has come to dredge this symbolic body of water for its wealth of visual, psychological, historic and metaphoric associations. A provocative consideration of what is, through the haunting echoes in the absence of what is no more, a disclosure of private memory as a gateway into the collective identity of public function, an invocation of the hidden depth in the shimmering surface, an artistic resonance embedded in artifacts remaining, we never so much see the river in Castrucci’s paintings, drawings and objects as feel it move through us. Invisible and ever-present, the river is an enigma that never sits still for a moment always going someplace yet, after all these years, just where he left it. A mute witness to the fabrications and follies of the greatest city in the world, it speaks to us through time of ourselves and others who once toiled, played, lived and died along these very shores.
Castrucci has always expressed an intimate understanding of the urban experience through his art. What is perhaps most surprising in this grouping of pictures however is just how much our sense of the city is an organic projection of the received aesthetics of nature. The spirit that lurks throughout his paved over vision is the animistic animus of a vanished and vanquished sublime, an urban wildlife born, bred and fed in the uneasy symbiotic relationship between humanity and the natural and artificial environments it inhabits. This is life as we know it: mutant, hybrid, predatory and redolent with death. Formless and phantasmagorical, the river is a topography of passage in Castrucci’s provincial cosmology, a murky blank upon which we cast our lines, fishing for the unknown, conveying certainties, sending off our youthful dreams and desires in frail little sailboats like speculations on infinite possibility disgorged from the quotidian towards their own uncertain fates. Andrew Castrucci has spent a lifetime simply crossing this river, and if he has not gotten far in geographic terms he has certainly traveled a very long way in the more introspective distances of the self.
Perhaps because the point of origin is so close to where this work finally disembarks the symmetry of implications and the synthesis of meanings is phenomenal. The hooks, vestiges of both the social history of the river as a once plentiful nurturing source and the personal history of the wasted playground along which he idled away the fancies of his childhood, are as much symbols of the politics he has come to register in the world about him today. These are the barbed and brutal streamlined seductions of the market we must all still deal with. Not merely the arcane tools by which we hunt the diminishing resources of the very last bit of wildlife left in our global diet, they represent the archetypal allures of the capitalist come-on by which we buy and sell everything we do not need. The hook catches the consumer, baits the ad jingle and pop song, snags the imagination and infects the memory with unforgettable catch-phrases and unquenchable thirsts for products we never knew how badly we needed before. They get under our skin like the sexy needles once did in the drug-infested ghetto of the Lower East Side, a place turned so upside down by heroin in the Seventies and Eighties that it’s easy to imagine how the skyscrapers that populate Castrucci’s paintings could have then seemed like syringes to him.
Rivers, like the cities that grow around them, are potent metaphors where all cultures have long conjoined their ambivalent perceptions of life and death. The nourishing, spiritual font of life and the passage way to the underworld, afterlife and darkness of death, the river has been for Castrucci both a wasteland of man’s destructive power and the site of miraculous resurrection. Still a boy when the Clean Water Act was passed into law, Andrew witnessed the rebirth of the Hudson from a toxic dump to a mysterious new world teaming with life. Around that same time he also watched as a life that once was became relegated to history. At one time a thriving hub of industry, its locus as a great manufacture and shipping center became increasingly obsolete in the post-war era of rising new technologies and leisure dominated urban renewal. Watching the abandoned factories, redundant smoke stacks, disused shipping piers and train tracks systematically raised throughout the Seventies and Eighties, Castrucci’s river speaks as much of this life lost and histories extinguished as it does of new worlds engendered.
Morbid and transcendent, the river resides in Castrucci’s art as it does when captured in his bottles, clogged with the detritus of its gloriously shrouded past and fermenting with the germinal possibilities of its ever-renewing future. Gaze into its mesmerizing waters here, lurking with life and saturated with decay, it’s a hypnotic surface of light and dark. Like the condom (rendered in metropolitan vernacular as the Coney Island Whitefish) glowing as some kind of sub-aquatic being, or the lone light bulb whose fragile hopeless luminescence issues forth in melancholic shadows of failing form, the river is its own animistic embodiment of the greater void we all inhabit. Is it really a place, or is it simply that line nature draws between places? A border without borders it is the path of our alienation and the medium of our communion. It is fluid and fixed, bold and brooding, nurturing and destructive, reassuring and troubling, calm and chaotic, the allegorical paradigm for all we know and imagine and yes, in the end, just a river.
Andrew Castrucci casts for his metaphors. What gives his work resonance is the lengths he goes to marking the twine, dangling hooks and lures, that plumbs a personal and primordial memory. The reference is Mark Twain's. Riverboat deckhands measured the Mississippi with marked line to steer the boat clear of submerged obstacles. The deeper the mark the clearer the way. In his survey (1989-1999) exhibition the river speaks Castrucci's conduit of memory is the Hudson. Both author and artist escape picturesque provincialism by understanding that river culture is related to the evocative power of memory. A river is never in the same place twice. It swallows up experience and spits out secrets beyond rational measure. Like the metaphors used for emotions that either flow or submerge, the river's code is deciphered in the floods and recessions of memory.
Castrucci's symbolism is at first frankly direct and literal. A series of paintings of closely cropped wave surfaces teasingly resist one's attempt to dive into these pictures. It is the surface tension of the water and the indeterminate nature of the neither becalmed nor stormy gesture that repels attempts at reason or the measurement of the painting's content. The work presents a symbolic sublime predicated on what is beyond measure, yet circumscribed by it's unitary square.We experience what amounts to a box of void. In this the artist's urban environs are symbolically evoked. The regulated anonymity of New York, the ebb and flow of souls through black subway caverns and the plumbing of countless apartment lives works within the gleaming surface of the city. In another painting the Empire State Building, a cliche image of Manhattan if there ever was one, is inverted to deflect such a facile disinterest. Castrucci has talked of the New York skyline as an upside down reading of the river's bed(1). Given his perspective one can visualize the skyscraper's accumulations as a cast from a mold of the river itself, a metaphoric embodiment of the void.
The artist evokes the poet W.B. Yeats in his lines of "the fabulous formless darkness"(2). He has drawn upon a tradition of accepting the unfathomable as subject, a particular tradition in American art and the sublime. Barnett Newman's epiphany of physical space as memory at indian burial mounds in Ohio(3) and Tony Smith's late night ride on the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike in which he experiences an "unframeable" space(4) come to mind. In these instances nature's memory, or primordial time, is accessed through concrete symbolic vehicles; one ancient, one contemporary.
In a gallon jug on a pedestal the artist sits a measure of Hudson River water. It gives off an undersaturated green glow. This captured essence can be looked upon as reeking of the pathos of our small understanding of the larger picture, or unfathomable nature. It can alternatively be seen as a fetish, as to humanely reason with the void. In all of his work Castrucci plays this dualistic meaning to capture the viewer between the two worlds. Between the real and the ideal, water and air.
In another body of work, “Hooks Series + Extended Elements” the artist uses more literal symbols; hooks, lures, to get at what is normally beyond reach. The schematic caricature of lures (as prey turned deadly) and the fatal economy of form on a barbed hook turn the viewer back onto contemplation of the physical, mortal body. The artist's implication is that we who throw ourselves willingly upon the traps of the ideal, whether they be in art or life. The mortification of flesh is the sacrifice for a transcendent moment, of being pulled from a submerged world into the air , towards death and transformation. Is the so impassioned idealist a sucker or a saint? Castrucci wisely leaves his conclusions in the deep.
1. Quoted from a conversation at the artist's studio April 18, 1999.
2. W. B Yeats (1865-1939) “the fabulous formless darkness” (from definition of the word confusion)
3. "Ohio ,1949" Barnett Newman, Selected Writings and Interviews.,
(Knopf, NY, 1990)ed. O'Neill, John P.
4. "Talking with Tony Smith" by Sam Wagstaff Jr. Artforum, Dec. 1966