In Wallace Stevens’ oft-quoted but still provocative (IMHO) poem, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, he captures a simple dichotomy that has served as a divining rod for most of my creative life:
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Inflection in this dialectic is replicative, the capturing of a phenomenon in its exactitude. Innuendo is suggestive; a launching off, out and from the thing itself.
I have not seen any paintings by Ingrid Calame in the flesh, but the review of her recent show at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in the New York Times provides a good example of this distinction. Calame spent hours meticulously tracing and preserving the skid marks on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, producing extremely large paintings that reproduce those patterns exactly.
“The request was pretty unusual,” said the [track] manager, Dan Edwards…Then he researched Ms. Calame’s boldly colored compositions, derived from stains and graffiti that she traces from city streets and sidewalks. And he realized that the racetrack “was like a canvas…There were stories that went with every tire mark, every gouge”…
Racecars out of control tend to skid quite a distance; one mark was 200 feet long. “The scale of that skid,” Ms. Calame said, “blew what I had been working on completely out of the water.” She said the project reminded her of Robert Smithson’s earthworks, which often used heavy machinery like bulldozers and tractors.
I have been documenting skid marks for years. The line quality and unexpected compositions create such delicious surprises, and they appear at the most random places. I have a box full of photos (back when that’s what you did—produce glossy paper images and then store them in boxes) of road surfaces from all over the world, usually taken while my kids rolled their eyes from a car waiting for Wacky Mom to get back in and continue the trip. In fact it became a favorite tease. “Incoming! A skid mark!”
But portraying those randomized markings in exactitude was never my goal. Their inspiration is suggestive and provocative, but the inspiration is more inchoate than obvious. Just the stopping to look and document seemed to shift the chaos of the rag and bone shop of my own image making. And later I have seen moments in my work where the evidence surfaces that it does all get used. (It’s a little like Joseph Cornell’s closet crammed with found objects*, although his containers were all carefully labeled and itemized. Mine is more of a stuff-it-in storage space.)
A pluralist by nature, I find both approaches of interest. My own creative proclivities aside, I am delighted by the multifaceted revery. No preference required.
For further reading: Here’s an extract from an excellent review of Calame’s show in New York from a few years ago:
Several paintings hang in the first room of the gallery, each holds a collection of stains traced from the streets of L.A. and New York, transcribed in brightly pigmented enamels onto aluminum. The forms themselves act as an index of events from our past, or rather the dirt and muck we leave behind. The candy-colored splats and stains are personified through phonetic titles like “eeec-Ffw-eeec-FfwFFw, and “hoo-koo-koo-koo,” noises one could read in action comics or imagine as sounds of wild motion. Calame has taken left over stains from past events and strategically distilled the marks into a series of monster collisions.
In the next room, Calame’s work takes on something of a wholly different magnitude— the New York Stock Exchange. “Secular Response 2 A.M” (2002) measures a total of 15,000 square feet. Too large to be shown complete, two excerpts are on display. The room resonates with a vibrant green, automatically suggesting some kind of landscape. I asked Calame about the tracing process of the twelve-foot high mylar sheets. She said that the trading room was the physical boundary for the painting, and proceeded to point out large gaps in the painted forms as columns and similar obstructions from the floor. The sheets of mylar were put together like pieces of a puzzle, with every stain on the floor traced and documented, creating a kind of topography of economic power. And there were many stains on the floor. When asked why the NYSE, she told me it was a form of communicating systems of information. In describing her process for the exhibit of “Secular Response 2 A.M.” at the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art, the curator writes, “Economics, for the artist, is one of three systems of knowledge through which to understand and come to terms with the impermanence of life.” The first system is religion, which she explores in her project “Secular Response 1” (2000), tracing the Ardsley Methodist Church, New York, and the third focusing on “science and the cognitive system,” still to be made but which will include tracing constellations within an observatory. Calame treats the charged subject of economics with a combination of process, form, and a free use of color. I found out later that a private dinner was held after the opening reception within the walls of “Secular Response 2.” I wondered if the floor would be cleaned afterwards, or would a new project emerge, addressing a less colossal system of knowledge.
Displacing the residue of urban topography or transforming the floor of a global economic market, Calame renders the markings of our culture in a colorful visual medium. She has presented an archeological view into the contemporary human landscape by tracing and documenting the stains of our existence.
The Brooklyn Rail
*For readers in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can see Cornell’s closet in the show now open at the SFMOMA through January 2008. (This is the same show that was at the Peabody Essex Museum near Boston this past summer.)