Originally published in Chinatown Newspaper issue V4.4 (September-November, 2012)
As a curator, I’m constantly looking for work that is, for lack of a better term, “progressive.” These are pieces that are not only unique in an aesthetic sense, but also challenge the boundaries of what is conceivable and threaten to change our paradigms. As H.G. Wells put it, “adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.” This concept has always been alive in the arts, albeit most commonly in the form of a subconscious process. How could artists know that through simply following their intuitions, their gut instincts, that they would in actuality facilitate the most important kind of change? Yet this strange and beautiful oblivion has been the driving force that has kept art moving forward.
Honolulu-based artist Calvin Collins is one artist that produces such work. Originally from Southern California, Collins has more or less established himself as a painter. Having worked with him in various exhibitions in the past, I knew him as such until a conversation about a new body of work encouraged me to reevaluate my judgments. I found his use of words such as “industrial,” “low-brow,” and “hermetic” to describe a single cohesive body of work particularly peculiar and intriguing.
I eventually got to see these pieces in person during a visit to his Chinatown studio. As I walked around the space, Collins told me that they were based off of films in the Criterion film collection (hence the name.) Scattered around the studio were traces from a plethora of mixed media materials from resin and lacquer to glitter; all of which were being used to create surprisingly beautiful, ethereal objects that (despite their overarching concept) seemed to elude any form of accurate categorization.
I got to thinking about the potential duality of the term “criterion” in this context. Loosely defined as a principle or standard by which something may be held against, Collins’ work asks us to consider the processes by which we arrive at such set ideals and definitions. This process of critical questioning can consequently shift our perspectives, if only for a brief second, opening up our perceptions to the possibilities of a new way of seeing.
I sat down with Calvin the weekend following the opening of his exhibition at GoHA for some casual curator-to-artist conversation:
What inspired this collection?
Well, I love films. I watch so many of them. As an artist, I find that I’m really drawn to imagery and certain types of symbols that I come across. There are also subtleties that exist within those symbolisms. I felt like I wanted to capture and translate some of that into these works.
If I watch a film and feel particularly moved by a certain scene, then I’ll freeze it, play it back, and analyze it. I have to explore what I found so initially compelling about it. I find that much is realized in this process alone.
It’s always interesting to find out how an artist works. Some artists are more deliberate and have a very formulaic way of executing things, while others come from a more organic place and let the events unfold.
Organic is a good word to describe my process. The only parameter I had with this collection was the “Criterion” factor, meaning limiting myself to making works that pertained to Criterion films. I’d actually amassed quite a few images taken from films over the years. I had these long before Criterion as a collection was even realized, just because I felt so moved by those particular scenes.
Imperfections can add character and life to anything they’re in. We were just talking about Danish film auteur Lars von Trier the other day and how he struggled with transitioning from controlled to “organic.”
Yes! He’s a Criterion director as well. I may or may not have been plotting a von Trier appearance in my next collection.
Exciting! He’s a favorite of mine. Have you seen any good movies lately? Criterion or otherwise?
The last good film that I saw was a recommendation by you, actually! It was a Norwegian film: King of Devil’s Island, directed by Marius Holst. Not a Criterion one (yet?) but a great film nonetheless.
Wasn’t it? An actor from that film, Stellan Skarsgard, makes an appearance in one of the pieces in Criterion.
Yes, the “Insomnia” piece. That film was also by a Norwegian director, Erik Skjoldbjærg.
One of my personal favorites. What’s yours?
It’s hard for me to favor any one over another, but I think I tend to gravitate towards two: Wings of Desire and George Washington. The synopsis for Wings is truly beautiful. As for George, I think I see a lot of myself reflected in that movie. Again, there is a return to exploring what moves and inspires me.
What are some of those inspirations?
The list goes on forever! I’m inspired by everything. There are specific things, I suppose, as far as themes go in my work. Themes like duplicity, duality, isolation, redemption, and so forth. As far as other artists go, there are so many. One that stands out in my mind is Francis Bacon. I remember seeing his work at a very young age and being deeply affected by it. Which was his intention- as he put, to have the imagery go straight to the central nervous system.
Aside from resin, you make use of various lacquers and enamels, which when considered in most contexts are thought of as “low-brow.” What is it about these materials that draws you in?
Well, for one, I think people don’t realize how seductive these materials really are. The resin can have a very glossy finish, but it can be sanded to a matte finish as well. I love the multi-dimensionality of these processes. For example, when sanding resin down with the objective of achieving a matte finish, the resin can take on various appearances and resemble surfaces such as stone, encaustic, marble, etc. All of this depends on the “layers” of resin; like what’s beneath the initial layer and so forth. It’s very versatile.
I guess another reason also lies in the process. When you pour resin, it needs to be “de-gassed.” It’s de-gassed either by running a flame over it, which I’d rather not do in my studio what with all of the solvents in there, or by breathing on it.
You breathe on your works?
Yes, it’s the carbon dioxide in our breath that produces a reaction with the resin. The process of de-gassing gets rid of all of the bubbles that appear in the resin when it’s first poured on to a surface. You get to watch the bubbles dissipate as you breathe on it.
How fascinating. It’s like you’re breathing life in to your work…in a very literal sense!
I’m fascinated with your use of glitter. It gets such a bad wrap for being “craft-y” or “decorative.” However, as exemplified with Criterion, you manage to take it to another place.
I’ve always said that I was going to be the one to “raise the status of glitter.” I’m in love with glitter because it has this child-like quality, underneath it all. I’m not afraid to say, too, that I think it’s beautiful. Spray paint has a similarly negative reputation because of it’s social connotations.
I’m originally a painter (oil, specifically.) I think people think of oil and think, oh, that’s so traditional. It’s almost an authority in a way. My use of materials like glitter are a big leap away from what I’m used to working with.
Speaking of tradition and authority, the way I see it, your use of non-traditional materials can be seen as a departure from the traditions and definitions that we’ve long associated with art. Would you say that this is accurate, and if so, how much of this process is conscious?
Yeah, it’s what we do as artists. Because I’m a painter, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at paintings from the Western and European tradition. I’ve spent some time trying to find a way to tweak that to make it my own. Art builds upon itself. I would describe it simply as exploring the possibilities.
Carolyn Mirante is the director of the Gallery of Hawaii Artists (GoHA) and curator of Criterion: New Mixed Media Works by Calvin Collins. The exhibit runs through October 23. For more information, visit galleryofhawaiiartists.com.
ARTiculations is a blog on culture and the arts by Carolyn Mirante for FLUX Hawaii. Carolyn is a Honolulu-based art consultant and Owner/Director of the Gallery of Hawaii Artists (GoHA), an alternative exhibition space dedicated to the Contemporary Arts in Hawai’i.