Vincent Castiglia on His Art and Honoring H.R. Giger: “It’s My Flesh and I’m Leaving It Here”
In the visual art world, artist Vincent Castiglia is the “old master” of our generation whose specialty is painting with human blood. On December 1, he unveiled the exhibition “Homage to H.R. Giger” at his gallery and tattoo shop, which opened earlier this year in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Some Giger’s own creations are on display in the main hall from now until February 2023.
Castiglia first met Giger when he participated in a group exhibition at the H.R. Giger Museum, where the two began discussing what would become the former’s first solo show in 2008. And although Giger sadly passed away in 2014, the Swiss icon will be remembered as the artist of the “biomechanical.” Giger’s work led to Oscar-winning contributions to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).
You can find Giger’s transfixing images on the covers of classic albums like Celtic Frost’s To Mega Therion (1985) — Giger was actually a friend and mentor to Tom G. Warrior, as he was to Castiglia. Thus, Triptykon’s debut, Eparistera Daimones (2010), features art by both Castiglia and Giger. One of Castiglia’s most meaningful accomplishments was rendering the likeness of a young Gregg Allman for the late legend’s final record. The New York-born luminary also caused a stir when he painted Exodus and then-Slayer’s Gary Holt’s guitar with 18 bottles of the shredder’s blood.
Congratulations on the opening of your exhibition “Homage to H.R. Giger” at your gallery! What was the process of organizing this tribute like for you?
It has been my absolute greatest honor and a humbling experience to arrange this. It’s taken a lot of work, but it became something clear in my mind in terms of having the gallery and it being the first other solo show, besides the opening. And I thought to myself: “Who else besides Giger would I show?” He was my greatest inspiration artistically. And his personhood! Without going into a litany of gratuitous complimentary things, it presented itself as a necessity because his work should be perpetuated in every city and every country. I regard him as one of the greatest artists who has ever walked the earth. I’m so grateful for the connection we had and just to have experienced his artwork, especially in person.
It was a matter of logistically organizing artwork on loan from three separate parties. And they did so happily! It’s been such a great experience all around!
Are there any specific pieces that you’re most excited about presenting?
Yes! There are many! I’m very happy to be presenting “Mask VI,” which is an airbrush painting from 1985. The detail to me — it’s incredible! I mean, you can get centimeters away from it and there’s still subtle details that a human is confronted with when looking at his art. You say to yourself: “How did human hands paint this?” It boggles the mind. And it is a small piece, relatively speaking. It’s about 14” x 17”. But, to me, his airbrush work was otherworldly. It was supernatural and the proliferation… The amount of it that he painted, at the scale that he painted it, at the detail he painted… To this day, it is still, a mystery to me! There’s also a “Li I” piece, which is a depiction of his ex-girlfriend, a very published and well-known image of his, one of my favorites in the show. It’s a hand-painted hybrid print. And that’s really cool because he didn’t do that often. It’s a rarity! There are also original drawings that are fantastic from the ‘80s that depict different variations of aliens and a Stomachburster, as opposed to a Chestburster. For me, it’s like a dream! I experience it in that way because it’s surreal for me! In the distant past, I would not have imagined any of this being a possibility. I’m just very grateful.
I was wondering if there were any specific lessons that Giger was particularly concerned about passing on as a mentor that you’d like to share.
Yes. When we were organizing the solo exhibition in 2008 of my work at the museum, it was called “Remedy for the Living.” It’s a very Catholic town Gruyères, where the museum is. In terms of the work that he would actively show, anything that would be jarring visually in terms of content might cause waves out there. In general, he said: “You might face a hurdle in terms of your audience and demographic because of the blood, the transparency of the content, and where it’s coming from.” He actually said it would be amazing if you experimented and moved, not past the blood, but toward figures that aren’t as disintegrated in various levels. … That holistic, fully membered human anatomy would be an interesting way to go. I’ve done that as a result, you know, experiment with it. And it’s gone really well in that regard because he was absolutely right! He also emphasized: “Don’t talk about your work.” Not to not talk about inspiration or logistics, but the magic. He was referring to that and the hidden inner places that the piece comes from and the nuances in the art that represent very specific things. Allow the piece to speak for itself and it will be better received. Everyone has their own subjective take on every piece of artwork. I understood that very well. There are encrypted nuances that I don’t speak about in my work. And I will go to my grave that way!
Do you remember when you first discovered Giger’s work?
As far as an exact day or year, I don’t, but it was early on. I was about, I would say, 10 or 11. By the time I was 13, I had his posters on my walls and was like: “This person is like from another planet.” I was like: “This is absolute genius!” And you know, like planets orbit close to each other, there was a sort of orbit of circumstance that brought us together. It was beyond all probability and changed the trajectory of my life forever for which I will be eternally grateful.
How have things been going in general with your gallery and tattoo shop since you opened it in February?
The response has been great. Even given the content. I would have expected some kind of misunderstanding because of what it’s painted with and what some of the stages of disintegration look like. But everyone here intuitively understands! There’s been a real acceptance. And tattooing has been great. I’ve met many awesome new clients and continued work on existing clients from New York who travel. It’s certainly new territory for me in terms of the gallery area and partition because that is its own separate entity.
When I initially started experimenting with blood, it communicated primordial truth that I knew I could not achieve, reproduce, or come close to in any other way because it was part of my flesh. Blood is technically considered tissue, so it was dissolving the barrier between art and artist and becoming the artwork… physically extracting what contains all information and nutrients and necessities for life and reconstituting it laboriously for thousands of hours into the images that directly delineate the stations of my human experience and what is in my psyche in allegorical form. Blood, when handled a certain way and layered on surfaces that are archival, will not budge ever. It’ll hold up as long as the paper survives. That’s demonstrated by cave paintings in blood by Neanderthal men that are 25- and 50,000 years old. Some mystical schools of thought regard the blood as the express vehicle of the life force or what people would call spirit. You could call it consciousness. But the vital force of life, they believe, is contained in the blood. I felt that transference from day one. And I said: “I got my medium!”
I painted in obscurity without showing anything for about 3 or 4 years because it was a commitment on a level that I couldn’t explain because it was so consuming. It allowed me to share everything that I could not share or communicate in any other way, besides these visual allegories and it was a kind of salvation. In terms of making art, it has been the pretty much exclusive way I’ve understood how to connect with, comprehend, and proceed through life in this world. Prior to it, there was a lot to release and communicate. I had I not found art as a tool and a mode of expression. I think I can say with relative certainly I’d most likely be in Resurrection Cemetery.
This brings me to the documentary Bloodlines: The Art and Life of Vincent Castiglia (2018) by director John Borowski. It was incredibly beautiful yet also incredibly sad… But, of course, it was beyond inspiring because of your strength. So… I learned from the film that the first time you painted with blood was to write a message to your mother. That was a fact that really moved me. Your art has given so much to so many people. Like you just said, it’s has helped you survive. But I was wondering: Does exploring your struggles and pain ever feel too overwhelming? Is there a balance you need to strike so that the healing process doesn’t dig too deep into old wounds and become harmful?
At the time, I was in a very different place psychically and emotionally. Completely functional, but with more between my years to process… It was a complete catharsis and I fell in love with each piece, which pointed me to the next. It was completely positive for me! Whether the content might have been extreme or maybe interpreted by others as quite heavy, it was a release. It was a kind of an extremely elaborate replacement for an ocean of tears that I couldn’t possibly cry. I don’t have that experience anymore. The art has allowed me to evolve in a way that is no longer communicating an absolute type of pain or what people would regard as unsavory aspects of existence. I am not religious. I don’t subscribe to any particular school of thought. But I do factor in all physical and cosmic and potentially ethereal implications of the work, particularly because it’s my flesh and I’m leaving it here!
There was a natural inner progression. The intention of just releasing shifted toward an acknowledgment of the interconnectedness of everything in the universe. I’ve read and contemplated and referenced science, mostly physics and the esoteric. I’ve boiled down 22 years of soul-searching and looking for truths. What is the truth? This is an interesting juncture in time because scientific laws are being revised. Things that we’re finding out on a quantum level, that we know now as law, are aligning with ancient texts on the potentially non-physical aspects of creative force and consciousness and intelligence.
I’ll conclude the question with this: My last commission was from a heart surgeon, and he wanted a depiction of one of his surgeries, and that’s very intimate and heavy. The patient signed off on it and shared their heart with me. I did not want this to be a medical illustration and neither did he. He really wanted me in it. Not me, but my visual and conceptual interpretation of what this represents as an archetype. To me, he’s a healer. That was the intention behind some of the encryption in the piece.
I think it’s incredible that you put yourself through 3 years of F.I.T. I was thinking: “Wow, Vincent’s work was probably too ahead-of-the-game, radical in the very best way, for his professors to understand.” And then, I read that that was the case. Was that discouraging? Or did their opposition somehow drive you on and help you realize that you really had something special to offer?
You’re dead on. I had shown certain professors my paintings that I did for myself. One of them said: “That’s blood?! What are you sick?” And I let it roll off my back because he was an elderly man and could only see things from his perspective. But there was another experience with an elderly woman, a professor, who was extremely eccentric. I showed a tremendous piece to her which took a few months to create. She said: “This is amazing. Can I show it to the class?” I said: “Sure!” And she did. She got me in there and showed it and said: “Look at this! It’s perfect! The composition is great. The rendering is incredible.” And she said: “It’s trash. It’s garbage because it was plagiarizing off of images from the internet.” That experience actually didn’t discourage me because I knew it wasn’t even the truth. It was a dead lie. It made me realize that institutional communication of art education can be just as detrimental or useless as not pursuing it and exercising it on your own with your own vision. Now did having some training help?! Yes, to the degree that I exercised a muscle and took on a lot of responsibility and coursework. But I withdrew shortly after that experience with the professor. I said to myself: “I’m not going to be even using this degree in any corporate setting.” I was already tattooing and had practically a full-time schedule that I was managing along with my coursework. I was pretty convinced I was just going to keep doing that afterward, which I did.
You’ve played in the Brooklyn-based deathcore band Human Decline! I know that you’re extremely busy, but do you have any plans to return to music? Or maybe publish some poetry since you enjoyed writing lyrics?
I do. I have the desire to write more music because it was another mode of communication and catharsis, especially the lyrics, but the music too! I wrote a good portion, maybe 70%, of the material for Human Decline and like 90% of the lyrics. And it was another dimension and maybe overt way of communicating things that were absolute axioms of truth that I feel that I had unearthed through the crucible of life. But I had to make sort of an executive decision because my art schedule was full with a five-month waiting list just for tattooing. And I was painting on top of it. So… I respectfully and with love withdrew from the band. I am kind of all or nothing whether it’s a guitar, or a paintbrush, or a tattoo machine. There’s two things I can be all in for at once and that’s tattooing and painting… unless it’s a project that I plan for a certain period and then return to my life and not do the live shows, but just do it for the creation and love of the music. That is something that I’ve entertained and been asked about doing by a close friend —Vinny, who’s been in Dying Fetus. We’ve been talking about doing a musical project for years. It’s just been on me to sit down, write it, and actually send it to him. That’s all I gotta do. I will block out a one- or two-month period where I devote myself to that at some point when I can. I hope to anyway! But I feel that I will because, interestingly, I do feel… I don’t want to sound dramatic, but I feel pregnant with music and lyrics to be written. So yeah, that would be something awesome and something I would like to do in the near future.
And something we’d really love to hear! Your paintings, of course, are extremely “metal,” as were Giger’s. Do you feel that growing up as a metalhead affected the way you think visually as an artist?
Yes. But not to the degree that I think that a lot of people would think. It was not inspired by metal. None of the aspects were derived from it. But being in a metal mindset and being comfortable with aggressive, explicit, heavy material — that was inspiring me! My mind was only comfortable with listening to like death metal and so forth. At this point and at all points in my life, I’ve never been in like one set pocket. I’ve really been all over the place with things like stringed instruments and so forth. I was listening to while creating music. The content, I do believe, was a purge from the psyche that, whether I was listening to metal or not, might have looked quite the same.
Visit Vincent Castiglia’s website here to learn more and check out his shop.