The Test of Time
A conversation with New York City-based artist Carmine Santaniello about surviving the AIDS crisis, and creating art that helps today’s youth to Play Smart and be in the know about AIDS and practicing safer sex
by Alina Oswald
There’s often a process of self-discovery associated with looking at a work of art. The experience can be a fascinating one, especially when we find ourselves surrounded by Carmine Santaniello’s artwork. Stunningly beautiful, dark, edgy, and fearless, it reaches us on a personal, human level, daring us to take that second look within, to rediscover a darker, edgier, more fearless side of our own selves.
Carmine Santaniello has created art his entire life. And ever since he can remember, art has been his life. “I started drawing before I could write my name,” he says when I reach him by phone. “I was always artistic,” he adds, “fortunate enough to really make a living as an artist.”
Born and raised in New York City, he has pursued an art education, and then career, starting from an early age, attending the High School of Art and Design, and later on the School of Visual Arts and Parsons School of Design. Santaniello’s art appeals to a lot of demographics, traversing genders, ages, ethnicities, and sexual orientations, because the subjects it portrays have human qualities everybody can relate to—they are strong, but also vulnerable; beautiful, and proud; or, as the artist comments on his portraits, they are an edgier representation of people he knows.
His portraits invoke innermost human feelings and emotions in an artistic, subtle, yet powerful way. They’ve evolved with time, while preserving their urban and contemporary elements. After all, the artist likes to challenge himself, to keep his work fresh and contemporary.
Some have names like The Aboriginal Man or The Snake Man. The model posing in Saint Sebastian, for example, may bring out different feelings in different individuals. Its intensity may intrigue viewers. But when I inquire further, I find out that the model is…a face created by the artist. “That’s not a model. I put him together,” Santaniello explains.
I find out that Saint Sebastian is part of the artist’s most recent series of portraits, called “Creative Faces.” One of the things the artist likes about this series is that he doesn’t have to worry about finding models. “I’m creating them myself,” he says, “which is intriguing for me, as an artist. And people say, ‘Oh, I like that model you use.’ But then again, he doesn’t exist.”
The face of Saint Sebastian is made up of about five different pieces of other people’s faces. The eyes, nose, the chin and mouth…the artist pieced them all together creating a new person, a new persona. “I’m almost like a Frankenstein,” he says, and I can sense the smile in his voice. “And the way I do it, I enhance it so [that] maybe it’s a little smoother.” He used the same technique to create his most recent black-and-white collages, and also what he refers to as 8 1/2, 12, and 86.
When I inquire about the meaning of the numbers, the artist explains that he used to title his works with the word “Untitled” followed by a letter and a number, so that he could keep track of them easier. “I was also a graphic designer,” he adds, commenting on the presence of numbers and letters in his work. “I like to play with typography, and I would incorporate that into [my work] as a tattoo or as another mark. It’s [the artwork’s] title, but [the subject is] wearing it.”
Although he confesses he doesn’t have any tattoos on himself, as an artist, Santaniello finds tattoos very appealing, a mark of the times in which we live. “I think that they really lend themselves as a creative step for me,” he adds.
There are also other, perhaps more timeless, symbols that populate his work. Like those in Untitled c43, a mixed-media piece showing a young man with thorns on his arms. He seems vulnerable, but also fearless, as if part of a kinetic environment the artist creates using mixed media techniques, which include drawing, printing, and collages.
The symbols, like the thorns, have religious connotations, in part because of the artist’s upbringing. “I have a Catholic background,” Santaniello explains. “I went to parochial grammar school in the sixties, with the nuns. It was a crazy time. Going to parochial school, to church, seeing these iconic images like Christ on the cross, [one] cannot not be affected by all of this,” he says. “My grandmother was always talking to me about art and Italy,” he continues. “At seven or eight I was introduced to Michelangelo. And being a gay young boy at the time, these images were so strong and so powerful, [they followed me].”
But these symbols, these “marks” that come through in many of Santaniello’s pieces don’t necessarily translate into symbols of the mark that AIDS has put on people throughout the decades. “Regardless of what the disease is,” he explains, “I think life in general puts marks on you. Being alive, either surviving an epidemic or going to the store, marks you. I think maybe that’s what you’re seeing in my work. Maybe it’s a generalization, not necessarily any virus.”
What marks Santaniello’s art is a profoundly human element that runs throughout his work, like a common thread, or theme. In a time of crisis, like the AIDS crisis during the eighties, this human element stood out in his work, helped it transcend the decades, and stand the test of time, of AIDS and any other kind of crisis.
The artist has survived the AIDS crisis, but that doesn’t mean that the pandemic has not influenced his work. “You can’t help but be influenced,” he comments. “I mean, I’ve lived through [the AIDS crisis], I’ve lost a lot of friends [to it]. So, as an artist, you’re always feeling these things. It always has an influence [on your artwork] not a strong one [anymore] but it enhances what you do.”
To this day, AIDS continues to mark Santaniello’s work in some way. Nowadays he uses his art to create and spread AIDS awareness. Each year, he participates in the annual Postcards from the Edge show, hosted by New York City’s Visual AIDS, because he believes it’s a great cause. He’s also involved with Visual AIDS in other campaigns, such as the most recent annual Play Smart campaign. “They approached me for doing something that talks very strongly about safe sex,” Santaniello further explains. “And if my work could reach out to people, and help them perform that task better, I jumped on the opportunity.”
Every year since 2010, Visual AIDS organizes the Play Smart campaign in an effort to promote and distribute safer sex messages, and information about HIV testing and AIDS education to individuals living in the U.S. and Canada. Each year, Visual AIDS asks an artist to create images for playing cards that are to be distributed to the intended audience—men who have sex with men, and also anybody, especially young individuals, who needs to get information and become educated about HIV/AIDS. Each package includes two cards and a condom, placed in a little plastic bag. On the front of each card there’s an image created by the chosen artist, and on the back, an educational message about safer sex, or information about where to find help, HIV testing sites, and the like.
The artwork Santaniello created for the Play Smart IV campaign is a mixed media piece showing two men wearing tattoos, caressing each other. It’s contemporary. It is edgy. Striking. And it speaks to the audience, delivering the intended message. “The two men are caressing each other,” the artist says, “[the message would be] that you may want to take it slow in the beginning, to play it safe.”
As an artist, Santaniello believes that art can be used as a powerful and effective tool through which to reach out to the masses, to inform and educate people about HIV and AIDS. Play Smart proves just that. He believes wholeheartedly in the campaign. “I think it’s fabulous,” he comments. “[Its] images reach out to younger people to tell them to take precautions in their lives.”
Talking about AIDS and the younger generation, Santaniello mentions that he found it exciting to be involved in the most recent Play Smart campaign, “because [after the AIDS crisis] people think ‘there’s a pill I can get and I can do everything’ and it’s not like that,” he says. “AIDS is something you can avoid with the right tools and the right education,” he continues, reflecting on the epidemic of today. “AIDS is something you can avoid by being aware and by being smart. AIDS is something that can be prevented, and people should take any means to prevent it.
“When you are young you’re so fearless, aren’t you?” he asks, continuing to weigh in on the subject of today’s youth and HIV. “Like it-can’t-happen-to-me sort of attitude. But it can happen to you,” he says, slightly accentuating the word “can.” “So I think people should really, really look back at what this disease has done, and what it continues to do to a lot of people. […] People should educate themselves.” And then, addressing youth directly, he adds, “Maintain your health, especially when you are young, so that you can live, and get on with your life.”
Alina Oswald is a writer, photographer, and the author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS. Contact her at www.alinaoswald.com.