Born Sterling Heights, MI, 1990 / BFA, College for Creative Studies / Lives in Detroit
Is there anything we can’t confront once it’s painted pink and covered in glitter? Arms full of rainbow-dyed wigs and salvaged toys, Shaina Kasztelan seeks to answer this question by presenting us with demons that are at once deeply personal and widely relatable. In her work, Kasztelan explores the overbearing nature of gendered identity, death, and consumption under capitalism through skilled illustration and a deluge of crafts ranging from cake decorating to sewing to large-scale prop building.
Much of Kasztelan’s art is colored by adolescent mass-market femininity, blurring the line between celebration and critique. In a collection of three-dimensional collages titled “Toyland,” layers of paint, stickers, fabric, and, most prominently, plastic and plush toys reach out and demand attention. The stereotypically “girlish” imagery is overwhelming; pastel teddy bears, a rainbow of rhinestones, and a wedding cake decorated with flowers and topped with a big pink heart all feature in Doing Drugs at Your Party (On Cloud 9) (2017), while a stuffed clown floats by on a shiny radioactive cloud. The excess present in these assemblages magnifies the cloying and manufactured aspects of American girlhood, as vomit— represented in rainbow paint and neatly braided hair—spills from the mouths of pop culture figures. (See If I Shaved My Pussy and I’m So Sad I Could Scream, both 2017.)
However, constructed femininity and mass-produced memorabilia are not easily written off as toxic alone. Kasztelan relies on shared nostalgia in her compilations to make a kind of instinctive logic amidst the seeming chaos, and she finds bravery in the representations. In these multidimensional works, bold references to suicide and drug use—psychiatric and otherwise—find their place among fluffy angel wings and an assortment of tiny pink plastic shoes. With their multicolored blend of textures and symbols, the overloaded canvases reflect the complexity of female youth culture, at once stirring anxiety and providing a familiar comfort.
Kasztelan takes a similarly dualistic approach to death, delving further into the power of decoration to both disguise and call attention to. In the series “Candyland,” a trio of seemingly sugarcoated coffins (2017) are lined in velvet and frosted in rhinestones, shifting morbid associations by emphasizing shape and color. Through Kasztelan’s handiwork, the miniature coffins become approachable and strangely delightful, adjusting meaning through their recontextualization as decadent art objects.
Another collection, “Skulls,” folds death even further into Kasztelan’s kaleidoscopic world. Following a personal history of in-the-kitchen amateur taxidermy, Kasztelan transforms twelve animal skulls (2012 – 2017)—collected and then left in the forest to be picked clean by bugs—into fantastical creatures that bare shiny gold teeth. Though all brightly colored, each is distinctive; one displays a unicorn-style horn made from an upside-down plastic ice cream cone, while another is topped with a lace heart as large as the skull itself. The fact that these are skulls is apparent. The fact that they are real bones, or to what animal they may have once belonged, is indiscernible. The bones, though unidentifiable as belonging to specific species, are intricately painted, beaded, and otherwise adorned. The embellishments are not a distraction from the morbid nature of these objects, but instead a commemorative practice. The skulls were exhibited in celebration of Dia de los Muertos, staged as part of an ofrenda entitled Sw33ttooth (2013) and wrapped in silky pink bows and fake flowers. The ofrenda situates the project as, above all, a memorialization. Through their careful treatment by Kasztelan and their public display, the animals are, above all, remembered.
Memory figures heavily in Kasztelan’s art, not only through the aforementioned themes of death and adolescent nostalgia, but also through her steady use of secondhand objects. By overloading canvases with discarded items, Kasztelan criticizes capitalist overproduction and disposability while also acknowledging her own fixation with collecting. This theme is expanded upon in a set of purses (2017 – present) sewn from gathered scraps of fabric and, yet again, forgotten toys picked from donation bins. The Golden Rabbit (2017), a yellow lace-trimmed purse topped with a three-eyed, golden-eared rabbit, opens up a line of questioning that breathes history into the unlikely animal. In Kasztelan’s words, offered in an interview: “Where did this come from? Who used to love this? Who could love it now?”
Saylor Soinski, January 2019
Copyright Essay’d 2019