Rochester-based illustrator John Kastner's work is rooted in a deep concern with the environment. He's become known for the social criticism he injects into his chaotic cartoon realms in gouache on matte board.
His newest work, "Filthy Animal's Plasticrap," incorporates plastic trash he's picked up on walks to and from work. And leading up to the People's Climate March and Earth Day, he's looking for a permanent home for the piece.
Many of Kastner's chaotic illustrations are reminiscent of the hellish right panel of Hieronymus Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights" — a scene of the world after it's gone to shit.
"Filthy Animal's Plasticrap" depicts a nightmarish shopping center with blaring advertisements and depraved consumer zombies eager to run one another over. It's at once action-packed and bereft of life. It's rife with Kastner's acerbic wit, in clever signage and word-bubbles emitting from the characters.
Shoved off to one side, an animal "refuge" is ever-threatened by violently encroaching development. Ringing the work is a garland of plastic bags and Christmas lights, with demonic plastic angels dropping in from above and a sea of toy fish trapped in plastic nets below. Along the bottom, a line of plastic straws springs oily leaks, and is labeled "The Absolutely Guaranteed We Promise Never Leak (oops sorry) Pipeline."
You could spend all day unpacking everything that's going on, with sick, sad laughter erupting from your bewilderment-cracked face. As talented as Kastner is, the work is deliberately hideous; it's garish and off-putting. And the scene is only the slightest exaggeration of reality.
In contrast with the unabashed condemnation in his work, Kastner's demeanor is one of calm reasoning. Now that he has your attention, he wants a discussion: he says the work is about the environmental and psychological effects of our consumerist society. The genesis of the piece happened nearly two years ago, when he began picking up interesting bits of plastic off the street. As a member of the executive committee of the Rochester Regional Sierra Club chapter and one of the founders of the committee to save Seneca Park, Kastner has participated in many spring clean-ups, and is keenly aware of the environmental impact of plastic.
The substance doesn't biodegrade. "It's ground into the soil, blown into trees, and flushed into streams, rivers, and ultimately, the oceans," Kastner says. "There it fragments into tiny pieces and is eaten by marine life that mistake it for food."
There are five continent-sized mats of floating trash in oceans around the world. But even there, Kastner says, it doesn't end: the plastic kills the animals that eat it, and returns to the sea. The dead fish and whales cease to produce the waste that feed the phytoplankton, which are the base of the oceanic food chain and the producers of half of the oxygen we breathe. Additionally, carbon pollution from creating plastic contributes to the acidification and warming of the oceans, creating an even more hostile environment for these tiny creatures. To date, 40 percent of the phytoplankton in the oceans has been lost.
While we're increasingly aware of the burden that plastic places on the planet, "nobody ever asked the question that occurred to me, which is 'What causes all of this trash?'" Kastner says. "It's not so much the careless hand that drops the plastic on the ground as it is the massive machine that relentlessly produces, distributes, and markets this crap to waves of carefully groomed and seduced consumers."
Throughout the work Kastner has illustrated cows, which he says represent another kind of mindless, detrimental consumption: our insatiable lust for meat and dairy products.
Kastner's work is a criticism of the emptiness of the society that we live in, he says. "We are so geared toward pointless consumption, which results in such suffering on many levels."
We have ourselves fairly convinced by now that we're separate from nature, but our actions have mega impacts on the global ecosystem, and the effects are coming back at us.
Our habits "have created a world vastly different than one in which we evolved, yet we remain the same animal with the same needs that often go unfulfilled by this new world we inhabit," he says. He describes our polluted world as noisy and crowded, yet we also experience heightened alienation from nature and one another.
Kastner says that there is interconnectivity between environmental issues and various social problems. "The issues that are going to affect everybody across the board are access to clean food and water," he says. "Water especially. It cuts across all social and economic barriers; it's the bottom line. Who among us wants to tell future generations that it was too hard and that they were not worth the effort?"
He has found a temporary home for the piece in a private residence, but he's looking for a permanent place for it to land. He's offering it for free, with the stipulation that the public will have access to viewing the work.