Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Calvin Ma's Homebodies, Outside Looking In

When I first saw the card for the Sherrie Gallerie's September show of Calvin Ma, I couldn't wait to see it. When I saw it, I wondered if I hadn't been a little hasty in my enthusiasm. Ma's  Animal Instincts, a show filled with strangely articulated human figures displayed in relation to non-domesticated animals, is very odd.

Both of my reactions, though—one to their silly gaiety; the other to their awkward mystery—seem to be equally important in appreciating this quirky, almost obsessively detailed work. Although "quirky" is inching toward its place as a term of critical approbation, I remain shy of it as an enduing aesthetic concept, or as one that will hold its appeal across the generations.
Calvin Ma, Look Ahead. Ceramic, glaze, stain. 12x5x7".
Courtesy, Sherrie Gallerie

Calvin Ma, detail, Look Ahead
The term "construction" seems better than "sculpture" to fit Ma's works, for they have the exaggerated joints and fittings that marionettes and stuffed toys have. They are figurative but more decorative and abstract than realistic. While the artist has invested infinite care in the manufacture of fine details, that care hasn't been spent creating illusions of visible reality. They may be, however, profoundly realistic, clear delineations of what the inner eye sees. 

Ma exploits the metaphor of eyes as windows. The eyes of many figures rest behind frames and sills, but we're still left to wonder why since the expression is so flat: There seems nothing to protect with an extra layer. If we try to invade the figure's privacy, there appears to be nothing of interest. Those shaded eyes seem to yield neither information nor expression. 

Calvin Ma, figure from Animal Instincts
But it's the inner eye that Ma is about, we can keep looking. On the sides of several figures' heads are more windows and in those we find hidden figures peering out at us obliquely. Their own secret heads are fully formed, and they glance out from positions of hiding.

These unexpected faces peering as it were from secret attics, hidden away where one is certainly not expecting to find them, remind us of the Anne Frank's, the fleeing American slaves, or the millions of others who, over the centuries have been stowed in airless garrets to avoid detection or being overtaken by persecutors.

The heads of Ma's people are in themselves houses: Ma calls them, accurately and poetically, "homebodies."
It's not a stretch to see the people at the side windows as the people trapped inside the artist's head—as those trapped in Everyman's head. Ma personally speaks to the issue of social anxiety and he relates the motivation for this body of work to his reality as a shy person who prefers his inner life to the company of others. He has found a phenomenally accurate and potent way to express a state of feeling. 
Calvin Ma, Stretched Thin. Ceramic, glaze, stain,14x6x9"
Courtesy of the Sherrie Gallerie

Ma's homebodies don't experience the world only through perception, through vision and thought. Several of the figures in the show have, like Stretched Thin, portals where we locate the heart and the guts, other places we all know our anxieties to manifest themselves as turmoil and pain.

The figures in this show are all paired with animals. Their connections are not easy. The people balance tenuously either because they are as awkward as such mechanically jointed people would be, or because there isn't much sympathy between the species. It could be, too, that animals are introverts. They want to be left alone.

Calvin Ma, Falling Behind, detail, fox's
belly below, human figure above.
The detail from "Falling Behind," a piece that shows a fox and a person both falling upside down, reveals a door on the fox's belly. Most of the animals have such openings, but they are posed in ways that obscure them. (Ma is meticulous enough to incorporate such details, even when they are unlikely to be seen.) These suggest, though, that the connection between the humans and the animals may not be in their relationships, but in the idea that all are feral in a primary way. Why does any creature  come out at all? Do society's rewards really live up to the promises made for them? Is our own company so poor or insulting?

Visually, I found this show to be a little tedious. More specifically, I found the extreme attention to detail, repeated so often and sincerely on material of the same size, colors, patterns, and concepts, came close to boring me.

But I think that what I found tedious has turned out to be one of the greatest appeals of Ma's work. With yet a week to go when I saw it, the show was within two works of having completely sold out despite the four-digit price tags. 

The similarities that I though bordered on the bland are probably part of the great appeal Ma's work has had for audiences and purchasers. The repetition of features, shapes, and colors may very well be explained simply by self-portraiture on Ma's part. Then it is simply a way to represent one thing that appears many times. 

Perhaps it's more likely, though, that the lack of dramatic distinction is part of the point. "We all live in our heads. We're top-heavy with anxious thought and views of the world slanted by the oblique views we take from hidden places. We are probably like most others, but fear makes us both big in imagination and small in fact; our senses of proportion are odd."
Calvin Ma, Falling Behind

Which brings me back to close with the "quirky" aspect of Ma's figures. Their look is definitely idiosyncratic. They have a sort of futuristic look from a retro position, which concerns me about possible satisfaction with a camp or short-lived aesthetic. Mitigating against this possible over reliance on "look," though, is Ma's commitment to craftsmanship and materials. 

Ma's workmanship is warmly disciplined: He spares no detail, no matter how many times he must repeat the same stroke on one piece, let alone over a large series. No one labors like this in the interest of a look or style or attitude. One does this for compulsion at the least and conviction at the best; to solve a problem or to unlock a secret; to exorcise pain or to make space for the admission of some discovery. 

Ma is going to travel his road at his own pace, it's clear. I for one can put up with any outcomes in the interest of honest process, full of time to admit what surprises slip in along the way.

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