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|
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|
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
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.
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.