Art Review Archives:
The Delphic Oracle was known for prophetic utterances: terse, ambivalent, even enigmatic. Once petitioners who came in hope of certainties had nonetheless played out their single-minded wills -- often in defiance of the foreseeable -- the Oracle's sight was seen to have concealed great truths. But men see only what they choose to see. Truth, despite all desires, is often elsewhere and overlooked. Salvador Calvo's newest art is part Oracle -- primal, enigmatic, true -- and part all things which require interpretation if there is to be self-discovery as well.
"SALVADOR CALVO: New Paintings" is on view from August 30 through September 19, 2002 at Galeria Gala, Chicago. This is a serious art, a significant art. Many of Calvo's earlier paintings reflect the artist's fascination with and need to understand the perceptions and beliefs, the myths of numerous cultures, distant or extinct. For over forty thousand years, humans have lived in a natural world, and each society forged its own varying response. Since the Eighteenth Century, rationalism -- science and technology -- has, for better or worse, placed man in a man-made world. Yet human nature at its core remains the same. Salvador Calvo's newest art represents a response to that paradox. It is a commensurable response which often draws upon modern perception -- the psychologies, philosophies, the sciences of man's 'brave new world.'
The fifteen paintings at Galeria Gala reveal an evolution. There is still the highly focused composition which characterized Calvo's previous work. (The artist makes numerous drawings prior to a painting.) These works, however, merge more fully into a Platonic distillation of content. In these paintings, there is little to suggest specific inspirations or external references. Geometricisms, however fluid or ethereal, have become an autonomous visual vocabulary. Titles for the paintings, less explicitly linked to myth or history, are more general and abstract; many even evoke a poetics of intuitions which in our time have otherwise been reduced to rationalized formulae. Unlike earlier works, none of these pieces incorporate text. The artist's palette, while remaining disciplined, is bolder and even more disposed toward a dominant hue, or toward a very limited few colors, all rendered with complex harmonies of complementary glazes or chromatic interplays of hue. In a number of paintings, perceptual phenomena, particularly those which depend upon light as an expression of spacial depth or position, frequently create ambiguities of ground against compositional elements. Here, visual content is often given flesh by such light as stalks only dreams or fantasy.
The curation of this showing is thoughtful. The fifteen paintings, and two sculptural works in wood, are arranged almost as a graded primer to this art. Mare Nostrum (Alkyd on linen:36"x28") is hung at right of the entrance. Of the work displayed, it is most linked to actual sight and historical significance -- referential imagery. Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) is the Roman term for the Mediterranean Sea. This piece is a graceful ballet of sails -- and only sails. Despite steam boilers, even atomic power, the ancient cloths remain an immediate icon of how men first faced the sea. This painting retains Calvo's earlier search for significant form and stimulus in historic image and myth, but introduces a current art of far more abstract, even primal content.
Window of Illusions (Oil on linen:44"x36") is hung to the left of Mare Nostrum, and this painting reveals another key to Calvo's current work. Some viewers at the opening saw it as six luminous window panes through which a vague, somewhat electric discharge danced in fog. Others took it as six objects within the image's midground: blocks which emerge into a dim light dropping from above the painting. The debate is whether the illusions represent portals beyond which some unknown phenomenon is seen, or whether they are meant to rest 'within' the viewer's space as proximate objects. In a number of paintings, Salvador Calvo employs an ambiguity of context, much like the famed vase of psychologist Edgar Rubin. (Rubin's vase, on careful examination, is alternately seen as two profiles, face to face. The mind interprets vase or faces, but never both simultaneously: eye and mind vacillate in seeking sense or certainty.)
Calvo's use of ambiguous perception is made even more striking by his skill in conceiving plausible, but physically impossible lighting. In this art, light seems a phosphorescent fluid which will-o'-the-wisps in space. Subtle shadowing, meticulous detail, highly refined figuration, almost recognizable configurations, when applied to imaginings, compel the viewer to seek some known model or subject at core. There are no pat answers or hidden codes however. The paintings engage viewer response, not an artist's theories. But each image does reflect a content.
Psychologist, Rollo May, in Love and Will, observed that the opposite of love is not hate, but apathy. Love and hate are the mercurial alternatives of a basic human impulse, a pre-conscious commitment, a Janus-faced unity of feeling. Human nature is much like human sight: certain until questioned; ambivalent in its answers. Salvador's aesthetic approach embodies the content he is exploring.
Mercurial Spirit (Alkyd on linen:43"x33 1/3") in fact captions a painting in this showing. Psychologist Aniela Jaffe, in "Symbolism and the Visual Arts," noted the dual nature of the unconscious: a creative, animating aspect, and a darker "drive to destroy." She observed that "... the alchemists personified this spirit as 'the spirit Mercurius and called it, with good reason, Mercurius duplex (the two-faced, dual Mercurius)." Jaffe saw in modern art the symbols of our time. Calvo's art reveals its ancient yet ever present core.
In these paintings, technique is strategic. A looser, more 'painterly' approach would undermine the expectations of figurative reality. That such immediate expectations are set up only to be confounded give the paintings much of their power. As in earlier work, the paintings at Galeria Gala display Calvo's subtle, vibrating nuance of hue, a scintillation of what at first seems solid color fields. Only the wakeful eye interprets a 'black.' When eyes are closed, the mind confronts a seething dark composed of innumerable color grains. Calvo's overall hues are often diffused with delicate glazes, stipplings, minute texturings, often of their complementary colors. Science has long known that if one stares at a bright red circle, and then looks to a white background, a faint green circle -- a phantom orb -- appears. A full spectrum is all the more potent. Where the eye falters, the mind creates unrealities.
Line Between Fantasy and Reality (Alkyd on linen:43"x33 1/2") implies that such a boundary is relative, subtle, and yet very palpable. But that line is one created in the conscious mind. At casual sight, this image might be two disks threaded by a vertical cable and silhouetted against a glowing aura. A close viewing equally suggests two illuminated doors bound by a pair of simple clasps. The viewer supplies meaning to the painting's content. That challenge is a process between image and viewer. It is contingent, necessary, and universal.
Several paintings at Galeria Gala seem intently subliminal. Psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, in Man and His Symbols, called dreams humanity's key to a shared but hidden internal life. But he observed that "... a dream cannot produce a definite thought. If it begins to do so, it ceases to be a dream because it crosses the threshold of consciousness." Jung added:
The Oval Dream (Alkyd on linen:42"x34") resonates to that insight. It might seem a habitable planet, half phase between day and night and bathed in a protective zone beyond which lies an unknown, quartered symmetry. It equally serves as quantum particle wrapped within a virtual field; or a strange flower emerging from the stuff of dreams. Whatever it evokes for any individual, it maps a basic sense of layered happenings about a central point. It seems a psychedelic form of fantasy, but it touches upon Platonic types by which we see and assimilate real phenomena; and not just rationally, but in feeling as well.
Calvo's Lascivious Reds and Yellows (Oil on linen:48"x38"), executed in 2001, is a striking example of color synaesthetic with emotion. If the totality of color interaction is vital and yet variable, the emotions evoked may vary as well: what is lascivious to one, may well seem warm and comforting to another. As Polish aphorist, Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, once quipped: "Hay smells differently to lovers than to horses." That there be such an integration of varying response has consequences. Uninhibited in Our Consciousness (Alkyd on linen:36"x28") may signal that a play of primal archetype enlivens our awareness of what we consciously know. This painting almost seems three frames in a surreal strip of film. Within each flat, schematic frame, a graded shadowing creates illusions of real cylinders.
In Lascivious Reds and Yellows, still another aspect to Calvo's current art is evident. Discreet shadows along contour edges suggest a composition of collaged elements; but there is no collage: The work is a flat, painted surface. Over centuries, Western art has developed implicit conventions for easel painting, and each viewer absorbs them early on. A painting is somewhat of a window. We attend to the image and disregard all else beyond its edges. We also, generally, disregard the flatness of a painted surface. We buy into Illusionism. (Much Modern art is a polemic with this legacy.) But, above all else, a painting is a physical object, a conveyance for image, which is something very much else. Eight paintings in this exhibition extend to the edge of their frames. Others do not... in interesting ways.
Seven paintings appear to be matted. They are not. The artist has painted a prominent white border about the image, as if to insure that the image will be seen as distinct: that is, within the painting as material object. The Global Cross (2001:Oil on linen:46"x36") displays irregular painted borders at top and on both sides. The accepted convention of painting edge as a boundary beyond which nothing is to be regarded lends a sense that this image has arisen from some hidden source and enters into the painting. A trapezoidal bias in the bordering, lengthening from upper left to lower right, further suggests that the image proper -- a global cross -- has attracted and distorted it. At the show's opening, the cross drew comparisons with the famed Moebius strip, which by a twist in space has only one two-dimensional 'side'; or with a Klein bottle, its three-dimensional analog. The cross seems an impossible, yet fully plausible object.
Healing the Green Split (Alkyd on linen:36"x28"), painted this year, is more explicit in its play against 'painting as a window.' Four green sheet-like elements (perhaps botanical skins) form a four-fold wall. One sinuous horizontal ribbon at top, and one much lower hold in this focal tetrad, but then further extend onto the white border as a trompe l'oeil. It seems a clever trick for the eye: a window within a window within a window. Yet, it underscores human consciousness: We set frames and context, limits and levels. We stand apart from nature's immediate stimulus and response. And further, each of us ultimately examines and questions man's place in life.
If today we re-fashion the world we live in, we are not always at ease with that. Salvador Calvo's paintings reflect an increasing awareness of the presence of science and technology. Dwelling Place of Instinct (Alkyd on linen:36"x28") implies not a biological, but an architectural sense of instinct. The focus is a pyramidal ensemble, a ziggurat of loosely curved blocks. Window Toward Underworld (Alkyd on linen:36"x28") is even more surreal. Several viewers immediately discerned a window-like focus melded into biological curves; others first imaged a casket floating within a rippling, fluid architecture. Albert Einstein once said that his greatest insights came as sensations, shapes, relationships; working out the mathematical expression afterwards was the hard part. He would have felt at home with Calvo's art.
The same modern man who puzzles at how myth could ever see the rain or wind or sun as animate, still curses his computer, car, or weather chart for malicious will. Even in a man-made world, old instincts reign. Several pieces in this exhibition might suggest that this is right. Calvo's art explores the 'stuff of dreams' before consciousness devised calendars and measurements, axioms and facts. A technological arrogance has not necessarily suited our world and if we are to correct unnatural folly, the healing must come from an empathy with nature in man.
In his The Education of Henry Adams, Adams predicted that the Cult of the Dynamo would supplant the Cult of the Virgin, and at times Calvo's art would suggest that the machine has invaded the sublime. Twilight (Oil on linen:72"x54") offers a direct, accessible content. One identifies antennae, construction cable, and a surreal series of ascending steps. Here, physical reference forms a sharp contrast with an ethereal twilight. Mechanomorphism (Alkyd on linen:46"x36"), as in some of Calvo's earlier work, imbues mechanicism with a mythic air. One finds in this painting a deference once reserved for preternatural power. The Techno Age (2001:Oil on linen:46"x36") displays a similar assimilation. In this work, light may be an immaterial presence, or merely the indistinct reflection of a tangible object. Visitors to the exhibit saw either a glowing vapor through a sliced aperture, or a clouded, shining artillery shell. The line between fantasy and reality is the painting surface itself, and it provokes the question as to 'which side of reality are we on?'
A reconciliation, a assertion of the human psyche does emerge in these current paintings, and it revitalizes symbol beyond historic and specific cultural overlays. The Global Cross might be taken for a Dali-esque icon of faith, but equally reveal the haloes of a dying star, or plasma in a magnetic field. It is a dream of converging energy. Salvador Calvo's Reality is Dressed in Blue (Alkyd on linen:46"x28"), beyond its semblance to a crucifix, unites the perspective of the upright bar, and of the crossbar into a tense dissonance, resolved only by the artist's skill and imagination. Healing the Green Split was taken by many at the gallery to imply a human responsibility to ecology.
Two sculptures by Salvador Calvo are also on display. These are highly finished abstractions in hard woods: Level Twelve (Bubinga Wood, Silky Oak, Walnut, and Metal:29"x20"x9") and Fluidity of Forms (Maple, Purpleheart, Cocobolo, and Metal:34 1/2"x19"x4 1/4"). The artist's sheer pleasure in the natural luxury of his materials recalls Barbara Hepworth's work of the 1960s, but Calvo accents the final work with metal artifacts, often found and held for a future concept.
Logicians often cite the ancient case in which a Cretan declares: "All Cretans are liars." Is he lying? At the opening, a man said he is red-green color blind, and yet, for the first time he saw a painting's greens. How can he, or anyone else, confirm the experience? English poet, Rudyard Kipling once wrote: "There are nine and fifty ways/ of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right." Calvo's wide and abiding interest in human myths, and cultures, evolves into a fascinating art. A casual visitor may at first think this work mere abstraction, but close, attentive viewing will reveal it exists in that shadowland of ambiguity and paradox which gives birth to dreams and myths, to our subjective sight as well as our exact sciences.
Rollo May, in The Courage to Create, asserted that "...the artist is in a dialectical relationship not only with paint and canvas, but with the shapes he or she sees in nature," and noted of the Delphic Oracle's utterings that "...these were sufficiently cryptic not only to leave the way open for interpretation, but to require it." But he also cautioned:
May, commenting on the creative expression which results, finds that:
"SALVADOR CALVO: New Paintings" is on exhibit from August 30 through September 19, 2002 at Galeria Gala, Chicago. Salvador Calvo was reviewed previously in www.artscope.net (June:2001). A 10-page catalogue to this exhibit, with a foreward by Juan Lluis Montane (International Association of Art Critics) and an essay by G. Jurek Polanski, is available at Galeria Gala.
--G. Jurek Polanski
Editorial Note: Books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews may be purchased through this site's amazon.com link. Dr. Rollo May is quoted from Love and Will (W.W. Norton and Company,Inc.:1969), and The Courage To Create, (W.W. Norton & Company,Inc.:1975). Carl Gustav Jung is quoted from his anthology, Man and His Symbols (Dell Publishing Co., Inc.:1981). Of additional interest to a reader may be Ernst H. Gombrich's Art and Illusion (Bollingen Series XXXV, 5/Princeton University Press:1972), and Psychology in Progress (Readings from Scientific American:W.H. Freeman and Company:1975) which contains several chapters on perception and art.