Emerging technology. Global communications. A society in flux. These concepts are reflected in Francesco Lo Castro's latest work, his "Geometry" series — and they're a long way from the lowbrow style that initially catapulted him to art-world fame.
These days, 37-year-old Lo Castro is combining '80s nostalgia and Miami-esque pastel color palettes in abstract paintings that at first glance appear to be digital constructions.
At his Oakland Park studio, he starts with a wooden box or a flat surface, then begins a tedious layering technique. He'll block off sharply angled shapes with tape and spray a layer of spray paint. Next, he lets the work dry and removes the tape. Then he pours on epoxy resin, creating a clear layer. The resin must dry and harden overnight before he begins another layer of taped-off shapes and paint. If bubbles pop up as the resin dries, he uses a hand torch the next day to remove them.
And so it goes: paint layer, dry; resin layer, dry; and on and on, sometimes with hundreds of shapes and layers. To create a fuzzy effect, he might sand down the resin. To create a glow, he'll use a translucent spray paint that allows colors to shine through from layers underneath. The layering creates a natural shadow effect.
This painstaking process means that each painting takes up to a month of 12-hour days to complete.
"I slant and shift the rectangles, so they appear to be shooting outward," Lo Castro says. "No other artist is doing this that I know of."
Lo Castro was born in Catania, Italy, to Sicilian parents. When he was 1, his family moved to Germany, where he stayed until he was 17. Then he and his parents emigrated to Plantation.
"I've always grown up being a foreigner, an immigrant, which prepared me for coming here [United States]," he says.
"Drawing just stuck with me... In high school in Germany, there were these desks that have a similar texture to the sanded resin that I do now. I would start drawing on the corner on these desks, so by the end of class, they would be filled with doodles. I couldn't stop myself."
In high school, he took basic art classes and got C's. His father suggested he study finance, and Lo Castro went to Broward Community College for liberal arts. He worked two jobs to put himself through school — an overnight shift at AT&T and a restaurant gig. At the restaurant, the owner asked him to paint a wall. It was a fateful turn.
"The owner's sister came to see the wall I painted and recommended that I apply for a job at her friend's art studio," he recalls. He got the job in Pompano Beach, where he learned commercial art basics: to pour resin, grind fiberglass, sculpt, airbrush, and paint.
He went on to Florida Atlantic University and enrolled in its fine-arts track but says the hands-on training at the commercial art studio was more important. "At FAU, I got what I needed out of it," he says. "I learned art theory there, but you can't rely on a school to teach you everything. You're either driven to do what you have to do and give it a hundred percent, or you don't. I take all BFAs and MFAs with a grain of salt, because you still have to prove to me that you are a true creative. All the degrees in the world aren't going to make you a great artist."
One of his art teachers asked for his autograph on his last day at FAU, saying she hated him for being so talented. "I cruised through my classes," Lo Castro remembers. "German schools are so tough. I barely scraped by, getting C's and D's in Germany, and I came here and I graduated with high honors."
His first art show was held in a backroom at the Edge, a Fort Lauderdale nightclub. Next, he met indie curator Dustin Orlando, who introduced him to the Miami art scene in the early 2000s. Lo Castro became a core artist at Orlando's Objex Artspace, an edgy gallery in Wynwood run by a bunch of kids doing lowbrow art. There were five galleries or so in Wynwood at the time — nothing like what the scene is today.
He became enthralled with California's lowbrow movement, a cartoony, pop-surrealist aesthetic. His bible was Juxtapoz magazine, filled with features on the biggest names in lowbrow. "I was fascinated by it. To me, lowbrow was the ultimate act of rebellion," he says. "Everything you were taught in school about contemporary art was totally being thrown by the wayside, and people were breaking rules left and right."
He began creating murals and studio paintings with political and revolution messages and cartoonish/grotesque faces. While he's often attributed as a street artist, he claims he is actually a studio artist.
Objex Artspace eventually went under. Lo Castro decided to curate his own art shows in 2004. "Those were the glory days, when you thought you could change the world," he says.
He proved to be a gifted curator and enlisted his favorite lowbrow artists from Juxtapoz. He threw his first show in Little Haiti during the first Art Basel. In 2006, his "We'll Make a Lover of You" group exhibition, featuring Shepard Fairey and others, broke an attendance record — 42,000 attendees.
"Lowbrow back then was the opposite of highbrow, driven mainly by self-taught artists that really had a love for it. They were coming from a cartoon, nostalgia-inspired art and representational art mixed with surrealism," he says. "To me, this whole movement was born straight from a punk-rock mentality, a do-it-yourself mentality."
But lowbrow lost its appeal. "Ultimately, aesthetically, I didn't see the movement evolve," he says.
After cofounding the popular Gen Art Vanguard Fair in 2007 and directing it in 2008 with a $250,000 budget, his curating came to an end. He broke away from being a scenester and went to pull 12-hour days in his studio in Broward County. He prefers to seclude himself so he can work distraction-free.
He garnered overnight international attention in September 2012 when the blog coolhunter.net ran a post about his "Geometry" series. The post was picked up by other blogs and translated into foreign languages. Looking at his website analytics, he saw visitors on his site from the Middle East, Asia, and Egypt. "I think the tipping point was during the revolution in Egypt. All the people went online overnight, and I got 50,000 followers alone in Cairo," he says. "I got my work seen all over Asia, the Middle East. And I gained new attention from people commenting in Asian, Hebrew, and Arabic about my work in words I couldn't translate.
"I think geometry found me, because all you have are these colors and shapes. No matter what your age, your culture, or language you speak, everyone can jump in."
The new style is radically different, and perhaps more grown-up, than his old work, which he has removed from his website. But his hipster cred is still intact — he was commissioned for a project with Redbull during last year's Winter Music Conference, incorporating his new pastel colors and abstract shapes to design DJ stages. He is able to please both struggling millennials (he sells some prints for just $25 and has shot a current series of photos of young, indie models with pastel colors and a dreamy haziness) and rich benefactors. (A skirt made from textiles featuring his geometry patterns sells for $1,195.)
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"Geometry is just a word; it's an aesthetic," he says. "There's no math involved in it. 'Advent' represents personal arrival, as well as a broad social and global one. In case you haven't noticed, the world is changing so rapidly. Our technological evolution combined with scientific discoveries are catapulting us into an era that we won't recognize our own children anymore," he says.
"Our evolution isn't linear; it's exponential," he continues. "And we are on this cusp that is waiting to break open — some people call it singularity — the moment where our human intelligence collides with our technological evolution. And we are creating a new species, whether it's machines or us merging with the machines, that's going to take us on to a whole different evolutionary level.
"To me, these paintings represent our entire universe. These shapes are atoms. They are galaxies. They are representational of all that combined. They all represent evolving structures that are constantly in flux and ideas that are constantly clashing with each other. And with these clashes, new ideas arise, and we evolve through them. We have billions of people finally waking up and networking with each other; even if we don't speak the same language, we are getting to know ourselves in the process for the first time. This kind of communication hasn't happened before."
Lo Castro's "Geometry" series, along with his video animation, are on view at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood this month in the "Advent" show, a group exhibition with Peter Hammar, Jessy Nite, Dana Lauren Goldstein, Gustavo Matamoros, and Gustavo Oviedo. He has representation with galleries in Dallas and in the Hamptons.