Growing up in 1990s Turin, Guglielmo Castelli was often left alone with books and drawing materials while his parents were at work. Sometimes he would draw images that were sparked by the story he was reading; other times he drew directly onto the pages of the book, often disrupting or changing the narrative. “My mother always told me that to be free you have to read other people’s stories; that you need to understand the garden outside your own walls,” he says. 

But he was warned of the dangers of escape. “This was in my bedroom as a child,” he says, pointing to a series of scenes painted on glass, meant for a stereoscope, that illustrate a young boy trying to get an apple from a neighbour’s garden. He sticks his hand through a hole in the wall to grab one and is attacked by a dog. The final images show the boy crying, his arm bandaged. Castelli’s paintings are heavy with nostalgia; yet shadows swirl.

Louise was right!, 2023
Louise was right!, 2023 © Courtesy of the artist. Courtesy of Mendes Wood DM, Rodeo

The past few years have seen Castelli’s work shown as part of buzzy group exhibitions and in solo shows from Berlin to Manhattan – he is now represented by the gallery Rodeo as well as Mendes Wood DM (São Paulo, New York, Brussels, Paris). “There aren’t many painters working today that compel me,” says Rodeo’s founder, Sylvia Kouvali, “but when I saw his work for the first time I thought this could not be made by a living artist, and someone that young. His paintings, the technique and the layers and time he takes invoked for me the Old Masters.” 

Castelli in front of Sempre aperto teatro, 2023
Castelli in front of Sempre aperto teatro, 2023 © Paolo Prendin. Courtesy of the artist. Courtesy of Mendes Wood DM, Rodeo

Museum and institutional group exhibitions include those at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Castello di Rivoli and Aspen Art Museum. Last summer, a Christie’s sale saw prices hammer down at around four times their estimates. This spring, the 36-year-old’s first major institutional show, Improving Songs for Anxious Children, opens at the Palazzetto Tito, dovetailing with the start of the 60th Venice Biennale. A dozen paintings, three sculptures and a large textile maquette are some of the pieces currently planned for the space, home to the Bevilacqua La Masa Foundation, founded in 1898 as a launch pad for young artists – which have included impressionist Gino Rossi and futurist Umberto Boccioni.

Pigments in the artist’s studio
Pigments in the artist’s studio © Paolo Prendin
Inside the whale or maybe an apple, 2024
Inside the whale or maybe an apple, 2024 © Paolo Prendin. Courtesy the artist, Mendes Wood DM, Rodeo

The show’s curator, Milovan Farronato, met Castelli through Kouvali. “I thought his work would be perfect in the Palazzetto,” says Farronato. “The building is a charismatic one, facing the canal near the Accademia. The reflections of water and light moving on the walls resemble the movement in Gugilelmo’s paintings – where all the shadows seem to be running away.” Farronato and Castelli also collaborated on a small booklet that focuses both on work shown in the exhibition and on the artist’s studio in Turin. 

Castelli still lives in Turin’s elegant, historic centre, with its grand avenues and squares lined with towering stone arcades. But his studio workshop is hidden at the back of a small courtyard in a gritty industrial suburb; the façade is marked by a tiny bronze plaque that reads “Sweet Baby Motel”. Stepping inside feels surreal, like walking onto a theatre set. It is split into two rooms: one is lined with paintings and holds a big table covered in tubes and jars of oil and acrylics; the other is like a living room, arranged with treasured objects, images and books. 

Sempre aperto teatro, 2023
Sempre aperto teatro, 2023 © Paolo Prendin. Courtesy the artist, Mendes Wood DM, Rodeo

On a wet, chilly day in February, Castelli is working on one of the last pieces for the upcoming show: a series of textile panels, painted and embroidered with images inspired by the boy and the apple story, which he is exploring hanging on a device that resembles a laundry drying rack. Having studied theatre and set design before he turned to painting, Castelli is now experimenting with work that crosses both disciplines. A mix of Baroque music and Bellini is playing in the background as he makes an espresso in the small kitchen. He could inhabit another era dressed in tailored trousers, a Japanese collared wool sweater and black Guidi dress boots.

No title, 2020
No title, 2020 © Paolo Prendin. Courtesy the artist
The Nightingale, 2023
The Nightingale, 2023 © Paolo Prendin. Courtesy the artist, Mendes Wood DM, Rodeo

Each canvas feels as if it contains a dark spirit; upon close examination, the thick layers of paint often reveal disturbing symbols. There is something both dreamy, reminiscent of Marc Chagall, and menacing, more like Francis Bacon. For Castelli, inspiration often starts not with art, but with a book. Last year’s show at New York’s Mendes Wood DM was titled Demonios Familiares, named for the Spanish writer Ana María Matute, whose work explores the liminal space bridging childhood and adulthood. While in New York Castelli paid a visit to the New York Public Library and came upon the book Improving Songs for Anxious Children – which cautions against immoral behaviour. “As soon as I picked it up, I felt my body going very hot,” he says.

The artist with a work in progress
The artist with a work in progress © Paolo Prendin

Although Castelli painstakingly plots out each work with sketches and moodboards, he begins with a sort of chaos, by covering a canvas with what he calls “mud”: an unpredictable foundation of acrylic, turpentine, oil paint and water that creates a swirl of abstractions. When he starts painting his swirling figures and landscapes, those underlying shapes can dictate or distort the figure. At the end, he might, with a flourish, add a few details, like a cherry or a small flame. Such “little fires force me to change direction”, he says.

Settle the bill with the rest of the world, 2021
Settle the bill with the rest of the world, 2021 © Paolo Prendin. Courtesy the artist, Mendes Wood DM, Rodeo
Oil paints in Castelli’s studio
Oil paints in Castelli’s studio © Paolo Prendin

“There is something undeniably sharp about Guglielmo’s ability to paint often indescribable feelings such as fear, danger or chaos, but also beauty and passion, with so much poetry,” says Taciana Birman, a director of Mendes Wood DM’s Brussels gallery. “I see it as an element of his own worldmaking, and of creating perspectives that refute any singular definition.”

Castelli leads me to the large table covered with pastels, candles, a vase filled with a bouquet of winter berries and dying flowers, and dozens and dozens of small sketchbooks, each labelled with the year it was used. “I make my drawings in here,” he says. Behind the table is a chair piled with books, from one on Balthus and another on the Belgian symbolist painter Léon Spilliaert to a large tome on Persian paintings. A vintage glass pharmacy vitrine holds a mix of dolls, puppets, masks, white coral mounted on Lucite, and small wooden figures of nuns and priests, which feed into his works. He points at a rabbit with a child’s face. “That was my mother’s.” He then pulls out what looks like a strange sinister-looking toy made of short rubber hoses, shakes it, and it makes the sound of ducks. “It’s a tool that hunters use to scare the ducks so that they are easier to shoot.” 

Castelli in front of Louise was right!, 2023
Castelli in front of Louise was right!, 2023 © Paolo Prendin. Courtesy the Artist, Mendes wood DM, Rodeo
Various toys from the artist’s childhood
Various toys from the artist’s childhood © Paolo Prendin

For Castelli, beauty alone is banal – it’s only interesting when there is a threat that it might be overwhelmed by darkness, fire or violence. He recalls reading Little Red Riding Hood as a child and finding the end, when the grandmother is saved and the wolf killed, boring. “I changed it and made Little Red Riding Hood fall in love with the wolf and then travel the world together,” he laughs. Then adds: “It’s through facing and embracing fear that you can manage. I don’t believe in Once Upon a Time.” 

Guglielmo Castelli: Improving Songs for Anxious Children runs from 15 April to 17 July at Istituzione Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, Venice

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