Neil Callander is a painter and Assistant Professor of Art at Mississippi State University. He was born in Louisville, KY, and attended Indiana University (BFA, 2003) and Rutgers University (MFA, 2006). Additionally, he attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2005. He worked as a studio assistant for Jeff Koons, LLC, 2006-7. Recently, Neil was selected by William Bailey for inclusion in Made Realities/Real Situations: Recent Paintings by Neil Callander, Russell Horton and Marc Roder, on view at the Washington Art Association in Washington CT, April 9 – May 7, 2016.
I want to start with something obvious: your paintings reward the viewer who really likes to look at stuff. One would assume that this issues at least in part from your own enjoyment in long engagements with particular corners of this world. I’m curious: are there any significant non-visual motivators in your paintings? Is there a pattern or overarching strategy in your selection of content?
Oh shit Sam – so much here to untangle.
Maybe the first thing to say is also one of the first things I realized about myself as a painter. I have a real aversion to the frivolity that can surround fine art painting. A formative process for me was learning how to navigate around that ethos. Painting is honest, hard work; I fashion myself a craftsman of objects that have images painted on one side – a builder of cultural artifacts.
To the extent I have a strategy for selecting content it’s driven by impulse not intellect. Painting as a proof of concept seems a limiting endeavor. Although sometimes I wish I did, I don’t have a tidy concept to prove. In fact, I have no concept at all – only intent.
Objects come and go in a painting, in the studio, as I search for the right ones that support my intentions. I enjoy old objects imbued with human contact because their meanings are multifarious. The repurposing of mundane objects also intrigue me – like a coffee can holding paint brushes or a TV screen as a mirror. The big paintings can take more than a year to complete and the whole process is organic (objects moving around, being painted out/painted in). I have to stay excited about the damn things so I’ll toss in whatever I’m into at the moment or even what I just got finished eating. Too often still life painting feels like an assemblage of knick-knacks – lifeless and trite.
A realist painter must contend with the fact that narrative is unavoidable. The viewer will always manifest some sort of narrative meaning, and since the viewer is who brings absolution to a painting I fully support their interpretations over my own.
There are instances where you impose a bit of fiction, too. I’m thinking of Dusty’s Table, Dusty’s Stacks, etc. Care to talk some about the moments of more deliberate narrative invention?
I do enjoy creating set-ups that conjure characters. Dusty is a character defined through still life paintings. The still lives exist naturally and are extracted from his life. I made an effort not to write about him or think about him outside of a painting context. He came into existence from a need to get out of my own way. It’s not good to take one’s self too seriously – and I’ve definitely been guilty of that. Dusty’s only purpose in life was to fuel new painting ideas. He allowed me to follow whimsy. I painted Dwight Shrute from The Office adjacent to Julie Andrews on the cover of The Sound of Music – what a match made in heaven!
Let me quote you to you: Experiencing dense paintings that slowly reveal their nature can help us cope with the pervasiveness of fast-talking, slick images. In a media-riddled world, painting is a stabilizing force. You’ve been in Mississippi for the last several years. This gets me thinking about cadence—the pace and rhythm of Southern-inflected speech, of the studio, of paint. Is there any kind of useful intertangling for you between cadences? I’m thinking of place in the geographic sense, of painting as a discipline and a dialogue, of the sense of a precise moment, of the more intimate cycles of home and studio.
I’m convinced that if painting is to have a place in our future it is not through copying the modes and manners of popular culture. There is no way painting could stay relevant. Cinema is the king of narrative. Photography is a much more efficient form of documentation. Music is superior at catharsis. Television and the Internet own propaganda. That leaves painting the domains of materiality and ambiguity.
For those readers who haven’t moved around the country and may not know through comparison, the rural South is a kind of paradise. I’m a lowly Professor of Art and living in a mansion (by international standards) on three acres of woods. My wife and I made a decision to sacrifice a degree of cultural complexity for quality of life. My studio is in the basement of my house along with my lawn equipment. Using the leaf blower is a helpful break from painting.
I’m not a certain-minded or directed painter but I am a confident painter. In other words, I never really know what I’m doing but am confident I’ll be able to find my way in the end. This kind of uncertainty allows for richly painted surfaces. I scrape, sand, wipe, scratch my paintings – subtracting paint happens about as often as adding paint. In moments of frustration I also spit on them, step on them or smear food into them so that they don’t shut me out. That sounds weird but there’s a strange control dynamic that painters know about and deal with in different ways. There comes a point when the painting starts talking back and telling you what it needs to be finished. That’s a dangerous time because doors start closing, avenues of discovery and spontaneity disappear. And one can just proceed on the easiest path towards completion – the one they have trod before. I detest that feeling and so fight to be open to a painting flipping to completion in an instant.
That is a pretty spot-on take of what painting still offers best in the midst of so many options. What drew you into painting in the beginning? When did you know that you had to be a painter?
I think about that a lot actually. I’m a regretful person and can’t help dwelling on past decisions. If not a painter I could have been an arborist or some sort of plant biologist.
But(!) painting does allow the unique experience of making something that is entirely one’s own creation. You’re responsible for every mark, every millimeter of the picture plane. As an entire world is created the painter feels what it must be to be a god.
Having that kind of raw manifestation of one’s abilities and frame of mind has just become a part of how I live life.
Following up on cadence, perhaps: are there artists (or writers, musicians) to whom you regularly return—whose work continues to unfold? If so, who are they?
Without exaggerating, I have watched the American tv series The Office all the way through at least 15 times. The same for The Andy Griffith Show and Star Trek The Next Generation. All three are hopeful shows that balance crassness with kindness in a way that I enjoy getting to know well. It’s like the company of a reassuring friend; that sounds sad but the studio can be a necessarily lonely place. I also reread John Steinbeck and will for the rest of my life. My favorite is The Winter of Our Discontent.
Of course there are painters too, but with painting I am a voracious consumer and learn just as much from what I dislike. To just plug a few that have affected me and whom I feel I share some territory with: De Kooning and Rembrandt, Peter Blume, Catherine Murphy, Fairfield Porter and Lois Dodd, Frans Snyders and Philip Guston.
Please share a piece of good advice you were taught or told, and something useful you had to learn for yourself.
I’m an observer by nature and often fail to realize what’s going on because I’m engrossed in noticing details and thinking in image not words (some people mislabel this as “daydreaming”). I had a professor in college, Barry Gealt, who taught me so much because he is a very different type of person than I am. One thing he said, “I have opinions and you should too!” I thought, “Of course! That’s what I’ve been doing all along – forming opinions.” I needed someone saying the words to realize.
Thank you Neil!
Images included (all courtesy of Neil): Sleeping Porch, 2015, oil on muslin on panel, 48 x 48″; Dusty’s Workspace, 2012, oil on muslin on panel, 38 x 38″; Lindytron 1978 (off), 2015, oil on panel, 25 x 20″. View more at neilcallander.com