Contributed by Sharon Arnold / As I open the front door to Robert Yoder’s SEASON, a gallery housed in his beautifully renovated mid-century home, I’m greeted by a boisterous crowd. Seattle is a friendly arts community, excited by Portland artist Calvin Ross Carl’s new series of paintings. When I arrive, Calvin is holding court in the center of the room, conversing with old and new friends in his famously jovial manner. Natural light pouring in from a large south-facing window provides soft illumination, yet the stark white impasto of the canvases contrast brightly against SEASON’s mint-green walls. I politely forego conversation as my eye holds fast to the work on the wall. There, the text declares itself in resounding block letters: BOY ENTERS BURNING HOME TO STAY WARM. I laugh out loud at the absurdity and join the celebration.
Calvin’s signature style originated as pattern-based callbacks to hard edge abstraction or Neo-Plasticism, featuring bright multi-color lines and tessellations. But these paintings are also the beginning of a particular way he applies paint to the canvas: the impasto is the mark, creating an armature for the pattern to emerge like frosting on a cake. Each rising crest of paint is imperfectly perfect, sometimes melted, occasionally crisp. This traditional act of painterliness suggests a homage to the rich tradition of applying paint in thickly glazed layers. But it also illustrates an impeccable 21st century graphic you can easily read from across the room. The reference to our contemporary era of digital design is palpable — if you haven’t yet seen Post-Internet painting, this is it.
In the last few years, Calvin’s work has become primarily text-based, relying on catchy, sometimes absurd, often poignantly biting phrases. Missives such as GIVE UP appear in a Super S or Stussy font, an old-school style of street-art lettering. The request feels both hilarious and fatally apathetic. Why bother? it asks. But it’s delivered in packaging that is both nostalgic and slick, appealing across generations; a clever marketing hit.
Others appear as vague ciphers, the text horizontally elongated and kerning removed so the letters butt up against each other, crowding the words off the edge of the canvas so they’re interrupted and jarring to read, such as one piece OFF WENT THE DUST AND OUT CAME THE PEACH PIT or COMPROMISE YOUR WAY TO HAPPINESS. Only it actually reads like this:
Confectionary opulence belies a dark undercurrent of Dadaist wisdom.
The internet has no dearth of pithy, clever, text-based art; but Calvin delivers his intimately philosophical petits fours in millennial pink, electric green, and other cotton candy colors. In identifying the work as Post-Internet, we begin to see how Calvin’s work derives its composition from a now decades-long history of web-based aesthetics and online branding. The minimal logo is key, the catch phrase significant enough to tug at emotions but lighthearted enough to not weigh us down. Still, the words he chooses break apart the consumerist angle of the slogan into moments of deep, sometimes cutting, introspection and reflection.
“Calvin Ross Carl: The Rose I leave Behind Me,” SEASON, Seattle, WA. Through September 30, 2017.
About the author: Sharon Arnold is a writer, curator, and founder of Bridge Productions, a hybridized commercial/experimental space focusing on process-based work and projects. She also writes Field Notes, a bi-monthly online arts column for Seattle’s City Arts Magazine.