Adam Caldwell and Jonathan Darby are both artists that are exploring cultural issues at large while also on a personal level, and creating work which offers an in-depth look into both. In the interview below, Caldwell speaks on the influence Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” had on his decision to paint. In this 1936 essay, Walter Benjamin discusses the difference between an original 3-D art object and photographic reproductions of it. He states that an original object, such as a painting, possesses an “aura,” that cannot be captured in reproduction, which is essential to it’s self- to it’s authenticity and function. You don’t have to read the full essay to be able to experience the “aura” of both Caldwell’s and Darby’s work- standing in front of their paintings truly does offer an experience that you cannot get from solely looking at images of their paintings. Take a look below at Caldwell and Darby’s answers to questions that delve into where the artists’ inspiration is found, how their shows develop, and what’s in store for them next.
When/how did you begin researching this particular body of work?
I’ve been thinking for years about using my Grandfather’s writing as a basis for a body of work. In art school I had considered doing a graphic novel using pieces of his novels, but that never panned out. It’s been in the back of my mind since then. When I got the show at White Walls I realized it would be a perfect opportunity.
You’ve described the inspiration for this work as coming directly from your grandfather’s paperback novel covers, juxtaposed with his wife’s (amazing) social-commentary-based photography. How did you arrive upon the idea to use these influences?
A friend of mine found about 10 of my Grandfathers pulp paperbacks a couple years ago in a book store and bought them for me. I was struck by the lurid, pulpy covers. Scantily clad southern girls, whiskey, and lecherous preachers were featured on virtually every one. My grandfather’s work definately includes these elements, but the core of his writing was a critique of class, race, and social conditions in the Deep South. He and Margaret Bourke-White produced several books on these subjects together. I grew up with her actual photographs around the family and they have always been a part of my visual memory. I thought of colliding his pulp covers and her photography and through that interplay exploring themes important to both of them. I also love the way black and white and color images work together.
What parts of your process do you most enjoy?
I love researching a subject, looking for images, writing. Everything feels open and possible. The deadline feels distant and hazy. It’s like the beginning of a love affair. Another thing I really enjoy is the time right before a show, once most of the work is done. If I have worked as hard as possible, I feel that same freedom. I have done my job, it’s out of my hands. My actual favorite thing to do is varnish the pieces. It changes the painting instantly, like magic. Colors deepen, depth increases, it’s very satisfying and once it’s been done the painting is literally sealed-off and I am finished.
Why do you choose to paint in an age where art can and does take so many other forms?
I read Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” when I was an undergrad at CCA and it blew me away. He points out that, as opposed to a reproducible photograph, a painting is an authentic object that has an “aura”. Its actual history as an object cannot be reproduced: who touched it, what space it occupied. I appreciate every form of art but I believe that as all art and culture moves into the digital, the distributed, that the “real” object becomes more valuable and relevant. That said, painting, as opposed to say sculpture or printmaking, lets you quickly change the work, requires a minimum of space and cost, and is pretty portable.
What are some of the tactics you use to push the limits of such a classical form of painting, in order to create something relevant to this specific point in time?
I use collage as a way of creating really unexpected compositions. I try to create really dense, layered spaces. I paint using a few different styles in the same piece. Sometimes I use an a la prima technique, the whole area has to be painted in one sitting, blending wet into wet colors. I will then use a more classical style, using glazes and layers of paint. I like disrupting the unity of the piece, playing different styles and techniques off each other and then trying to figure out how to make it work.
What is your favorite piece from this body of work, and why?
I am pretty happy with the piece ”Tragic Ground”. Several people whose opinion I value have said it’s their favorite. It incorporates a really famous Bourke-White photograph of a line of African-American refugees receiving aid after a flood in front of a billboard depicting a happy white family. I like how all the elements work together against a strong blue sky. The pin-up girl central figure really pops out well.
Are there any elements that you would like to maybe try experimenting with in the future that you haven’t quite incorporated in this latest body of work?
For my next show I am going to shoot all my own reference. I am going to set up large groups of figures in interiors and try some crazy lighting, costumes, and props. I am also going to do a lot more painting from life as practice before I start working on the show itself.
What’s on the horizon for you, both personally and in regards to your artwork?
I have been working constantly for over a year on shows, so I am going to go on hiatus for a bit and meditate. Then I am going to study, do a couple group shows, and spend 6 months working on my next two-person show. I see my career as an artist as an amazing chance to develop my work and maybe to actually say something.
Why do you choose to use paint as the primary medium for your work?
I wouldn’t say I chose painting, it was somewhat of a natural process for me. I grew up with two artists as parents, my mom was an architect, but was also into watercolor painting – and my father was a sculptor, just dealing in all kinds of metal, stone, woodworking and glass. I actually started out sketching. My parents had a copy of Martha Cooper’s “Subway Art” photos, and when I was about 11 years old I started sketching the tags from the photos in the book, essentially copying the tags exactly as they were in the book. From there I was able to begin establishing my own style.
You’ve got an interesting story about your art school experience, care to share?
Well, I had been expelled from the Steiner School, in the middle of high school. I didn’t return to classes, instead I worked with my parents…they’re very liberal, and know what’s best for me. And honestly, as painful as it was, it turns out lots of positive things came from it. When I was about 19, I got my portfolio together and submitted my application for Central St. Martins. I ended up being given unconditional acceptance, even though I had no qualifications.
How did you make the leap from art school in London to supporting charities like CARF?
Honestly, when I was at St. Martins, the fine arts program was really open – and so I would kind of mess about until like 2 days before a critique and think “oh fuck, I’d better make something.” That continued, and I pretty much did fuck all for 3 years…maybe 5 actual paintings in the entirety of that time. Then our senior thesis rolled around, and we had to select a space to make our final work in – everyone was running around trying to secure their locations, and I hadn’t really found a space yet. Someone suggested that I should try to use the front windows of the school, and I thought that it was a brilliant idea; so I put together a plan for what I would do, and turned it in. I ended up painting two huge self-portraits, full of commercial logos (as a commentary on my place in a consumerist society) in the front windows of St. Martins, in the heart of London. Loads of people saw it, and I ended up getting my first solo show 3 months later.
That first show sort of developed out of that same place, and I had incorporated a great deal of logos into the portraits I did. I tried to make the work speak to all the things kids nowadays are exposed to daily, the kinds of things that on a mild level rob them of their innocence: PlayStation, alcohol, sex, etc., – and I feel that what happens to kids now determines what our world will be like later on. That’s how I started to get closer to the work I’m doing with CARF.
And how did you get hooked up with CARF (Children At Risk Foundation)?
I had a show in March 2011 in London, and some time in November I had that “what the hell am I going to do for this show?” moment. I had grown bored with adding odd bits into my paintings or what have you – I wanted something more cohesive, something with more substance. In my research I came across CARF’s photostream on Flickr, and became completely engrossed. (CARF works with kids in Brazil’s impoverished favela communities, to keep these kids from taking to a hard life on the streets) I tracked back through years of their photos, and you can see their progress as time goes on, and they put information about the kids they sponsor on their photos. It was so nice to see these kids off the streets, and the images were so compelling – moving, honest, raw, exciting to me. I felt completely that “I have to do something about it,” these children in Brazil were in some cases being rounded up and executed, because they are a menace to the city – running around stealing, begging, sniffing glue, causing lots of trouble. And here is this great organization offering up programs in capoiera, DJ-ing, art making, music, dance, lots of things that prevent them from ending up out on the streets.
So I contacted the organization, and offered to put together a show based on the images from their photostream, and issuing a fully for-charity print of a young man they worked with called Roney, who is kind of the “face” of the organization. He was killed when he was about 11 years old, and shortly after his death, his brother was killed by a truck. So I built a full-scale mock favela in the gallery, complete with clothes hanging, sound, lighting, furniture, filled it with the pieces of work I had done, and we set up an area with the Roney prints. It was a really experiential thing.
What’s coming up for you in the near future?
I would like very much to make a body of work based more on my own experiences, so I’m working on a few projects that are going to get me closer to being able to do that. I’m going to be teaching art abroad in Mozambique next year.You Might Also Like: