A Critical Essay

Maria Castano’s mixed-media collages are intricate statements resulting from several techniques: digital imagery, scanned pictures, and original art. Coming as she does from a family of artists and sculptors, Castano is interested in the beauty she sees, as she puts it in her artist’s statement, “in the pure graphic shapes found in Chinese calligraphy, Western ecclesiastical images, and the feminine sensuality of woven fabrics.” Her complex combinations of imagery involve patterns taken from silk and textiles; the repetitive forms are presented so that there is a rhythm that animates the overall composition, which offers a complicated body of imagery and tugs on the viewer’s awareness of form. Referring to many cultures and sources of design, Castano weaves together disparate images that impact the consciousness of the viewer, who often sees abstraction and figuration in designs of remarkable eloquence.

The intricacy of Castano’s art is integral to its expression. In Northern China Family, for example, we see in the upper center a father and mother with two children; the mother holds a bowl in her hands, while the father is playing a lute-like instrument, and both children and parents are dressed in the regional style of the people of northern China. Working with rice and vinyl papers, Castano has created an overall picture of stunning complexity: beneath the picture of the family, in the bottom third of the image, is a suite of Chinese characters. Their organic forms stand in stark contrast to the highly geometric, rational patterning that forms an outline around the edges of the four sides of the paper. Here the colors are dusky-mauve for the background of the family photograph and brown and deep blue-green for the patterned diamonds that exist in a single row around the edges of the collage.

In another mixed-media collage, entitled Bass Ceremonial Robe, the large size, 60 by 40 inches, enables Castano to engage in a wonderful intricacy of design; in the center of the work, there is a T-shaped ground dark brown in color, with random forms, emblematic and decorative, painted on it: circles, looping lines, and checkerboards animate the surface of this central form. Around it, in leather and suede, is a cerulean blue ground with torn edges in gold leaf, itself surrounded by red leather with abstract designs painted on it: on the left a series of looping red lines with small embellishments, and on the right, a chain-like image of yellow lines. On the top are a group of small organic forms consisting of brown and black stripes, while on the bottom are partial circles whose insides are half-gray, half gray-and-white checkerboard. Finally, on the edges of the collage are designs that look arabesque in their curving movement. Overall, the impression is one of a sumptuous decoration, in which the plurality of patterns and designs are meant to introduce the viewer to the beauties of foreign-based imageries and textiles.

Chrysanthemum Prayer Rug is a beautiful essay in the joys of patterned imagery. In the center of the collage is the image of a white chrysanthemum, whose focal point animates and throws light upon the ordered geometries that surround it. Directly above and beneath the flower are two circles, whose ground appears to be the rational, right-angled design of an Arabic prayer rug. To the left are fan-shaped object[s] displayed in bunches, and to the flower’s right are diamond-shaped forms, whose top half is golden and whose bottom is dark brown. The overall effect is quite powerful; interestingly, the range of designs filling the field of the artwork never seems busy or too complex. (This is true of Castano’s entire body of work.) Instead, we are introduced to the beauty of complication, in which the patterns fill the eye with a rigor and control whose final experience is its opposite: an intuitive gestalt that plays with the patience of our eyes. Castano is a talented artist whose repertoire of color and pattern convinces the viewer of the power of both organic and geometric form.

Jonathan Goodman
New York, New York

Contributing critic for Art in America, Art Asia Pacific, Sculpture Magazine