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.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Plenty of Time: Marc Ross at Work

Marc Ross, No Explanation Needed installed at Cultural Arts Center, August 2015
The Columbus Cultural Arts Center felt like the interior of a jewel box when I visited the show of Marc Ross's painting, which closed on the 29th of August. The space was perfect for the show of large-scale, luminous paintings dominated by single colors. Each had breathing room and glowing room, for Ross's painting so both, like living organisms.

What's the difference between a something alive and something that's not? That's a Sesame Street concept, isn't it, a fundamental distinction that we learn in our very early years? Paintings fall into the inanimate category, despite the metaphors any art writers or gallery-goers can fabricate. But Marc Ross's work does indeed invite a serious reconsideration of the space between animate and inanimate in art. 

Marc Ross, Memento #1, 62 x 84." Acrylic, pastel, colored pencil.
In the gallery talk that closed this show, No Explanation Needed, the artist confessed to me that he hates to give talks because he has so little to say. He was relieved of the necessity to hold forth by questions from his audience, which revealed a great deal. 

Marc Ross, Memento #1, Detail.
The most important thing Ross told us is that each of these works takes a very long time to complete, and that completion is marked simply and practically: It's done when he sees that he has nothing more to add. 

On our close inspection, it becomes clear how much he has accumulated to create deceptively simple works. In this detail of Memento #1, one sees the endless variety of vertical, superficial striations. We note that the line gouged across and into the painting reveals that the surface color sits atop a deep history—an archaeology—of decisions, of which we know only that Ross changed the colors many times. Only he knows what else has happened and what has been expunged on this surface over its long process of becoming what it is where he's decided it ends.

For Ross, the importance and the pleasure of painting are the process. He has a large studio in the home he shares with his wife. But even she is strictly banned when he is working, because his concentration is so intense. 
Marc Ross, Make Me That Happy, 68 x 60."

Yet when he tries to explain what he does in the studio, one would not be mistaken in describing the process as play. While his time is strictly guarded, he is not exactly focused—he doesn't know what will happen, and he has no strategy. The process is to see what can happen; to allow himself the time and the space and the mental blankness to be relaxed and receptive. 

Is this not the state of a child, who can make something out of nothing at any moment, generating great ideas as easily as a swallow flies, whose imagination is as vital an organ as his lungs? 

What this artist does is invisible to us because all those months he spends in the studio are in efforts that are painted over. His work is effaced constantly, and allowed to stand only once. If we consider the saw that our bodies continually replace themselves as cells die and slough away, Ross's paintings are self-renewing bodies, yet without any loss of material. They accrete their histories, growing heavier and thicker with each application of material. 

Marc Ross, Make Me That Happy, Detail
showing surface drawing
As we usually imagine artistic purpose, during his sequestration the artist will be concentrated on his subject or passion. This might be advancement of a dream, the resolution of a personal angst, or support for a social or political cause in the world. We are a little deflated to hear Ross tell us that he's not thinking about anything in particular while he works.

My point is that there is never any way to know what goes on in an artist's mind while s/he is working. "Big" thoughts or "ordinary" ones? Who is to judge? Ultimately, who cares? What Ross has put into these paintings that we can see and experience as viewers is time. 

Marc Ross is a contemplative artist, a type of artist for whom there cannot be enough respect. Knowing that we see only the final stages of a work made over months should slow our breathing and tell us to pause before any one of these works. A show like No Explanation Needed is in fact an embarrassment of riches—almost too much—for every painting calls to us, and every one should demand hours of contemplation.

The surfaces of these works are histories of what the artist has been experienced and buried; they are histories inscribed with organized—if unarticulated—conclusions based on experience. These outcomes, present on the surface, satisfy the artist who trusts that he needn't explain them or himself. We will take them up for what beauty, interest, silliness, or meaning we find or attribute when we explore them. The artist doesn't tell what's there; the artist doesn't tell us what he thought about: as Ross says, he may not even know. The important thing is that the lavish expenditure of time is inherent in the work, and it is now ours to contemplate.
Marc Ross, Epiphany, 72 x 41," acrylic, pastel, colored pencil.

These paintings are steeped in the hundreds of studio hours Ross spent looking at and interacting with these surfaces, making decisions both strategic and spontaneous about what he might do to them. Those decisions are eccentric as far as we know or care: whether he follows academic, industrial, or nursery school procedures doesn't matter to what we see except to the extent that he wishes to reveal them.

Ross's paintings document the value of time spent with oneself; of being free and choosing consciousness over obliviousness; of routine experimentation (with no promised outcomes) as sufficient for making private sense whether the cosmos provides it or not. They hint that beauty can arise—and glow—from months and months of uninspired, discretely accomplished efforts. We see how order and vision impose themselves quietly upon patient periods of testing and trial without capitalist ends. We consider that working for our own ends and understanding can create beauty and satisfaction.

The history of the artist's time, patience, and thoughts inscribed in this art work are presented very directly to us. If we will commit  to listening and looking, the communication is as immediate as conversation without the small talk—surprisingly familiar, and mentally and physically liberating. If we spend a little time, it will generate more for us. The time taken for observation creates in the observer much more than it takes, bringing us time and space and vistas forgotten, if not new.

Is artistic creativity always going to produce something novel, topical, or "meaningful?" Sometimes the artist gives us something as old as the earth and human nature, reminding us of our need for quiet, for fallow times, for large questions or contemplation of the inner landscape as opposed to the social one.

Ross paints in a questioning vein that stands out in a busy, egoistic world. His slow and quiet work is refreshingly full of deep life and conversation. Though No Explanation Needed is closed, look for more of Ross's work coming in the next few months at Ohio University's Chillicothe branch Bennett Hall Gallery (September through October); and in the Riffe Gallery's "Inaugural Juried Exhibition," November 2015 through January 10, 2016.

Marc Ross, No Explanation Needed installed at the Cultural Arts Center, summer 2015.

Photographs courtesy of Marc Ross