LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — In February 2019, I participated in the 47th Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900. While I was there, I met Miranda Lash, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Speed Museum, who graciously gave me a tour of the collection, as well as brought me to various places in the city. Among the many things I experienced that day, one stood out for many reasons.
At the entrance to the European Paintings collection, on the walls flanking the doorway, the museum’s European Paintings curator, Erika Holmquist-Wall, had placed two recent paintings by Tiffany Calvert. Calvert had been graduate student at the Mason Gross School of the Arts (Rutgers University), where I have been teaching since 2002, and her work reminded me of the heated debate about painting that divided the faculty at the time I was hired.
This is the wall label that Holmquist-Wall wrote for the two paintings, “#296” (2017, oil on inkjet print on canvas, 48 by 60 inches) and “#289” (2017, oil on inkjet print on canvas, 48 by 60 inches):
Merging Past and Present
As an artist, Tiffany Calvert applies contemporary painting techniques to historical imagery. Her recent work uses the seventeenth-century Dutch floral still life as a springboard for exploring the shifting nature of human perception. […] The paintings on display here are oil paintings on printed reproductions of a work by Dutch artist P. W. Windtraken. Calvert has intervened by matching paint to Windtraken’s original color palette, camouflaging it within the picture. Other techniques such as gridding, fragmentation, and image reversal serve to obstruct and interrupt the viewer’s perception of the image. Like a digital “glitch” or a scrambled transmission, Calvert generates paintings that are suspended in a moment, simultaneously on the verge of disintegration or cohesion.
I was interested in the difference between the two paintings. While “#289” made an obvious reference to a computer glitch, or what Holmquist-Wall called a “scrambled transmission,” I saw the horizontal and vertical patches of the glitch as evoking Piet Mondrian’s “Plus & Minus” works.
Calvert’s intervention in “#296” seemed more respectful of the original image than “#289,” which I felt was too dependent on the “scrambled transmission” for its effects. In “#296,” the paint was strong enough in its intervention. At the same time, it was clear to me that Calvert was in pursuit of something that she had not foreclosed upon, and that her interventions had not hardened into a style that leveled the differences between her sources
I kept wondering what motivated Calvert to make the decisions that led her to painting over the inkjet print of a 17th-century Dutch floral still life. I also knew that I was returning Louisville in February 2020 to attend the conference again, and that I would request a visit to her studio to ask her directly.
In the meantime, I speculated about the role that the debate over painting and its death might have played in these works, as there are artists who paint and those who use paint. Knowing the work that Calvert did as a grad student, I guessed that she associates with the artists who paint, but not without some skepticism.
In an interview I did with Tom Burckhardt that appeared in The Brooklyn Rail (April 2011), he said:
I feel that when a painting is hung on the wall in a gallery with nothing on it, it has this assumption of quality; it’s already 50 percent on the way to being a work of art. Sometimes I find I am dissatisfied with looking at art where I feel like there’s only another small percent added to that scenario. […] I want to find a way that’s work intensive and Calvinist about really putting something into it that matters to me; that is time, and process, and things like that. I like this idea of beating the premise down to the ground somehow, in a good natured way, where the very idea of painting is kind of squashed down flat somehow and I am almost endorsing this idea of painting being dead. That seems like a great starting point.
For artists of Calvert’s generation, the dilemma of making paintings after its “death” (starting in the 1960s) and “return” (starting in the 1980s) is to choose which legacy to embrace, since each position would seem to exclude the other.
Yet as I see it, she recognizes each of these divergent positions as part of her heritage, and that neither has triumphed over the other, which connects her to artists as different as Burckhardt, Pieter Schoolwerth, and Wendy White (who also earned her MFA from Rutgers), as well as established figures like David Reed, William Tillyer, and William T. Wiley, and artists virtually unknown in America, such as the great Brazilian artist, Leda Catunda. In all of their work, you encounter divisions grinding together with tectonic pressure, never resolving into a unitary whole but never falling apart.
There were four recent paintings in Calvert’s studio; three measured 55 by 68 inches and the fourth, smaller one was 48 by 60 inches. Each canvas used a 17th-century Dutch floral still life printed with water-based latex as a ground, images that she would scan from books or search on Google.
Calvert used to block off areas with tape, but now she invents large, one-piece masks made of adhesive vinyl, which can be applied to the digitally printed canvas, leaving certain areas exposed. She paints on these areas, then removes the mask. Because the mask will peel off if left overnight, she must finish the painting in a single session, so that the mask can be pulled off without affecting the still-wet brushstrokes.
One of Calvert’s recurring sources is Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750), who was credited with inventing her own style of painting and, highly regarded in her lifetime, remains the most thoroughly documented woman painter of the Golden Age of Dutch painting. Calvert, however, does not limit her research to the artists.
She knows the names of the flowers and pointed out one of her favorites, a white-and-red striped Semper Augustus tulip, which had been infected by the Tulip Breaking virus. The virus, which is spread by aphids, causes the color to break up in the petals. I read this tulip as two colors in a single abstract form and, simultaneously, a diseased, beautiful flower.
For her painting “#334” (2020), Calvert used a vinyl mask to block out areas the floral arrangement in Ruysch’s “Vase with Flowers” (1700). Everything is planned in advance, including the colors she uses. Painting over the image of the arrangement, she left the diseased tulip visible, along with a petaled orange flower facing the viewer, near the exact center of the still life, anchoring our attention. In “#334,” the dialogue that Calvert is having with the printed image is clearly stated, most explicitly in the wide, tactile brushstrokes made of two hues.
Improvisation (or what can be defined as call and response) plays a central role in these works. Looking at “#334,” our attention switches from photographic image to palpable brushstroke, and from resemblance to luscious paint, while noting the seams and interactions between the two.
The original floral arrangement is meticulously designed to look spontaneous. By playing out the dance between the natural and artificial, Calvert is focusing a keen eye on whether these distinctions can even be made in our postmodern world. Are the flowers in the printed image evolving, or degenerating, into paint – which is ultimately matter derived from the earth?
The source of “#336” is Willem van Aelst’s “Still Life with Fruit” (1664, oil on canvas. 67.3 by 52.1 cm, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid). Ruysch was apprenticed to van Aelst at the age of fifteen. The dance is closer here than in “#334,” in that it is not always clear where image ends and paint begins. Calvert has retained the two birds near the top of van Aelst’s painting, and other details peek through the brushstrokes.
Calvert’s paintings are palimpsests, archeological digs, engagements with art history, improvisational riffs, and fractured views. They wrestle with painting’s dual legacy without settling on an answer — a refusal that fills her works with painterly pizzazz. It is a refusal that connects Calvert to another Dutch artist, Willem de Kooning.
Tiffany Calvert’s paintings are on view at the Speed Museum of Art (2035 South Third Street, Louisville, Kentucky).