Some years ago, I was asked to write a small article about Calvin. The idea was to put his outstanding work on show in a London gallery somewhere East . We were invited to see examples of the artist’s output and interview him in a modest council flat. I became aware of the dire situation in which this person was somehow still managing to create; a remarkable fit of perseverance and dedication that nevertheless are the attributes of the renegade artist in the megapolis whose enzymes break each one of us down as we get sucked into its inhuman digestive system. There was a humble Promethean giant sharing precious time in view of finally exhibiting the fruit of his imagination. But time did not wait for him. We met several times each time failing to secure a date, to ascertain a plan. Something always got in the way, and to this day, I am not sure what it was. A bad traffic jam, walls pushed in, boxes falling, a slippery floor, a bad habit gone out of hand…Sophocles had written of such contre-temps in his tragedies. I once stood in his studio and wondered why it was so incredibly narrow. He had not been so present, involved in an intimate battle with a medusa invading his body, poisoning his organs one by one. New tenants had arrived and to his dismay had pushed the partitions to make room for their sofa. They sat comfortably staring blankly at a coal fire. It was as if he was already gone, as if the city was counting him out, no longer a potential productive agent, listed as expendable. The space that was live suddenly turned into a negative, a premonition of death. This was no longer a studio; it was a tomb, a ruin, desecrated by absolute carelessness and recklessness, a man’s life squeezed out of time and space by the parasite of predatory machination. I knew where I was. I saw pictures of his life leaking out of torn cardboard containers, tools covered in dust, parts of sculptures he never finished, broken vessels, plaster of Paris that had set inside the bags, rusty wire, working clothe that lay like bodies frozen by rigor mortis. But I believed we could help him. Life ‘s branches grew so fast, my path was ripped away from his in what seemed like a lightening flash. The gallery vanished in a past that hovers in my mind like a mythical beast, and as such, it fades with the slow rising sun. One day, in a superstore, Calvin appeared again. We recognised each other and promised to call and meet. Later, while on a residency in Florence, one of the artists suddenly dropped the news. One is never prepared for it. I don’t know why I still have his number; as if expecting to hear his gentle voice at the other end.
Our world has changed indeed for better and for worse. Death is no longer a last ironic chance for the anonymous artist to enter history, the only chance other humans have to witness the product of their quest and thus be nourished, touched and elevated by it. Instead, his or her life’s work will be thrown in the skip next to old pans and broken bricks. A passer by will notice the pans. Far from the “maddening crowd” the vestiges of a lost art will be buried below mountains of refuse. Yes, it happened before, to the work of Sappho that became useful to the commoner as wrapping paper for rubbish, or Vincent Van Gogh’s, whose work was used to block holes or for target practice, not to mention the countless manuscripts burnt on the pyres of erroneous morality; the list is long. But those who took the time to save what they regarded as a phenomenon of beauty, acts of divine inspiration emerging through the imperfect filter of humanity, have been bought or brought down to their knees. We have entered a brand spanking new Dark Age, an age of cultural genocide and a kind of underhand iconoclastic policy hitting artists at the root of their creativity. Yet, this obstacle like all ontological obstacles mirrors the profound search for the sacred in the depth of institutional morbidity. How can we not celebrate such a moment where out of a shadow, still beyond our reach, the crest of a wave begins to glow with pearls of fire? Nothing is lost for those who move with timelessness, a small word by comparison to Life.
Calvin , born in 1964 passed away on the 13th January 2014
Below is the article.
Work of a clandestine Interventionist
Calvin Russel is an artist, arriving on the scene in the early 1990s while remaining backstage unlike his most famous contemporaries whose names have appeared in art history books in their own life time, such as the members of the 1980’s YBA group, most of whom blessed with less than half his talent, now leading the main stream art circuit. Calvin’s work surprises you head on with a raw sense of classical aesthetics and an acerbic sense of humour.
The greatest part of his childhood and early youth was spent in Scotland and Spain. On his return to UK from the latter in 1992, Calvin entered a private art school in Kennington boasting the largest sculpture department and the only one offering figurative art in England. This would be the foundation of a passion for a beauty of form prevalent in his work throughout.
After passing his diploma, Calvin began a long intermittent carrier in the art of props for companies, shops, theatres and so forth. He had after all studied theatre—design–before embarking on a sculpture course. Some of his commissions include making large hands for BT, a Swan for Elton John, eight large fibre glass golden figures for Leicester Square Odeon…still there now in 2013, guarding each side of the screen. Around 1994, Calvin started exhibiting, principally in Spain. Back in England, unable to attract attention on the gallery trail, Calvin continued working in model making, and was commissioned a life size horse for kids, by the Grand National, to get their photos taken.
Most often, he had plenty of time to hide in the studio elaborating ideas and materialising them. Many drawings are not only preparatory sketches but fully developed works. Calvin speaks of his love of Baroque sculpture, which he describes as incomparable and impossible to surpass. Some of the most renown being Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St Theresa (1647–1652) and Pierre Paul Puget’s Perseus and Andromeda, (1715), Musée du Louvre for example, or less known such as Mercurius, in the Amsterdam town hall by Artus Quellinus, or the Apostle Thomas, San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome by Pierre Le Gros, all oozing one particular common trait, human drama in suspended motion. But we also detect a more ancient history, excavated from the ruins of Greece and Ancient Egypt, a Hellenistic curve, a contour defined by a kind of sensual purity. A prelude to Baroque, this vision was exalted in the work of Michelangelo during the Renaissance, The Pietà (1498–1499). Yet, although Calvin’ s obsession for moving limbs, for rhythm and for the kind of anatomical veracity one finds in Bernini’s refined figures, it never detracts from the visceral narrative. There is a latent force at work distending the idea, reforming the traditional figure, transforming the expected into the unpredicted by combining the vision of an old master with the intervention of an artist fully aware of his technological urban heritage in the 2d millennium. The work fluctuates between increasingly intellectual and conceptual notions and the beauty of form. We can admire the comparison in two pieces: Heroin and Maze head. In the former, legs are interlaced into one quasi-intestinal figure the feet of which are perfect feminine objects designed for a fetishist. This Calvin tells us is Life, how beautiful life can be before heroin, the title referring to what happens later, once we have been affected by the merciless drug. In the latter, a Symbolist type of sculpture reminiscent of Dada art, Maze head, springs from a darker more distorted perception; the hole in the head being the starting point and the hole in the heart, being the end point, the traveling ball joining the two opposed worlds of the human psyche. Calvin admits the work took on a more sinister undertone after being diagnosed with cancer triggered by the constant inhalation of resin particles eight years ago. His production, which had been prolific, diminished severely. The work began to reflect the breaking down process Calvin was subjected to during his illness and the subsequent harrowing chemotherapy treatment. Cage Head is undoubtedly representative of this new period. It is sculpted and painted. He conceived it then, at the onset of the illness. The head still awaits the key, which will reside in the centre of the cage. “We all have the key inside our heads, inside the layers and facades and the cages we put around us” Calvin explains.
In another striking piece, Fallen, the figure carries old and new scars. It is supposedly an angel but “gone the other way” and therefore no longer an angel. Calvin talks of “the violence put upon you but also outside of you”. “It is not the devil because it’s a fallen angel…it’s not bad to fall”. The piece embodies the contradiction between the violence of matter and an absolute abandonment of the soul.
In 1992, as Calvin completed his studies, the idea came to him to bypass the ordinary gallery show route and use the element of surprise by directly intervening into the set modes with his work of art, a definite art guerrilla display. This was not entirely new as a concept. The trend had begun with Situationism deriving its impulse from the Dada, Surrealists and Lettrists in the early half of the 20th century. The main point was to engender a live critique of a stagnant institution by realising an idea in the public sphere outside of conventional channels. This was meant to challenge the status quo, principally the art structure based on increasing censorship and commercialism. The Situationists pledged to transform the social landscape by involving the audience in the art. It was an effort at interaction rather than obscurantism. The aim was to create a platform for everyone to join in, so as to make the individual members of the public aware of their potential as free beings and as artists, most importantly to turn the passive audience into an active participant. They hoped to ignite a creative revolt. “The Situationists therefore wanted a different kind of revolution: they wanted the imagination, not a group of men, to seize power, and poetry and art to be made by all” (Demanding the impossible, A history of Anarchism, Peter Marshall, 1992). This was to develop into a more recent movement still active now, although integrated in the digestive system of the art market, Urban Interventionism acting in the social sphere as a performative agent of cultural dissent. It is not only supposed to question the existing art promoted by mainstream galleries but to involve the public in the critique. However, many interventions have become works of art in themselves and although addressing political or environmental issues as with the work of Krzysztof Wodiczko with Hiroshima Projection, 1999 or Christo and Jeanne-Claude with the wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin, the interventionists have slowly become incorporated in the very system they criticised.
Calvin Russel was not making a social comment. He, as many very talented artists, had been kept out of the circuit and basically ignored despite and most probably because of the depth and pathos of his work. There was a practical solution. He decided to implement it. The pirate show was set to take place in Tate Britain. Five years after his initial thought, in the last days of January 1997, Calvin entered the Tate, smuggling his sculpture, Iron Man in his coat while carrying “a cunning folding display plinth disguised as an easel” as it was described in The Express Sunday on February 2d. One newspaper reported: “Security men at the Tate not only missed a 13-inch tall brass nickel sculpture but also failed to spot the plinth which he erected when their backs were turned. Shortly afterwards, a friend brought in a display case and the Iron Man was revealed with a sign that the work had been donated by the artist.” Calvin explained his friend had carried the Perspex case like a shoulder bag. Another friend was set to photograph the event. This was a masterly plan executed with bravado and panache, like the stylish “First Great train Robbery”. Calvin said he was banned from the museum, “but at least, I can now say I have exhibited at the Tate”. A few months later, in May of the same year, he organised a second art intervention on Cork Street, exhibiting the work on the pavement, under the noses of the established venues. For quite sometime his real ambition had been to place a giant version of his Iron Man on the empty plinth in front of the national Gallery. He had already made the 8-foot sculpture out of resin and fiberglass. Ironically, shortly after finding the crane and a willing operator, news came up that the plinth, which had been unoccupied for eight years was to be adorned with temporary sculptures. This dissuaded him, regretfully. But where was he to put his big Iron Man? Calvin proceeded to buy a trailer and transport the sculpture to Spain with a purpose. This was a kind of artistic pilgrimage where Calvin exhibited Iron Man in front of known cultural buildings and monuments such as the Eiffel tower and the cathedral of Barcelona, Sagrada Família amongst others and filmed it. A shopkeeper loved the piece and bought it. Iron Man now bleached and scorched by salt and sun still stands proud staring at the Mediterranean Sea.
Note: Unfortunately, most records of Calvin’s work have eluded me. If anyone still possesses images of his work, please send these to me and I will gladly add them here.
I dedicate this review to all of the great anonymous artists who make this world the beautiful creation it should be. Without art from the depth of the soul, life is not life anymore.
Copyright © Pascal Ancel Bartholdi 2016