In his fifth solo show at Anton Kern Gallery, the California-based painter Brian Calvin presents a new body of work featuring tightly-cropped portrait paintings, colored pencil drawings, and anthropomorphic wooden sculptures.
Among the new group of paintings, the artist introduces tondos (circular shaped canvases), whose cropping eliminates any sense of background or place, and underscores the flatness of his compositions. Also, for the first time at the gallery, Calvin presents sculptures: stilt-size painted wooden legs leaning against the wall, suggesting a group of idle teenage loiterers. The exhibition demonstrates the evolution of Calvin’s reduced style of depicting the human form, and a looseness that opens up his pictorial vocabulary.
Through repetition of his archetypal female figure, the artist invites us to look past the inviting face we are confronted by, and consider the idiosyncrasies of his formal choices. By reducing the face to its essential features, and isolating eyes, lips, hair, each work offers pieces of a code for the viewer to interpret.
Oversize eyes gaze past the viewer. Lips are paused between forming words, revealing charmingly imperfect teeth and soft pink tongues. Faces are cropped and abstracted to various degrees, drawing attention to specific features. Mini landscapes appear in fingernails, the shapes and gradations in eyes and lips mimic sunsets over a horizon. Calvin’s dreamy palette of pastels and ocean blues reflects the eternal summer of California and the sweetness of youth.
Throughout the exhibition, the artist presents exercises in seeing. He plays with doubling; hanging works that are nearly identical, but differ in terms of scale, orientation, or expression. Titles such as A Gauche and A Droit, Inhale and Exhale suggest opposites, sequences, or perhaps a duality in states of being. In Sleeper he places mouths where the eyes should be and vice versa. This simple inversion frustrates our instinct to rearrange the features, creating an exciting optical tension.
Calvin’s work is asking, not answering, questions. Unconcerned with representation or narrative, the artist frees himself to meditate in the abstract activity of painting and explore the history of portraiture – from cave paintings, to the Renaissance, to the selfie – tapping into a primitive human desire to create images.