FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — I first met Neil Callander in 2004, shortly after I began teaching at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. Thomas Nozkowski, who was teaching there, told me I should see his work, which I did. At the time, Callander, then a grad student, was making paintings of a single empty bed, really a mattress on a metal frame. Later, he began depicting analog televisions, whose screen and knobs abut the painting’s edges, inspired perhaps by Jasper Johns’s “Flag” (1954-55).
I remember Nozkowski calling me and asking me what I thought about him buying one of the television paintings while Callander was still a student. Whenever I visited Nozkowski and Joyce Robins in High Falls, New York, I would see Callander’s television painting hanging in their living room, along with works by other artists.
Although Callander does not show regularly in New York, I have followed his work ever since that first studio visit 15 years ago. Recently, I had a chance to spend time with him in his studio in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he teaches painting and drawing at the University of Arkansas. The first thing I noticed was a monograph on Edwin Dickson lying open on a desk by the front door of his office on campus, which, I learned, was also where he painted.
Whenever I think of Dickinson, I remember what John Ashbery wrote about him in New York Magazine (October 13, 1980):
Coming on this show fresh from the Whitney’s [Edward] Hopper retrospective made me wonder once again if we really know who our greatest artists are. I would be the last to deny Hopper’s importance, but even in the smallest and most slapdash of these oil sketches, Dickinson seems to me a greater and more elevated painter […]
Loved by painters but largely ignored by museums and the art world, Dickinson’s work can be divided into five basic groups: premier coup paintings of the landscape that were done on site in a single sitting; imaginary scenes that he set up and often labored on for years; historical images based on personal interests (such as Polar explorations and the Civil War); self-portraits; and a series of impasto paintings, dating from 1914-15.
Like Dickinson, Callander is going down a number of paths simultaneously, but, after sitting in his studio for a few hours, it became very clear to me that the link between the two goes much deeper. I notice observational paintings based on his son, still-lifes, landscapes, self-portraits, and set-up scenes, as well as variously sized abstract paintings based on gradations. Although the two groups don’t appear to have anything to do with each other, and on a superficial level they don’t, they both make apparent Callander’s acute attention to color, light, and gradation. This, I think, is the deep, basic connection between Callander and Dickinson; it has nothing to do with style but much to do with painterly ambition.
In the summer of 1912, Edwin Dickinson went to Provincetown to study with Charles W. Hawthorne, an underrated realist painter and important teacher whose theories about painting have influenced generations of artists. As cited in the catalogue Edwin Dickinson in Provincetown, 1912 – 1937 (2007), Dickinson credited Hawthorne with teaching him “that plane relationships (i.e., subtly shifting tonalities) are more representable through comparative value than through implications of contour.” By relying on “comparative value[s]” rather than contours, Dickinson used a paintbrush to feel his way across the canvas in an attempt to register sensations.
Without contours, you have to think about paint differently. You think about surfaces and light. You cannot use paint to fill in, which is the commonplace way of applying the medium and goes back to coloring books and learning to stay between the lines in childhood. Instead of drawing cartoons to locate forms, you have to find them through the act of painting. Callander is allied with this way of working.
The second thing I noticed in Callander’s studio was a contraption that he had set up; it resembled a mobile gone haywire. The scaffold consisted of thin metal bars placed at various angles. Attached to the bars by wires was a hodgepodge of things: metal cans, onions, pieces of stiff paper, and animal skulls.
On a nearby wall I saw the painting “Healing Grounds” (2019), which came from looking at this collection of suspended things. Rather than setting it in a space, Callander worked on a tondo and viewed it from close-up. The palette is dominated by different hues of green, orange, pink, salmon, and violet, as if a purple onion and green lettuce leaf — which can be seen in the painting — generated the color scheme. The challenge was to make the color, light, and suspended objects define a believable space. “Healing Grounds” is unlike any other modern still-life I have seen. I think the nearest precedent would be the work of Spanish Baroque painter Juan Sánchez Cotán, who painted views of suspended fruit and vegetables. But the color in “Healing Grounds” is all Callander — quirky, surprising, and moody.
One path that Callander has been exploring for many years is how much information he can put into a painting. He often addresses this question by discovering how far back he can extend the space through filling it with things. “Dusty’s Stacks” (2011) and “Healing Grounds” are both tondos, the former 38 inches in diameter and the latter 30 inches. The use of the tondo enabled him to engage differently with the situations presented by each grouping of things.
In “Dusty’s Stacks,” we get an elevated view of VHS tapes and books stacked up on a flat surface. We are standing at the edge of the surface looking down and ahead, our eyes moving just enough to take in what is immediately in front of us.
An open can of Miller beer sits atop one stack of paperbacks, partially obscuring the title of John Updike’s novel, Rabbit Is Rich. An orange-and-blue box of Spic And Span household cleaner is visible nearby. The glare of the overhead light is reflected by the laminated covers of the paperbacks, which have been stacked near the tondo’s lower edge, making one cover hard to read and the other partially legible. The surface on which everything sits recedes at a relatively sharp angle, while rising to the midpoint of the tondo. The upper half of the painting is a mirror bathed in darkness, dimly reflecting what is below.
In “Dusty’s Stacks,” we see obsolete consumer objects (e.g., VHS tapes) and different kinds of paperbacks, from an Updike novel to Hillbilly Women, but this is no chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table, to cite Comte de Lautréamont, a favorite writer of the Surrealists. It is an American still life — a collection of disposable objects belonging to someone for whom upward mobility has become a pipe dream, at best. The crepuscular light inflects the painting further.
“Healing Grounds” presents a straight-ahead view, the painting’s circular edge cropping everything outside its circumference. Callander had to paint it in layers, working from the back toward the front, adding more objects, as well as repositioning them, as he went along. By giving himself this problem, he was able to discover how much the painting could contain. And yet, I do not think of “Healing Ground” as a painting exercise. It undoes the basic convention of still life (objects collected on a surface). The choice of onions (orbs) and metal cans (cylinders) do not seem arbitrary either. One can imagine these objects, and possibly the skulls, sitting on a table somewhere in America.
In these two tondos, Callander is attentive to specific details, as well as surfaces and light, while in works such as “Annunciation Afternoon” (2016), he paints the atmosphere as much as the two people sitting at a table, intent on capturing something that we cannot see. In another tondo, “New Watermelon Darts” (2018), he has added wood panels to the original rectangle. A boy in profile is in the foreground throwing darts, while the space that he is standing in recedes to the garage door; a van occupies the space in between the boy and the garage door. The exposed ceiling, insulation, and pipes are beautifully painted, at once rough and precise. The boy’s bright lime-green jersey — in contrast to the muted colors of his surroundings — is like a traffic light inviting us to go past him and see the attention Callander has paid to the lawnmower, ladder, and overhead fluorescent light.
Callander can pivot from these different approaches to perceptual and observational views, to something that might initially appear purely abstract. In the square painting “Gradation Skyblue Large (2019), he empties objects out of the painting. The surface is a carefully adjusted blend of ochre along the bottom edge, turning to sour green-yellow as it rises, and finally becoming blue near the top edge, with bits of red flaring out along the upper right and left edges. The painting seems to be two things at once: an abstract field of a slowly changing hues and an evocation of a polluted sky.
Whatever the subject, Callander uses color, light, and absence of light, to establish mood. His interest in disposable things (beer cans and takeout boxes), outmoded products (VHS tapes and analog televisions), and paperback books, objects that symbolize one’s economic class, and skulls implicitly critiques society’s thirst for the latest and newest. Working on these paintings over long periods, pushing them in different directions, and never settling for a signature style, Callander rejects the art world’s demand for novelty, entertainment, and the timely production of a latest brand. This is partly why he is not better known and also why he should be.
Neil Callander’s work is on display at Goose Barnacle (91 Atlantic Avenue, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn) through January 11.