G Fine Art Presents Graham Caldwell "The Uncanny Valley"

By Editorial Team on December 13, 2010
H Street Icon | OPENINGS  |

Opening Reception: December 18, 2010 from 6:30pm to 8:30pm


Graham Caldwell at G Fine Art on East City Art
Photo courtesy of G Fine Art

Exhibition runs from December 18, 2010  through February 5, 2011

G Fine Art will present Graham Caldwell’s third solo show with the gallery. Caldwell’s new work is a shift in materials with a refined focus. The following interview with Bob Nickas explores the physical medium, inspirations, and Caldwell’s personal journey.

Graham Caldwell in Conversation with Bob Nickas:

BN: There are times when I’ve been in your studio and I was reminded of the film Dead Ringers, because of all the tools and clamps that are reflected in mirrors and glass, and the vaguely menacing associations one brings to them. They’re somehow both sci-fi and medieval, of the future as well as the past. At other times, more recently, and as we’re standing here now, I have the feeling that I’m in a kind of architectural studio, where models for various structures — geodesic-type domes, cubist towers, and so on — are all on view, some, bizarrely, appearing like ruins.

GC: That film made a strong impression on me. The pieces with convex mirrors on mechanical arms do have a kind of back room surgical aspect, especially when reflecting pliers on a fabrication table. I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of the operating theater, as a specific space where rarefied spontaneous acts occur and are processed. The more recent work is concerned with building, sometimes with shattering, and then improvised rebuilding.

BN: In your work before, if something was smashed or broken, it was as a matter of accident. But now you occasionally orchestrate damage. In the piece with the shattered, faceted mirrors, for example, the reflections are much more visually fragmented, and beautiful, and they underscore both the fragility of the material and the complexity of seeing. This is a major subject in your work, and although it’s tempting to get into it straightaway, I’d like to begin with the material. Because even if I’ve followed your work for some time now, I’ve never asked you just how it is that you came to work with glass — an unusual choice for a younger artist to make as his primary means of expression.

GC: By chance is the short answer. At the time of my first encounter with glass production I was studying writing and not making visual art. I thought of it as a material with a certain special power, something I still think, and in my writing I would use descriptions of glass very deliberately, as what I thought to be particularly effective literary imagery. I happened upon a facility in Brooklyn called Urban Glass. There I saw glass being manipulated for the first time, and that had an intense effect on me; it moved in a slow gelatinous way, it glowed yellow orange, and it transformed from an amorphous blob to a perfect cylinder in seconds. Aside from the characteristics of the material, there’s a special dexterity and economy of movement required to work with it, something like performing sleight-of-hand tricks or rolling a coin along one’s fingers. I switched disciplines to study glass full time. I think there was something I liked about it being difficult and taking a long time to learn.

BN: So there was a seductive/alchemical element at play, as well as the challenge to  be immersed in and master something completely outside of your previous areas of study and knowledge. I always say that you can’t teach someone to be an artist; you can only show someone how to use tools and materials. The need to make art, a curiosity about the world, some imperative to describe it to others as a way of making sense of it for oneself, that’s all internally driven. And of course you can’t teach someone to have a sensibility. That’s something developed over time. How long did it take you, once you began to work with glass, to feel that you could articulate your ideas and observations by means of the material? Having come from a world where your thoughts were immediately conveyed, from writing, you were now in a purely visual mode, with no words or even pictures to “read.” Rather than see this as limiting, did it offer a kind of freedom?

GC: It took me years to be able to have my way with the material, but, paradoxically, I find myself more and more interested in glass in its most fundamental forms: spheres, blobs and broken bits. I should explain that since it takes such a long time and so much repetition to learn how to work with glass, this can become an end in itself, and at a certain point I had to disengage from the technical path. One of the things that most impressed me early on was the incredible waste that a glass shop produced. I remember the feeling of awe that these broken or twisted otherworldly lumps of perfectly transparent material produced in me, an awe I would have loved to achieve with words. I did feel a sense of freedom with my new visual endeavor. I liked the ambiguity of objects, and that through the concrete world of materials you could be led back to expression and the psychological.

BN: Who were the writers that you were interested in at the time, and did they have any bearing on your visual work once you set out in that direction?

GC: I had no TV and was reading a lot then — Joyce, Gogol, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ellison, Rimbaud. These authors all share a vividness, and were a huge influence on me. There is a concept called defamiliarization that came out of Russian formalism. It’s a literary technique that presents the known as alien; it could certainly be applied to Gogol. This is something I wanted, and want, my work to achieve. It’s relevant to your earlier question about why I chose glass as my primary material; it is utterly ubiquitous and literally looked through and seen every day, but when it’s distorted or re-purposed successfully it can create a strange loss of recognition, a defamiliarization.

BN: When I see a piece of yours that is made up of a whole multitude of clustered mirrors, some which look like miniature rear-view mirrors, or cosmetics mirrors, I’m struck by how that constellation and all of its supporting armature — the prosthetics, as it were — appears to have a purpose, not that I could begin to say just what it might be. And while it may seem to be some sort of scientific apparatus, it could also be seen as a kind of delirium. In the natural world, which certain of your works also evoke, things do tend to multiply, replicate, and grow out of control in all directions. This happens as well in the built world, as well as in relation to the body, of which your work is also evocative, in terms of sprawl and the spread of disease.

GC: I am intrigued by the idea of runaway growth. There’s something about kudzu slowly covering a forest, or an expanding ant colony that gives off a sense of low-grade dread, a distant gathering force. In my work I’m interested in how a multitude of modular parts interact to form dense systems wherein the individuality of each mirror or lens or fragment recedes, then re-emerges, and recedes again. Some of these pieces give the impression that if you turn away they could be get larger, and perhaps even begin to probe and gather information. These pieces embody a non-rational organic process, an unchecked growth, but they are presented very rationally on hinged mechanical arms.

BN: This makes me wonder about your other non-art interests, the sorts of things that inform your work but maybe aren’t immediately apparent? Did you study or have an aptitude for science? Did you tinker around building things, or taking things apart, when you were younger?

GC: There was a long term construction site in an alley adjacent to the house where I grew up. Eventually, it became a luxurious modern home, but while it was under construction it was my own empty museum. There were structures and tools there that were unfathomable, like looking at an astronaut’s equipment, specific but opaque. And every week or two the landscape would grow, and some concrete form would be revealed from its mold, as if it had always been there. I recall being vaguely put out when the building was completed and I could no longer access it. I knew the place more intimately than the people who moved in. I never lost this desire to slip into construction sites, abandoned industrial facilities, or train tunnels.  Once, in a dim room in a derelict steel mill in Rhode Island I saw a six-foot wide open tank of oil that was darkest substance I had ever seen. I have no idea how deep it could have been. It was a complete void. Material was producing a psychological effect in me, in this case a real sense of mystery.

BN: The way you’re talking puts me very much in the mind of Robert Smithson, an artist who was drawn to industrial ruins, void spaces, entropy, and natural history. I know that you grew up in Washington, just next to Rock Creek Park, and that proximity must figure into your formative sensibility. And thinking of the great earth artist, I’m reminded that there must have been many visits to the Smithsonian in your early years.

GC: I have become more and more interested in Smithson over time, particularly his works involving mirrors. For similar reasons I find Gordon Matta Clark’s work compelling. Both artists transform background landscape, be it buildings or earth, into something other, something specific that needs to be reconsidered. For instance, ordinarily, I would not think about the thickness of a wall or floor, but if there is a giant hole cut through, both their thicknesses become important. I did frequent DC’s museums in my childhood. They are almost all free which is wonderful. The Natural History Museum was my favorite. I’ve spent a huge amount of time there, and it was and is an important artistic source. I particularly liked the Insect Zoo, where on certain days you could pet some kind of shiny giant cockroach. In a bizarre Orwellian twist, the Insect Zoo is now sponsored by an extermination company.

BN: That’s hilarious, and somehow makes perfect sense. At least whatever bugs they get rid of will never be on an endangered species list. Smithson would have been amused. He liked to do things like turn rocks over to see what was crawling underneath. Many artists of the ’60s and ’70s were overturning objects, peeling away layers, and generally breaking down hierarchies, often actually breaking stuff, and were occasionally engaged in what some might think of as vandalism. There’s a photo of Smithson from the summer of 1969, which is captioned: “Robert Smithson constructing The Map of Glass (Atlantis).” He’s wielding a shovel over a large pile of broken glass which he’s in the process of further smashing. The operative word here, of course, is “constructing.” And there’s Matta-Clark’s Window Blow-Out (1976), photos of blighted buildings in the South Bronx with the windows smashed by the former residents. This was his contribution to a show of works by artists and architects called, Idea as Model. The night before the show opened, to complete his installation, he brought a BB gun to the gallery and shot out all the windows. The organizers had them replaced in time for the opening, and removed Matta-Clark’s photos from the show.

In a number of recent works of yours, you’ve orchestrated some breakage. I’m curious about how this came about? The broken mirror piece, for example, which can be thought of as an imploded skeletal dome, reminds me of “anarchitecture,” the space between anarchy and architecture, which Matta-Clark’s cut pieces occupy and suggestively define.

GC: I have wanted to use broken glass since I began working with it. Over time, working with it as a molten material in the studio, I developed an aversion to broken glass. I associated it with a failure of the process which, in truth, it generally represented; it came to signify a flaw, a hidden vice or sometimes almost a disease that could destroy a work. It has taken a conscious act of letting go to break the spell of glass as a sort of semi-precious material. Even the metaphor I just used has the word “break” in it. In fact, breaking glass is the perfect metaphor for my turning to broken glass. There was a psychological boundary, but it was fragile. There are all sorts of reasons for why I’m interested in using broken mirror and broken glass. I think the pull of entropy is fascinating subject matter. I’m interested in what remains after a system is destroyed, and that ties back to your earlier observation about what looks like ruins in my studio. The broken mirror piece is an investigation into a more granular kind of materialism, where dark voids and shattered edges are just as important as roundness or reflectivity, and negative space as important as positive space.

BN: That’s something I picked up on right away in your new work. You’ve had it before, in what I now consider the classic “constellation” pieces, such as Lens Knot and Untitled (Red Expanding). But now it feels like there’s more negative space in a more complicated way. You’ve opened up pieces to their interiors, revealing their structures. This offers a greater range of surface permeability, where previously you were almost applying a kind of glass cladding to a piece in the way that a skyscraper gets its final skin nearing completion. Even a piece like An Unknown Known, has a greater spatial complexity because you’ve used a black transparent glass rather than mirrored glass, so what’s behind the “screen” is visible and at the same time there’s subtle reflection. Vision, in a sense, has it both ways.

GC: To follow your analogy of glass cladding, I really love buildings that are still under construction, before being entirely sealed up. Some of these new works are like skyscrapers with two thirds of the plate glass installed. One of my favorite buildings is the Pantheon in Rome, which has a completely open oculus at its apex that lets light and rain inside. It’s breathtaking. In  An Unknown Known, I used grey plate glass that, as you were saying, is transparent but also reflective. I wanted to extend both of these characteristics by constructing a faceted concave screen comprised of panels of this dark grey glass. The glass screen reflects bits of whatever is in the room, but also contains permanent reflections of itself in areas where it folds in on itself, and where various panels face one another. The grey plate glass is not easily seen through, so the intricate structure that’s behind the screen and holds the piece together also creates a kind of visual scaffold. Your attention is drawn beyond the glass and into the darkened scene behind. I think the new works have a greater, or perhaps more fluid or activated, depth-of-field.

BN: Besides this smoky transparent material, you’ve also been working lately with iridescent glass and different colored glass, as well as shattered pieces. How do you make your choices? Because a piece composed with what looks like broken mirror, for example, will generate a completely different reading — fragility, impermanence, accident, and violence — than one with perfect, sleek, silvery panels. And of course color immediately creates different moods. Is it intuitive? Does material sometimes direct meaning? Or are these the products of a recent period of experimentation, and you’re seeing where it may lead?

GC: I make choices about materials with a kind of calculated intuition, and the pieces are produced with an improvised engineering. Much of the material has an inherent intensity of meaning, most obviously the broken mirror, and depending on the piece I might play up or play down various aspects. I’m drawn to materials, especially lately, that have an uncanniness or duality. For instance the iridescent glass; when looked at from a certain angle it appears to be a single color, but from another it has a sheen like oil on water. What interests me about duality in substances isn’t the differing characteristics themselves, for example, showing a distant reflection while simultaneously drawing attention to a broken surface — but the space created in between them.

BN: That in-between space is basically occupied by the heads of the viewers.

GC: They become implicated in the piece …

BN: And catch themselves in the act of looking.

GC: Exactly.

BN: Your work can be gnarly, but also quite beautiful, and I suppose for some people it may have aspects of both; attracted but keeping a safe distance at the same time. You were seduced by the material process in the very beginning. Do you think there’s ever a danger for your art to be too seductive for the viewer? Too precious or too decorative?

GC: I have to keep in mind how people conceptualize glass, and I do need to navigate around areas of preconception. I want my work to be visually compelling and even seductive, but it shouldn’t, and I think doesn’t, stop there.

BN: It’s taken some time for glass to enter contemporary art in its own right. It figures prominently in later works, from the ’90s mainly, by Louise Bourgeois, and also, though to a lesser extent, in the art of Kiki Smith. The fact that they’re women certainly is part of the equation: glass as a material with domestic object associations, heirlooms, jewelry, and so on. But then as Josiah McElheny’s work came to greater attention in recent years, with glass as his primary material, there seemed to be a wider acceptance. Do you feel ay affinity towards these or other artists? Is there anyone who’s important to you who’s not immediately coming to my mind?

GC: I’ve always been interested in all three of these artists. Louise Bourgeois had a strong effect on me when I started out. Josiah McElheny’s work is great, and it’s helpful that it’s been accepted, particularly because, like me, he creates, or could create, the glass components himself, and this inside knowledge is a fundamental part of his identity as an artist. That said, his approach is more historical than mine. The art works and artists that I feel the strongest connection to tend to have at their core a sense of immediacy, which happens to be an inherent strength of the material. The work of Teresita Fernandez is a good example of what I mean. Tavares Strachan is another artist using glass whose work I like a lot.

BN: He’s more of a project artist, specializing in somewhat preposterous rather than discrete objects, and often with a play between solid and liquid form. He’s the one, of all the artists mentioned, who has something in common with your work beyond exploring the poetics of the material itself: a sense of humor. He built that rocket out of glass, which is fired and shatters. There are pieces of yours, such as Round Out, with its bulbous reflective proliferation, and Facet Mirror, which is simultaneously architectural and anthropomorphic in a cartoon-like way, that are revealing of your mischievous side. Do you ever imagine yourself going into big weird science, making something that’s just outlandishly impractical?

GC: Absolutely. I have series of pieces I’d like to one day execute that could be described in those terms: vast unreasonable idiosyncratic systems or structures built to defy gravity in intricate and delicate ways. I think an increased scale will only enhance the sense of wonder — with a slight underlying sense of the absurd — that defines my ongoing project.

For Biographical information please see Caldwell’s website: https://www.grahamcaldwell.com/bio.html

G Fine Art is located at 1350 Florida Ave, NE Washington, DC  20002.  Gallery Hours are Wednesday – Saturday noon – 6 pm  For more information contact 202.462.1601 or visit  www.gfineartdc.com