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Who or what is the Ohio Expressionist?

Read on…

Ohio  is a Midwestern state in the United States. Ohio is the 34th most extensive, the 7th most populous, and the 10th most densely populated of the 50 United States. The state’s capital is Columbus.  The Anglicized name “Ohio” comes from the Iroquois word ohi-yo’, meaning “great river”.   The state, originally partitioned from the Northwest Territory, was admitted to the Union as the 17th state (and the first under the Northwest Ordinance) on March 1, 1803.   Although there are conflicting narratives regarding the origin of the nickname, Ohio is historically known as the “Buckeye State” (relating to the Ohio buckeye tree) and Ohioans are also known as “Buckeyes”.

Expressionism was a modernist movement, initially in poetry and painting, originating in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. Its typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas.  Expressionist artists sought to express meaning or emotional experience rather than physical reality.  Expressionism was developed as an avant-garde style before the First World War. It remained popular during the Weimar Republic, particularly in Berlin. The style extended to a wide range of the arts, including painting, literature, theatre, dance, film, architecture and music.  The term is sometimes suggestive of emotional angst. In a general sense, painters such as Matthias Grünewald and El Greco are sometimes termed expressionist, though in practice the term is applied mainly to 20th-century works. The Expressionist emphasis on individual perspective has been characterized as a reaction to positivism and other artistic styles such as naturalism and impressionism.

Isenheim Altarpiece  painted by the German artist Matthias Grünewald in 1506-1515.

The term was invented by Czech art historian Antonín Matějček in 1910 as the opposite of impressionism: “An Expressionist wishes, above all, to express himself… (an Expressionist rejects) immediate perception and builds on more complex psychic structures... Impressions and mental images that pass through mental peoples soul as through a filter which rids them of all substantial accretions to produce their clear essence […and] are assimilated and condense into more general forms, into types, which he transcribes through simple short-hand formulae and symbols.” (Gordon, 1987)

“View of Toledo” by El Greco, 1595/1610 has been indicated to have a particularly striking resemblance to 20th-century expressionism.

The term “Expressionism” is usually associated with paintings, graphic work, and other forms of artistic practice in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century that challenged academic traditions, particularly the Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter groups.  Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had a role in originating modern Expressionism. In the publication The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche presented his theory of the ancient dualism between two types of aesthetic experience—the Apollonian and the Dionysian; a dualism between the plastic “art of sculpture”, of lyrical dream-inspiration, identity (the principium individuationis), order, regularity, and calm repose; and, on the other hand, the non-plastic “art of music”, of intoxication, forgetfulness, chaos, and the ecstatic dissolution of identity in the collective. Nietzsche argues that classical tragedy is formed generally by both principles (later, he argues, it degenerates as Socratic reason replaces the Apollonian principle). The basic characteristics of Expressionism are Dionysian: bold colours, distorted forms-in-dissolution, two-dimensional, without perspective.

Max Beckmann, “The Departure”, German Expressionism, triptych, oil, 1932-1933

More generally, the term refers to art that expresses intense emotion. It is arguable that all artists are expressive but there are many examples of art production in Europe from the 15th century onward which emphasize emotion. Such art often occurs during times of social upheaval, such as the Protestant Reformation, German Peasants’ War, Eight Years’ War, and Spanish Occupation of the Netherlands, when the rape, pillage and disaster associated with periods of chaos and oppression are presented in the documents of the printmaker. Often the work is unimpressive aesthetically, yet has the capacity to cause the viewer to experience strong emotions with the drama and often horror of the scenes depicted.  Expressionism has been likened to Baroque by critics such as art historian Michel Ragon and German philosopher Walter Benjamin.  According to Alberto Arbasino, a difference between the two is that “Expressionism doesn’t shun the violently unpleasant effect, while baroque does. Expressionism throws some terrific gut punches and violent slaps to the face, baroque doesn’t. Baroque is well-mannered.”

“Sonnenblumen,” by Anselm Kiefer, 1995

Neo-expressionism is a style of modern painting and sculpture that emerged in the late 1970s and dominated the art market until the mid-1980s. Related to American Lyrical Abstraction of the 60s and 70s, Bay Area Figurative School of the 50s and 60s, the continuation of Abstract Expressionism, New Image Painting and precedents in Pop painting, it developed as a reaction against the conceptual art and minimal art of the 1970s. Neo-expressionists returned to portraying recognizable objects, such as the human body (although sometimes in an abstract manner), in a rough and violently emotional way using vivid colours and banal color harmonies. Overtly inspired by the so-called German Expressionist painters–Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner–and other expressionist artists such as James Ensor and Edvard Munch. Neo-expressionists were sometimes called Neue Wilden (‘The new wild ones’; ‘New Fauves’ would better meet the meaning of the term). The style emerged internationally and was viewed by many critics such as Achille Bonito Oliva and Donald Kuspit as a revival of traditional themes of self-expression in European art after decades of American dominance. The social and economic value of the movement was hotly debated.

“Screaming without raising your voice #4” digital collage, by Kevin Casto, 2003

Adopted into a creative family, the son of a multi-talented artist, sign painter and art educator, I’m blessed to have been raised in a stimulating environment.  From my dad, I learned that making art was an occupation, a vocation, and a means of expression. I learned the sign painting business and experienced art shows, exhibits, and art fairs where Dad would exhibit and sell work.  Looking back, I realize this was a great apprenticeship.  My dad’s shoes were so large, I wondered if I would ever be able to measure up to his talent.

Kevin Casto, photograph, 1980, “Looking forward”

I really liked art, but never embraced it as my own until I stumbled into photography.  While working part-time at the local newspaper office, I was intrigued by the darkroom that I cleaned out weekly; it stimulated my imagination with it’s strange lights, chemicals and drying prints. I pestered the photographer until he shared his photography secrets.  I bought my first camera and promptly photographed everything around me. This opened my eyes to a new world. Becoming proficient with the camera, I started working as a part-time photographer for the newspaper and school yearbook.  At my dad’s urging, I attended The Art Institute of Pittsburgh and studied photography.  Pittsburgh exposed me to many new, life-changing experiences. With my interest in photojournalism, I walked everywhere, photographing the people, movement and expression of the city in living black and white.

“Blue cold”, digital photograph, 2009, by Kevin Casto

After graduating I sought employment as a photojournalist, only finding part-time work.  I took a job in advertising, working as a studio and darkroom photography assistant, which left me feeling empty artistically. I wanted to do more with images and my life. I needed a change. My dad was preparing to retire from teaching, and seeing the impact on the lives he touched as an Art teacher, I decided to follow his path. With little money, I followed an opportunity to join the Ohio Army National Guard, where I had many new experiences in strange foreign places and which led back to college.

Hostage #2, Kevin Casto, 2006, mixed media

While obtaining my art education degree, my love of visual art reawakened and I earned a second degree in art, exploring new visual concepts and working with gifted artists who influenced me with their methods of abstract expressionism and pop art. After graduating from Ashland University, I traveled with the military, visiting several countries that broadened my view of the world, including the role I play in it. Returning home, I received a position teaching elementary art, which required working with diverse children in several rural, small town settings.

Drawing, by Kevin Casto, “The battle between me and myself”, 2000

Hopefully this synopsis shows many of the external influences in my life that have led me to this path. The eternal influence in my pursuit has been my commitment to be a Christ-follower, which has shined a light on the life grappling that my artwork wrestles with.  Influenced from this background, my portfolio is composed of images from newspapers that are created into drawings or manipulated on the copy machine; many images were transferred into a digital print by working in Photoshop.These images have compelled me to explore the still image, examining the expression seen and implied in the moment we live and blending the influences of Pop Art and German Expressionism into a postmodern framework to inspire a spiritual response in a fast forward reality.

Kevin Casto, 2003, Digital Collage, “Fare well 9/11”

I desire to combine the images of my past, the sign painting I grew up with, and digital techniques to lead toward a new path that incorporates this circular aspect of my journey, in art and teaching of art to the community in which I live.  In returning to teach Art where I grew up, I have come full circle from where I began. I completed my Masters in Art Education in January 2011 from Boston University.  I used the research from my thesis project to begin a Community-based Art education project called The Art Junction.  The Art Junction provides gallery space, art lessons, creative experiences and studio space in the old parsonage of the New Haven United Methodist Church. The goal of this project is to build community and enhance the creative opportunities for the Willard, Ohio area.

I have been out of steady studio practice since 2006 when I took a break for personal and educational reasons.  This blog is the beginning of my return to the studio in 2012.  The last work I have completed was as an Ohio Expressionist.  I am excited to see where this new artistic journey will lead me.

Comments
  1. lstoneham says:

    Thanks Kevin. Great lessons and insights!

  2. Your pictures are so vibrant !! I love them !!

  3. Daniel Quinn says:

    I have a framed photo of the painting, Patience Serious, in my home–the one you have on your site. The reason I have the photo is that our family has long-time Cincinnati connections and my sister looked so much like the little girl in the painting when she was little, and her middle name is Patience. A friend of my parents’ was a volunteer at the museum and took the photo, blew it up to life size and had it framed for them. It hung on the wall of my parents’ dining room for 20 years. My grandmother came to visit one time, and asked my mother when they had the painting done of Betsy (her first name is Elizabeth). Serendipity?

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