Shaina Kasztelan, Black Cat Carnival,

Readymade purse, readymade plastic toys, lace trim. Image courtesy of
K. A. Letts

Shaina Kasztelan, NO THNX, Denim jeans on stretcher, acrylic paint, appliques, embroidery. Image courtesy of K. A. Letts.


D3PR3$$1ON N4P

Hatch Art

by K.A. Letts

“D3PR3$$1ON N4P,” an exhibit of new work by young Detroit artists Shaina Kasztelan and Heidi Barlow at Hatch Art, offers a visual thrill ride in which artifacts of low-brow consumer culture are disaggregated and reassembled in a fine art context. Barlow and Kasztelan share a studio and a sensibility characterized by aggressive femininity and ambivalence toward their culturally assigned roles. They know what’s expected of them, and they aren’t having it.

“D3PR3$$1ON N4P’s” antic mood masks the quiet depression that forms the underlying theme of the work. In spite of their youth, or because of it, Kasztelan and Barlow are fully aware of their ambiguous position in a society that treats them as consumable sex objects while simultaneously hoping to profit from their buying power.

Of the two artists, Kasztelan is the more confrontational. She is an enraged, virtuosic satirist of consumerism, employing dollar store kitsch and cheap hobby shop playthings to communicate deeply personal and implicitly political messages with the mass-manufactured means at her disposal. She has fabricated three separate but related bodies of work for “D3PR3$$1ON N4P.” The first, a series of bedazzled, readymade handbags, slyly refers to Freud’s identification of the purse as a subconscious metaphor for female genitalia. Any idea that this constitutes a sexual invitation, however, is belied by the menacing clowns and sharp-toothed kitties with which they are embellished. Her denim jeans-derived pieces--using the back pockets only--are decorated with smiley faces dripping blood, appliqued flames, rainbows, hearts and stars. Not content to merely decorate, she attaches additional objects such as tamagotchis, rabbits’ feet and chains. Slogans neatly embroidered on back jeans pockets like “Kiss My Goth Ass” and “NO THNXS” make it perfectly clear that this artist is “Nobody’s Princess.”

Kasztelan’s most sustained and ambitious artworks are her five altar-like mini-ofrendas. She picks and chooses globalized imagery from Japanese amine, American low-brow and Hispanic cultures, conjuring a bleak yet comic worldview populated by dime store clowns, black cats, pills, quasi-religious figures, Barbies, skeletons and Kewpies. Kasztelan’s saturated color palette is somewhat determined by the objects she selects, but she doubles down with applied ornamentation, carefully finishing each diorama with acrylic “icing“ reminiscent of Mexican Day of the Dead sugar skulls and capping it off with cheap artificial flowers and fabric trim. The effect of these meticulously curated triptychs is both saccharine and menacing.

Her large painting Kawaii Dream House (kawaii refers to the quality of cuteness in Japanese culture) represents a new direction in her work. She forgoes the use of readymades here while retaining the aggressively sweet color, symmetry and multicultural references of her previous work. Kasztelan has created an attractive but ominously uninhabited dream house in the clouds, set against a saturated tangerine sky and surmounted by a rainbow. She clearly suspectsthat this conventionally pretty confection is an elaborate trap. Kawaii Dream House brings to mind Takashi Murakami’s sunny, anime-derived images, but Kasztelan’s sensibility points to a darker and more sinister destination.


Heidi Barlow, CK1 Perfume, Maybelline Great Lash, Red Lipstick,

Papier mache, acrylic paint, Installation detail. Photo courtesy of
K..A. Letts


In contrast to Shaina Kasztelan’s angry, funny, extroverted work, Heidi Barlow’s same-size replicas of the contents of her bedroom are intimate, inward-looking and, in a way, more poignant. The lovingly recreated contents of her personal space—cosmetics, personal care items, cell phones, prescription bottles, junk food—are both intensely private and exhibitionistic, as if the artist’s interior landscape has been turned inside out and put on display. The objects are made of papier-mâché, a homely material whose low-brow provenance lends warmth and humor to what is otherwise merely the unremarkable furniture of a young woman’s private life. Her installation suggests a girly boudoir, complete with pastel stripes and pink-and-white furniture. Three round vanity mirrors provide her most pointed social commentary. She sees herself in the central reflection, surrounded by cute pink unicorns and teddy bears embedded in toxic sludge, confined within a circle of dependency that she longs to transcend but fears to leave.


Heidi Barlow, Installation, wood shelf, wall paint, papier mache, acrylic paint. Photo courtesy of K.A. Letts


The internet and cheap imports made the work in “D3PR3$$1ON N4P” possible, but Kasztelan and Barlow have made it compelling. Their imaginatively maximalist collection of tchotchkes, junk food, electronics and drugs (both prescription and recreational) provide up-to-the-minute social commentary and a pointed critique of 21st century capitalism. They illustrate a social landscape transformed by technology and globalization while at the same time pointing out that the struggle to overcome sexual discrimination and economic inequality continues.


K.A. Letts is a working artist and art blogger She is a graduate of Barnard College (BA) and Yale Drama School (MFA Set and Costume Design.



SUBSCRIBE to the print version of the New Art Examiner via PayPal