Fully Melted: An Interview with Chris Cascio

 

“As a kid growing up in Houston I collected rocks,” says Christopher Cascio. “I also had a stamp collection and a coin collection and baseball cards, but really what I was into were the Mad magazines and Garbage Pail Kids. That was the stuff that led me to being an artist.” What began with obsessive-compulsive word drawings a decade ago grew into a collaged painting practice — one might call it an image hoarder’s bricolage — that incorporated everything from advertisements of amplifiers and actual clearance stickers to Budweiser labels and nightclub wristbands. They owe as much to the Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers as they do to Mike Kelley and Fred Tomaselli. “I’m a huge fan of Fred Tomaselli,” says Cascio. “He literally puts drugs into his paintings.” More recently, the artist’s meditations on branding have led to two new series of camouflaged map paintings that put Warhol, Madison Avenue, Big Pharma and the shelf of the local marijuana dispensary into a blender. The result is a comical color field adventure; higher learning at its finest.

 

What was the impetus behind this body of work?

I did a show in 2014 at Peter Makebish’s gallery in New York where I showed these big colorful maps that had pharmaceutical drug brand names, generic names and pill imprint codes. The maps ended up looking like the drugs they were cataloging. The benzos were shades of light blue and the promethazine/codeine cough syrup had shapes of drippy purples that kind of resembled camouflage. They were a critical view of the pharmaceutical industry and how branding happens at that level. It dealt with a lot of socio-political issues. There was a Soma one, a Vicodin one, but I also did one with weed.
 
Why was that?

I was starting to think about marijuana and how the names of certain strains become that strain’s identity. They’re often given names that pertain to marijuana use, and because marijuana becoming legalized I was also using labels from actual dispensaries. This was 2014, so it’s come a long way in two years. My parents have a place in Winter Park, Colorado and during that time there was a dispensary many miles down the road from Winter Park. Now there are three dispensaries in Winter Park. I don’t do any pharmaceuticals anymore but I still partake in cannabis so it’s something that hits close to home. In my mind, I could always do a series just about that.
 
And that series is what you’re showing at Maitland Foley.

Yeah, the Drug Map (Cannabis) work from that show in New York is the inspiration. It was a six-by-eight-foot painting and it was a pretty popular piece, it was published in Sneeze, an international poster sized magazine, and it struck a chord with people in the way that the pharmaceutical pieces didn’t. It’s more celebratory.
 
Meaning that having brands is a win, of sorts, for the average pot smoker while pharmaceutical brands are an example of Big Pharma winning?

Right. And I’ve used all kinds of weed from street drugs to medical marijuana, I’m an equal opportunity-employer in that sense. But I don’t see marijuana in the same way that I see those [pharmaceutical] drugs. So when I was making that first weed painting I was putting in strains that were my favorite strains, making sure that it has more of a connection to my present than to a darker past.
 

What do you mean by that?

I don’t want to lay it on too thick, but all my work has to do with obsession and compulsion and rituals and also branding and how people get branded to certain things. I’ve done a lot of work about Budweiser and how I’ve been branded to Budweiser from birth in a way.
 
That was the Spring Break series.

Yeah. There were all these toys Budweiser put out — Spuds Mackenzie was huge — to get their logo ingrained in kids’ minds.
 
Are there any other weird branding ventures you’ve come across in your work?

For my thesis show in Houston I made a tent that was sewn with DEA patches I’d collected. There are DEA campaigns like military campaigns and they make these patches that are pretty irreverent and co-opt stuff like Bart Simpson or the Joker. There’s one for the Dangerous Drugs Intelligence Unit that has a skeleton in a tuxedo with top hat and sunglasses on, holding a syringe and a bottle of pills.  So I bought all these patches off these retired cops who collect these things and sewed them on this tent alongside these cutouts of DEA agents posing with their spoils of war. I was looking at a lot of images of drugs at the time and I realized there was a lot of Sheriff’s Departments posting them with cops smiling, cops with dogs. They were pretty striking.
 
So is this current show commenting on how marijuana is now being co-opted in ways that weren’t apparent two years ago?

I think so. I don’t know if we’re at the tipping point now. I live in Texas so I wasn’t trying to make all these pieces until this show was confirmed because in town there’s interest in marijuana but not interest in buying art about it. Houston is still a pretty conservative town and marijuana is very illegal. I can still go to jail for a roach here. I wonder how many years it will be until marijuana is legal in Texas? I used to think it would never happen, but I also used to think there would never be a black president. Definitely the tide is changing. I’m 40, so I grew up in the “Just Say No” era, and my parents grew up with that mentality, but they have a place Colorado and recently I made them stop at the dispensary.
 
When did you start processing all these obsessions and compulsions into artworks?

I’ve always been kind of a collector and collecting spills into hoarding in a way and I’ve never been a problem hoarder, but I definitely attach a lot of meaning to a lot of stuff. I collected from an early age. And saving everything I ever made started really early, but my mom sort of facilitated that, too, and probably encouraged it.
 
So was the obsessive-compulsive style of your early word drawings and drawings of amps and characters the first manifestation of these behaviors?

Yeah, absolutely. I have obsessive and compulsive tendencies and it didn’t serve me well when I was doing drugs, but I started channeling it into art in 2007 after I had this psychic shift and really cleaned my act up.
 
What was going on before 2007?

I did a lot of heroin for a number of years. I went to school in San Francisco from 1995 to 1999, I lived in LA from 1999 to 2003 and I picked up some bad habits and a bad girlfriend and both of those came back with me to Houston and it took a while for me to rid myself of these things, but I had a pretty shallow bottom. I was making art the whole time but not taking my career seriously so I hit 30 and before I spun out of control I got sober and started making these text works because it was a weird sober place to make work from. A lot of them were stream of consciousness lists of horrible thoughts, funny things, scatalogical stuff. I was really inspired by a trip to Marfa where I saw the text works of Carl Andre. That was my re-entry to making art.
 
Where did you go from there?

I had this fetish for amps, which is a pretty common thing. It was a collection that was pretty universal. People around me collect amps, so rather than drawing I started collecting massive amounts of images and trying to disseminate them in these collages and drawings. That’s the work that got me into graduate school at the University of Houston.
 
How did Houston inform your work?

I was an artist in San Francisco, but I was going to school, so I was more in the underground and hanging with misfits and taggers. Then I lived in LA for four years and showed at New Image Art quite a bit as part of a collaborative team called Uncomfortable Jams but it was one of those things where people loved us but we didn’t sell a ton of work. We’re quintessential introvert Texas artists. Putting us in LA destroyed us both. We left four years later totally chewed up and spit out. We were also working in reality television transcribing and logging tapes. Basically one level under an assistant editor for these horrible shows. I saw a ton of stuff while I was there, but I wasn’t cut out to be an artist there.
 
How does living in Houston influence your work?

Los Angeles is a very image-conscious city, and Houston allows an artist to flourish in obscurity. It’s no frills, so it’s all about grinding out your work, not putting on a show. Plus, it’s way cheaper to find studio space.
 
Are you in conversation with a lot of local artists?

Mark Flood and I go back pretty far. He’s been a supporter who has been collecting my work for a good five years now. I guess I’m in the lower level entourage. He’s very generous with his time and resources. I’m lucky to be around some great painters like Trenton Hancock, Jeremy DePrez, Paul Kremer and Lane Hagood.
 
What do you take from them?

If you make art like they do or I do you can’t delude yourself into thinking you’re going to make a living in Houston. I like showing in Houston, but I definitely feel that with this show I’m making it for LA. I think the work holds up anywhere but it’s more of the moment in LA than it is in Houston.
 
Is this the first time you’ve done that, to push work toward a concept or region where you’re showing?

I mean with the New York show I went really big.
 
Well, in another sense, if LA is a weed town, New York is definitely a pharmaceutical town.

Right. I wasn’t trying to make giant drug paintings and show them in Houston. But the weed maps were already on my mind even before this show came along, so I just had to implement them. I’ve also been working a lot with aerosols in the studio so my chops are up to speed and I’m happy.
 
You’ve referenced everything from Sigmar Polke to folk art as inspirations for your work, and artists like Rob Pruitt have been experimenting with cocaine in his work for years. Meanwhile, Damien Hirst has certainly benefitted from immortalizing pharmaceuticals. It would seem like we’re almost at the saturation point where all drugs are branded (and made into branded art) at the highest levels.

There’s even these cross-brandings now, which Green Street is part of, so somehow this all makes perfect sense. The work is literally about that. Now it’s like who is going to be Coca-Cola and Pepsi of the weed market.
 
Or the Bentley.

Perhaps. There’s a piece in the show about high end glassware. The drugs can only be so expensive so the rig you smoke it on is the new status symbol. I think about all of that because the implements are being marketed right alongside the weed. I’m interested in the implements because as far as a ritualistic practice: when you have this thing and you use it every day and keep it clean and it’s part of the whole smoking process. So when they coincide that gets me really excited. This work has been really fertile for me.
 
Full Melt is on view at Maitland Foley through June 4th, 2016.

For more information on the work, contact info@maitlandfoley.com

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