Text by Luke Healey
The Fruitmarket Galllery’s summer exhibition of work by American artist Ingrid Calame whose beautifully-coloured, intricate drawings and paintings have a specific, if abstracted relationship to the world. Calame’s paintings and drawings all begin with tracings of marks, stains and cracks on the ground made by the artist in various urban locations. Back in the studio, the tracings are combined layered and re-traced in coloured pencil, painted in enamel and, more recently, oil paint. The paintings and drawings that result from this singular process are beautiful and intelligent abstract works. Displayed in a gallery, they retain their connection with the world outside at several removes, exerting an oddly insistent presence.
Stepping into the gallery, one encounters a series of immaculately hung, bright, idiosyncratic paintings in industrial acrylic. These works really are quite stunning to look at, and not just on first impression: abstract but somehow living, the canvases, drawn from the early years of Calame’s career, resemble alien growths or extra-terrestrial cataclysms, and seem to morph and metamorphose with increasing violence the longer one stands in front of them. Marcel Duchamp famously spoke of titles as providing a vital extra element to the artist’s palette, and the iconoclast’s observation is vindicated by these works: titles like weh-HEY-y-JUgo (2004) and Vu-eyp? Vu-eyp? Vueyp? Vu-eyp? (2002) recall a range of sources, from arcane slang to Edwin Morgan’s poem The First Men on Mercury to the post-human, post-language song titles of British experimental techno outfit Autechre.
This fantastical aspect already gives Calame the edge over recent analogues such as Creed and Bustamante, whose aesthetic approaches were wrapped up in logical positivism and spirituality respectively. The more soberly titled Drawings and Working Drawings which form the rest of this show also display a depth of research that further gives Calame the march on her better-known contemporaries. Forming the basis of the acrylic paintings on the ground floor, these large images are created from overlaid tracings on mylar. Calame’s source material are the stains, marks and graffiti that constitute the visual ambience of the modern urban environment. Immediately embedded in Calame’s work is thus a subtle form of institutional critique: the issue of what relationship the institution should adopt to street art is a fraught one, and these large, delicate abstract drawings offer a welcome interpolation in a debate that has a tendency to become polarised and shrill.
While Calame talks of using ephemeral traces to focus her mind’s eye on the “real” and the “non-abstract”, the artist’s work never becomes earnest or excessively concerned with “authenticity”. Like her acrylics, these drawings always resemble something else: large-scale maps, in the case of her overlaid 2011 traces from the banks of the L.A. River and the ArcelorMittal Steel Shipping Building in Buffalo, New York; and galaxies or nebulae in the case of her single-layer tracings from the Wading Pool of the latter city’s Perry Street Housing Projects. Minute faithfulness to the urban realities of late capitalism engenders a geological or geological vagueness. This game of comparative topologies could be just that – a game – were it not for Calame’s evocation, in the interview which accompanies the show, of information culture as an antagonist in her work.
In a short but potent essay which accompanied her 2010 show at Collective, just up the road from the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh’s Old Town, the German artist Hito Steyerl argued ‘In Defence of the Poor Image‘. The ‘Poor Image’, Steyerl understands, is ‘a rag or a rip; an avi or jpeg, a lumpen proletarian within the class society of appearances’. They are images once in possession of an aura, now subject to transmutation and compression. Working with the urban equivalents of these virtual images, Calame subjects them to an ambiguously decompressive operation. Lumpen visual material is converted into full-colour monumentality, not least in the sole original commission featured in this show, the untitled drawing that takes up a whole first-floor wall, produced by pounding (or ‘pouncing’) bags of pigment through the holes of a transfer, in the manner of a Renaissance cartoon. In spite of its scale, however, this process is far from triumphalist: one needs only think of the ArcelorMittal company’s preferred visual statement, the Anish Kapoor-designed Olympic gewgaw that will be East London’s ‘ArcelorMittal Orbit,’ to gain a sense of how tentative and nuanced Calame’s own works are in comparison.
Calame achieves that rare thing: work that visually compels and yet dances provocatively round all manner of issues relating to the visible; and even rarer, a fresh interpolation into the debate surrounding abstraction and representation.
Ingrid Calame: Edinburgh Art Festival Exhibition continues until 9 October.
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Ingrid Calame, The Fruitmarket Gallery
Photograph: Ruth Clark