Seattle is home to a remarkable group of sculptors, but many are more familiar for their large public works than their infrequent gallery shows. For Mark Calderon, whose bronze outdoor sculptures grace several buildings in the region, his current one-person exhibition at Greg Kucera is just his first in 6 years. Our art critic Gary Faigin joins us to discuss this show.
On paper, Mark Calderon sounds a bit all over the place, citing as inspiration for his work everything from Mexican folk art, African sculpture, and images of the Buddha, to natural history (several of the pieces in the current show are portraits of extinct animals), Medieval Christianity, and the modern movement. “My influences are many”, he writes in his artist’s statement, and no one would dispute the point.
The good news is that emerging out of this cultural potpourri are sculpted forms with an elegance, grace, and consistent sense of the monumental only indirectly dependent on the artist’s many sources, but directly dependent on the his disciplined and distinctive vision.
That’s been true of all the work of Calderon that I’ve seen, and it’s particularly true of the current show, where images of the natural world alternate with abstractions and semi-abstractions. All of the pieces share a sense of hard-won simplicity that makes them appear weighty and significant no matter what their actual scale. Though the materials in use range from cast bronze and lead , to paraffin and sheet metal, and the heights of the sculptures vary from a few inches to 15 feet, I can imagine almost any of the works much bigger or smaller without a significant change in meaning or intent.
That’s true, for example of Untitled (Hummingbird), the smallest sculpture in the show. A life-sized depiction of a hummingbird hovering in upright flight, the piece owes more to devotional images of the Trinity than to the work of Audubon or Martin Heade. Rigorously symmetrical, extremely sparing of detail, Calderon’s dusky lead bird strains against its invisible wall mount like an uncoiling spring. There are hints in its arching form of a taut bow, a sine wave, or water vaulting from a fountain, not to mention the Christian dove hovering between God and Jesus, surrounded by the aureole that Calderon’s hummingbird seems to suggest –a martyr to extinction.
Form in motion is the underlying theme of nearly all the other works in the show as well. In recent times, Calderon has sculpted a number of variations on the image of waving tendrils: nominally abstract and gigantic in scale in the case of his three intertwined corkscrew shapes just installed at a transit terminal in Pierce County; smaller, and much more tied to specific creatures in the current show. Closely related metallic squiggles and waves spring from the body of an octopus in Nocturne and the tails of two wrestling lizards in Untitled (Skink Twins), give rhythm to a mysterious arch shape in Trophy, and agitate the entire length of a series of satisfyingly slithering snakes.
The octopus, snakes, and lizards, like the hummingbird, are abstracted enough to become emblematic, thus inspiring much wider-ranging associations than a more faithful version – a central feature of Calderon’s MO. The upside-down octopus, its streamlined head on a pedestal and arms waving wildly above, seems at war with itself, a vase unable to contain its vines, a Medusa with her living hair, smoke trails curling from a fire. The rhythms and variations of the arms are suggestive of music or dance, free form but with an underlying beat.
The writhing snakes, as the gallery helpfully points out, suggest Arabic calligraphy, not to mention a world of decorative ornamentation, both Eastern and Western, as well as the twisting serpents of the doctor’s staff. A gigantic pair of bronze flowers, hollow, tube-like, and joined at the neck like Siamese twins, are ready to be blown like a herald’s trumpet in the piece entitled Blast. They rise up in a graceful arch from a pedestal just below the pinned-to-the-wall bird, their orange, spotted patina the living response to the bird’s lunar grey.
Only two lively mice, standing upright facing each other, and balanced by enormous tails, stubbornly refuse to seem like anything other than what they are, victims of the “cute” factor and the closest the artist gets to “mere” depiction. If there are intriguing associations and imagery that these lead rodents are meant to suggest (Disney not included), it passed me right by.
While the mice represent the literal extreme of Calderon’s work, Globo resides at the opposite end of the representational/abstract continuum. One of several nods in the show to the pioneer abstract sculptor Constantin Brancusi (the other being a 15-foot paraffin tower), Globo demonstrates how much faith the artist has in the power of simple forms to express complex emotions and ideas. A 7-foot tall, lead-sheeted bulb vaguely suggestive of a phallus (a notorious Brancusi version is much more literal), Globo is remarkable in the way it swells upwards from an impossibly narrow base to its broad shoulders and top. The progressive enlargement of the shape suggests an inflating balloon or the swelling of a cloud, but the lead-lining has military associations, like a bullet or a bomb. Where Calderon decisively parts company with the streamlined forms of his modernist predecessors is in his surfaces, often made complex by assembling hundreds of tiny, repetitive elements – as is the case here. The lead sheets are embossed with hundreds of raised blister shapes, like rivets, or embroidery, or seated figures. The textured skin links Globo as much to the world of folk or religious art as to the rarified world of sculpted abstraction.
The musical world is full of artists who create mash-ups of unlikely traditions, resulting in bizarre hybrids like Mongolian rap or African techno. The imagery of Mark Calderon similarly draws upon a dizzying variety of historical, religious, and cultural influences, but what makes it work is not the variety of inputs, but the consistent visual intelligence of the output.