Cody Castle-Stack’s “The Mulch” and Kenny Shapiro’s “Room for Play” exhibits at Fort Hall gallery in Brunswick. Photo by Jenny Ibsen

I appreciate the strategy that artists like Takashi Murakami, Kaws and even the collectible design duo the Haas Brothers have deployed: essentially, harnessing childlike imagery and characters to explore, interrogate and demystify some of humanity’s more animalistic impulses and fears. After all, it’s certainly more palatable, and arguably easier, to contemplate our capacity for hatred, cruelty and war, or our demonization of imagined monsters, when these messages come to us via the “superflat” comic book-like imagery of Murakami, overscaled sculptures of cute innocents like the Kaws characters Companion and Bendy, and the furry, gender-neutral creature furniture of the Haases.

But I have an issue – and, perhaps it’s a limitation – concerning the fluidity with which this ostensibly naïve visual delivery mechanism becomes commodified. It’s telling, for example, that if you Google “Kaws,” you must scroll beyond six shopping sites, including Target and Uniqlo, that peddle licensed Kaws wares, to arrive at the Wikipedia entry that explains who Brian Donnelly (the actual artist) happens to be. Five sites precede Murakami’s Wikipedia page (and nine before you land on the scholarly imprimatur of, and we must traverse four listings before landing on to hear directly from the people behind the work.

All this to say that the comingled shows of Cody Castle-Stack’s “The Mulch” and Kenny Shapiro’s “Room for Play” (through Dec. 16), at artist John Bisbee’s 10-month pop-up Fort Hall gallery, are a breath of fresh air. Why? Because these two artists essentially use ingenuous, indeed guileless, imagery to create very adult painting and sculpture. There’s a way that the archetypal style and visual language feels knowing and mature in ways that sidestep the blue-chip slickness and self-conscious irony of predecessors like Murakami and Kaws.

On the surface, we find kindergarten-like renderings of houses, clouds and grass (Castle-Stack), as well as a childhood hobby horse (Shapiro). But both artists are aiming for something emotionally and titillatingly deeper.

First, however, a word about this unusual gallery model. It occupies painter Katherine Bradford’s summer studio in Brunswick’s Fort Andross Mill. Because it is a seasonal studio for Bradford, Bisbee (who was the first artist to occupy a space here in the early 1990s) asked her if he could press the studio into service as a gallery during the months she leaves it vacant.

For several years, Bisbee, an accomplished sculptor – who is currently immersed in songwriting after a stint exploring painting – taught art at Bowdoin College down the street. He is using the gallery to showcase the work of young artists he taught at Bowdoin now forging careers of their own. Four of these artists – Castle-Stack and Shapiro among them – have carved out studios from Bisbee’s enormous fourth floor digs. There are no formal gallery hours. Instead, one enters the mill at the loading dock, climbs to the second floor and finds a note on the door directing us to text one or another number to get the combination for the lockbox. “Stay as long as you like, just please remember to return the key to the lockbox,” it reads. That’s Maine for you.


In his artist statement, Castle-Stack humbly calls his work in “The Mulch” a “gentle mess; a barebones diary about the simple things that give us the most profound feelings.” Having watched this artist develop over some years, what I can say is that there is no mess here at all. While he might have been experimenting for a signature style in his post-Bowdoin years, Castle-Stack’s concerns have coalesced in very personal and affecting ways.

Cody Castle-Stack, “After a Home” Photo by Cody Castle-Stack

Take a relatively straightforward painting like “After a Home.” The shelter in question occupies a tiny portion of the canvas at the top of the composition. Along the bottom edge are mountains and what looks like a tuft of grass. Between them is a long twisty road.

This isn’t a painting about the corny, aphoristic sentiment of “home sweet home.” It is a journey that can be read from top down or bottom to top. We’re not quite sure whether it depicts the trajectory of a child toward maturity, with all the obstacles that still lie in his wake (top down), or a passage that returns, after traversing mountains of self-discovery, to something more fundamentally true about our nature that has brought him “home” to himself.

“Cabin Poem” Photo by Cody Castle-Stack

“Honest Attempt” implies the many places we have temporarily found “home” (aka identities) without quite reaching a real resting place. “Cabin Poem,” with its image of an upside-down house and the words “I don’t know what has me feeling down today,” is all irresolution and the sense of our immediate comfort in that identity being turned on its head.

There are not-quite-realized works here too, such as “Redheaded Brother,” which feels inchoate and in need of more substance, or “Boys in the Yard,” which points to adolescent homoerotic experimentation without fully hitting upon the impact of that on sexual development. The latter feels rendered with almost too much naïvete.

But other works, such as “I Would Have Sat There Forever,” subsume the viewer in both virtuosic painting and the myriad subtleties of first love. It is ostensibly a black canvas in which two simply painted chairs float. Because of the skillful, tactile layering of the blackness (which implies depth of emotion and possibility), it captures the hypnotic magic of two people so consumed by each other that the world has simply fallen away.


There is a sweetness and vulnerability to Castle-Stack’s works that pave a perfect segue to Shapiro’s pieces. The first time I reviewed Shapiro’s work was at an exhibit he mounted in New Systems, which Castle-Stack used to help run. What struck me then still holds true. I find his sculptures of undergarments hanging on a clothesline quite tender. There is something about erotic attire and practices that I find sweetly striving. They are, after all, attempts to heighten sensation, to go to some place in us that feels deeply, a place that is naked and unguarded.

These works, however, have evolved considerably, becoming more complex and layered in ways that amplify their kink. They read much more like fetishistic objects, almost ritually so. “Picinic Pair” is a pair of men’s briefs with flowers growing around a central opening where the genitals would be. Ants, presumably attracted to the sweetness therein, crawl toward the cavity. However, access is barred by what looks like a golden cage. It is both provocative and teasing.

Kenny Shapiro, “Castle Shirt,” center. Photo by Jenny Ibsen

“Castle Shirt” is a T-shirt, also featuring a central cavity with a webbed entry. Here, however, the area all around it is also covered in bricks that appear as a metaphorical fortifications protecting the wearer’s heart. Arrows have been shot at this garment yet were not able to penetrate it. Instead, their points are imbedded in grout without having passed through.

Shapiro admits in his statement that he draws his visual language from his childhood home, imagining it as a big childhood playroom filled with toys and colors. The arrows are references to classic boys’ games, as is “Scarecrow Cowboy,” which is made of plastic sheeting stuffed with twine. He’s riding a hobby horse, but in the throes of death, since he has been impaled multiple times with arrows. He slumps, wearing his shirt, but naked below the waste, his sex dangling and dripping.

That last detail might make us think of some weird sadomasochistic turn-on, but in a way, the cowboy is a bit pitiable. All the ideas of masculinity tied up in the cowboy culture have come to naught. Like a paper tiger, his bravado is exterior; there is no real substance to it. Horses, in fact – or more accurately, horse gear – are also associated with S&M accessories. Harnesses, muzzles, reins all imply the kink of bondage and, usually, pain.

“Papa’s Prized Rug” also pokes fun at the macho symbol of “the great white hunter.” Shapiro has sewn a bear “rug” from pieces of white marine vinyl, then stacked columns of different heights made of colored wooden blocks in bright primary colors. A token of masculinity becomes a mini romper room for a child at play, the blocks pinning the beast down. The animal’s natural fierceness has been neutered. Everywhere Shapiro fondly skewers notions of what it means to be a man, while also toying with concepts of desire – all of it viewed through an innocent mischief of a child.

The two artists have adjacent spaces in Bisbee’s studio, and the cross-pollination of their interaction is clear. It is Shapiro, for instance, who is using actual mulch, though Castle-Stack implies it through the fertility of the repeated grass tufts that appear in his paintings, or in the gardens surrounding the houses of his imagination. We see Castle-Stack’s fondness for clouds in “A Memorial for My Clouds” and “Three Wishes Above the Rain,” but they also show up in Shapiro’s “Chain Rain.”

Because of their deeply personal, often emotional takes on their themes, neither artists’ work is in danger of being commodified. We’re not likely, thankfully, to see an underwear mug or a stick house on a sleek Kryptonics skateboard any time soon.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: 

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: