New York

Stefano Castronovo

Patrick Fox Gallery

Part one of this show was a room full of Mona Lisas, eight of them titled “Devoid 1–8.” Some are medium shots, some are close-ups, some are extreme close-ups. In some of the pictures Mona Lisa is partially obscured, as in the first one, in which her face is half covered with the gold squares that also form a background. In others the image is eroded; in Devoid 8, for example, the face is peeled away with only clues remaining. The image is recognizable only from its context.

“Devoid” could be translated to mean “from the void,” and these are images from the void of art history, from Leonardo to Duchamp to now. The Mona Lisa has become a void, a vacuum whose only content is what is sucked from the beholder. Jean-Michel Basquiat drew Mona as the face on money, and she is as invisible as George Washington; but her invisibility also makes her a perfect ghost, and in Stefano Castronovo’s paintings she functions as a haunting. She is the ghost of an image, stripped of life, stripped of her meanings, reduced to the x in any viewer’s equation.

The Mona Lisa is also the token image par excellence—the perfect barrier to raise between the portrait picture and abstraction. These are abstract paintings enjoying a representational technicality. They are beautifully painted. Some are funny. All are haunting.

Part two of the show was a series of leather jackets and vests of the biker, rock’n’roll variety, painted by Castronovo with images of pop-culture currency: Mona again, green-faced on silver leather; Marilyn Monroe on white; Fidel Castro on the red back panel of a black jacket, with the Coca-Cola logo painted on the sleeve; Andy Warhol, preternaturally glamorous on a silver jacket, with a dollar-bill pyramid with all-seeing eye and six Campbell’s soup cans; Christ crowned with thorns on a silver vest; a young Elvis on a Dayglo red panel on a white jacket; Marion Branda from The Wild Ones on a black vest. They were displayed on crucifix-shaped clothes trees and had a similarly traditional air to canvas’ but with the glamour of mobility and usefulness and vulnerability. Canvases do not fall off motorcycles. These seemed to quote Oscar Wilde: “Be a work of art or wear one.”

Part three of the show was the oddball paintings—two untitled, very black and white canvases. One reveals and conceals a mysterious figure in white slashes of paint on deep black. From a distance the figure looks glamorous, David Bowie perhaps; closer up it might almost be an ape—the arm is all wrong, the nose too big, there’s a skull in the hair. The other is a bird man, a human skull over a bird head that passes for shoulders. Both are perfect chimeras, mutable and peculiar, equidistant between Odilon Redon and those paintings on black velvet.

Finally came two works of the most painterly perfection. Lamentation combines religious portraiture, the barroom nude, the Pre-Raphaelites, and punk. A nude woman with a go-go body and punk red hair verging on flame and aureate holds out her hands as Saint Lucy does holding eyeballs, but this woman holds crystals. Her eyes are teared. A laserlike beam issuing from a black sun strikes her. The landscape is sinisterly, abstractly anthropomorphic. The dirt on which she stands is mixed trash: pop tops, fish bones, leaves, and crushed batteries are stuck on the canvas.

The Man Who Could Hear Everything is a fringed, unstretched canvas painted with ecclesiastical perfection and stunning straight-ahead allegory. A nude black man stands in flames holding a skull. He appears to be in a trance. The flames are as beautiful as any in paint.

Castronovo is a maestro, an entertainer, and a whiz. His paintings are as smart as they are beautiful, and vice versa. They are powerfully serious and comic without sacrificing either mood, like Waylon Jennings, Funkadelic, Wyndham Lewis, and Veronica Lake.

Glenn O'Brien