Art NotesArts & Culture

Past Lives: Kristin Casaletto’s Provocative Prints at the Georgia Museum

A relative newcomer to the South, contemporary artist Kristin Casaletto draws from history, allegories and modern culture to explore the complexities of identity, race, gender, citizenship and class. Her creative process serves as a form of catharsis and contemplation, while the finished work serves as both a mirror to society and a catalyst for change. “The Past Is Never Dead: Kristin Casaletto,” on view at the Georgia Museum of Art through Sunday, July 30, presents a collection of woodcuts, etchings, drawings and other mixed-media pieces that touch on political, social and cultural issues.

The exhibition borrows its title from William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun, a tale of spiritual redemption for past wrongdoings through loss, suffering and the admission of guilt. Its most famous line, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” encapsulates the psychological discord of attempting to dissociate or distance yourself from, but ultimately having to come to realistic terms with, the past as an integral piece of your present-day personal or collective identity.

Like Faulkner, who also had a thing or two to say about the South, Casaletto invites viewers to consider how memory, storytelling and the written record all play a role in shaping how history is interpreted and preserved through time. Her work tackles difficult historical events as well as contemporary trends to draw parallels between the past and present.

After double-majoring in drawing and physics at Ball State University, then receiving an MA in art history from Michigan State University and an MFA in painting with an emphasis in printmaking from Western Michigan University, Casaletto’s career landed her a teaching position far from home in Mississippi. While acclimating to her new community, she became aware of the extent to which a legacy of racism and oppression permeates the daily experiences of many Southerners. Now based in Augusta, she continues to create work that addresses the South’s complex social issues through the eyes of an outsider.

Organized by Sarah Kate Gillespie, the museum’s curator of American art, “The Past Is Never Dead” consists primarily of works on paper with a few three-dimensional pieces. “Novena” is an unusual display of nine preserved locusts laid neatly side-by-side—one to symbolize each of the nine successive days within the devotional praying ritual. “Calendar,” a mixed-media series on three shaped panels resembling cross-sections of tree trunks, speaks to the passage of time through roots and growth rings.

Several of Casaletto’s subjects are drawn from religious texts. The hand-colored woodcut “Apocalypse” is a massively scaled flurry of stampeding horses and swirling clouds bursting through a sea of darkness. “Hell Mouth,” a chaotic and fiery wave emitting from a ring of jagged teeth, is a mythologized entrance to hell that, in addition to being located in small-town Sunnydale in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” has appeared within stories and artwork across Europe, most popularly during the Middle Ages.

Other pieces focus on pivotal historical events. “Ghosts and Regrets” juxtaposes soft washes of color in the shapes of phantom-like Ku Klux Klan members while a portrait of an older man wearing a solemn expression with his suit and tie is rendered through harsh, piercing cuts in the wood. Created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, “Burial at Montgomery” adds a layer of mystery and surrealism to the narrative through the inclusion of symbolic references.

Finally, offering an interesting and more lighthearted twist to selfie culture, “Self-portrait as Big, Fat King” and “Self-portrait as Sensitive Italian” are larger-than-life depictions of the artist as she adopts a fantasy life.

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“Man Who Can’t Believe” by Kristin Casaletto

Several events are lined up for an in-depth view into “The Past Is Never Dead.” Gillespie will lead a Tour at Two on Wednesday, May 10 at 2 p.m. Friday, May 12 from 5:30–8:30 p.m., the Friends of the Georgia Museum of Art will host their quarterly reception, 90 Carlton: Spring, with gallery activities, door prizes and an opportunity to “Ask the Experts.” Coinciding with the citywide Third Thursday, docents will lead a printmaking-focused Thursday Twilight Tour through “Michael Ellison: Urban Impressions” and Casaletto’s exhibition at 7 p.m. Finally, Casaletto will visit the museum for a Gallery Conversation about her work on Friday, July 14 at 2 p.m.

Next month, the museum will open three other exhibitions, offering a cool new refuge away from the summer heat each week. Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and opening June 3, “The Genius of Martin Johnson Heade” will place the artist’s mesmerizing landscapes, ornithological and botanical illustrations and traditional still lifes alongside complementary works by his predecessors and contemporaries.

“Modern Living: Giò Ponti and the 20th Century Aesthetics of Design,” opening June 10, will offer a glimpse into the early career of the prolific “Father of Modern Italian Design” through over 50 pieces of eclectic furniture and decorative objects that date between the 1920s–’50s.
Opening June 17, “Avocation to Vocation: Prints by F. Townsend Morgan” will be the first exhibition focused entirely on the artist and his hobby-turned-job since his death in 1965.