By Beatrice Rosen
Michele Castagnetti, tired of New York City’s frigid winters and cut-throat work environment, packed up his bags and advertising agency business and headed out to Venice. To his surprise, the vibrant and eclectic beachside community not only provided sand, sun and leisure, but also the inspiration to pursue his suppressed passion: fine art.
Now, 10 years later, Castagnetti’s artwork constantly appears throughout a number of Los Angeles galleries and international exhibitions, including haleARTS Space in Santa Monica, Art of Studio in Venice, and Las Laguna Gallery in Laguna Beach.
“I think coming to Venice and being surrounded by so many artists, some good and some bad, totally inspired me because you are inspired by the good ones and motivated by the bad ones,” Castagnetti says. “It’s also easy to do because you have the space to do it, like on your balcony or in your garden, unlike New York, where I didn’t do one painting.”
From geometric and conceptual acrylic paintings to photography, prints and mixed media, Castagnetti likes to experiment.
“I like to change media and I like to change style rather than those artists who just do one thing their entire lives until they die because I don’t think that’s very creative,” he says. His most recent work is rooted in aspects of the Venice “way of life,” conveyed through a photographic book entitled “Venice Bikes” and a series of posters.
“Venice Bikes” was inspired by “New York Bikes,” Castagnetti’s first book of photographs compiled during his decade in New York. Sold throughout bookstores in Manhattan, “New York Bikes” documents strictly abandoned bikes in high-contrast black and white photography. “Venice Bikes,” on the other hand, focuses on the creative and eccentric way Venetians customize their bikes.
“People in New York are too angry and stressed out to customize anything,” Castagnetti comments. “Here you have bells, harnesses to hold surfboards, all sorts of funny cup holders, sails and flags, even living necessities, and no one in New York had that.”
Castagnetti further stuck with the city theme by creating a series of Venice posters inspired by 1960s-era travel posters from Europe. Both “Venice Bikes” and the posters are now part of #Venice(Un)Entitled, a collaborative multimedia gallery show that documents the dramatic transformation of Venice Beach from an area rampant with crime to a glowing tourist destination over the course of 12 years.
On display at Venice’s Art of Studio, the closing show for #Venice(Un)Entitled is on Thursday, June 27 from 6 to 9 p.m., but Castagnetti will also be signing “Venice Bikes” books at the studio on Sunday, July 7 from 2 to 5 p.m.
Photographer and Art of Studio owner Kwaku Alston says Castagnetti’s book and posters “are definitely selling, and people really do like them.” They are both also sold on his web store at kwakushop.com.
“Venice Bikes” is additionally sold at haleARTS Space, a gallery in Santa Monica, and owner, award-winning interior designer and artist Michael Hale, is a huge fan of Castagnetti’s work.
“It’s a great magazine-style book; it’s absolutely phenomenal, and the photographs are great,” Hale says. “I think his Venice Beach style posters are wonderful as well, so we want to add that to our online gallery.”
The works are not the first of Castagnetti’s to show at haleARTS Space. In May, he contributed a series of prints inspired by 1970s-era wallpaper to a four-person show. Entitled Systems, the series hovers between minimalism, abstraction, geometry, stasis and dynamism, while its visual energy of sensuous, buoyant hues makes an instant impact with a vivid sense of spatial illusion, according to Hale.
“His prints are amazing and extremely meticulous, and he is one of those masters that are able to capture a very graphic design style in physical and painted form,” Hale admires. “Many artists that are getting the actual output he gets are doing it through computers, but he is doing it by hand.”
Castagnetti’s recent geometric and conceptual brush strokes divulge from the artistic techniques demonstrated in his first show in 2005 at Venice’s Red House Gallery, which is no longer in business. Entitled Femme Fatale, the exhibition featured a series of large mixed media pieces, averaging 48-by-60 inches.
The Femme Fatale series consists of various photographs of women, or “muses” as Castagnetti calls them, that are printed, mounted on canvas and painted over. One of the pieces, Kemp Muhl, will be auctioned at the Fourth Annual Art Project Los Angeles benefitting AIDS Project Los Angeles on June 29 from 7 to 10 p.m. at Bonhams, 7601 W. Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood. Rene, another piece from the series, will be shown at Las Laguna Gallery in Laguna Beach, with an opening reception for the overall group show on July 6 from 7 to 10 p.m.
While Castagnetti has been successful in a landscape where the word “starving” stereotypically accompanies the job title “artist,” that is not his main profession. He works full-time as an art director for his own company, Acrylic Airlines, and does his painting on the weekends.
“I feel lucky that I’m motivated to do a full-time job, and that gives me the time and resources to do art on the side,” Castagnetti says.
His initial artistic inclination for graphic design developed when he was 15 years old, living in his home country of Italy. After one year of studying graphic design at a private school in Milan, Castagnetti also developed a love for modern art. Thus, he travelled overseas to visit the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Two weeks later, Castagnetti was a registered student at the city’s Fashion Institute of Technology. He graduated four years later with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, and began working for a number of New York advertising agencies.
Yet something was still missing.
“As an ad designer, it’s kind of frustrating because when you make everyone happy with what you do, you are doing some work that is compromised,” Castagnetti says. “Whereas if you do your own expression you are doing something that’s uncompromised, and you can put out any kind of message that you want without having an editor cut it down or modify it.”
Upon moving to Venice and starting Acrylic Airlines, where he works on the art direction of movie posters, advertising campaigns, art exhibitions and films for studios like Paramount and Universal, Castagnetti found the time, money, resources and inspiration to publicly share his own message through art.
“Here you’re exposed to art of different sorts and styles and mediums that you just want to contribute and do your own thing,” he says.
Castagnetti never had, or has, money in mind when he works outside of his ad agency business. Rather, he began painting with the initial desire to have his artwork on the walls of a gallery. “I thought it would be the ultimate thing, regardless if you sell your work or not,” he says.
Now, that initial dream is a distant memory as one can not only find Castagnetti’s artwork scattered throughout Los Angeles galleries, but also at numerous charity auctions. This includes nonprofit organizations such as AIDS Project Los Angeles, Angel Food and Wright Girl.
“Really any nonprofit organization that approaches me, I donate a piece to it because I think they really make a tangible effort in Los Angeles,” Castagnetti says.
As for the future, he plans to create limited editions of “Venice Bikes” with new photographs, and continue experimenting with paint, prints and mixed media in his studio.
After all, Castagnetti sees no reason to wander from the path he started on 10 years ago when he moved out to Venice. From ad agency art director by weekday to distinguished Los Angeles artist by weekend, Castagnetti says he found the life he was always searching for in this liberal and aesthetic community.
Venice: Italian artist finds inspiration in eclectic beachside community
By Beatrice Rosen