BY Jennifer Higgie in Reviews | 09 SEP 01
Featured in
Issue 61

Brian Calvin

BY Jennifer Higgie in Reviews | 09 SEP 01

Looking at Brian Calvin's recent paintings I recalled J. Mascis from Dinosaur Jr mumbling that he couldn't be bothered reading because turning the pages was too much of an effort. However, it's a statement belied by the fact that Mascis also made some really great pop songs, and great pop songs take a lot of work. These four pictures - one large, one small and two medium-sized - embody a similar contradiction. Something of a celebration of slackerdom, they also reveal the artist's keen powers of observation and rigorous approach to his craft (the greatest sin in the world of the slacker).

Further Still (all work 2001) is perhaps the most straightforward picture in the show, and the most immediately appealing. A vaguely androgynous girl stands with one foot on a step, a cigarette or a joint in her hand. She is blowing a smoke-ring (the most animated element of the picture), which gently dissolves in front of her face. It seems unlikely that she has any intention of going anywhere in the near future. She looks good: casual, lazy, indifferent, her red-rimmed eyes more an indication of smoking, I guess, than of weeping. She also appears, in the midst of all her laziness, oddly resolute - perhaps it's her rather nice straight back and expression of unconcern. Behind her is a lake and some pale blue, grey and green hills, which flop about like sleeping whales. The red of her trousers vibrates softly against the blue of the background, and the pink flesh of her face, despite its cartoon-like qualities, emanates a curious realism. Her sad, strong hair slips down her back like an oil slick. The paint is dry and plain and leaks faintly across sloppy edges: Calvin's is an art that embraces the idea of the outline - its economy and clarity - even as it struggles against it.

These are paintings that describe the act of pausing (perhaps an under-represented, undervalued activity) very well. In Calvin's world people seem to stop at odd moments to take stock. Take, for example, Even in Work, Sleep (another great title). A lanky young man is shifting a canvas, and seems to be thinking. That's it. Unless, of course, you take a little time to notice the satisfyingly well-painted glimpse of boxer shorts peeping over his jeans, and the dark, glowing sky illuminating the gap between the two canvases. It's late at night and our hero is still working, but (as he too has red eyes) it's probably due to insomnia. He's painted in profile and resembles a slightly melancholy cartoon rendition of an Egyptian frieze.

Like a still from a minimal narrative, Passing Through describes another moment in the life of the girl from the step. She hasn't left the lake, but has been joined by a guy who appears to be gesturing that something is 'so big' with his fingers. The arms of the couple in this picture create a complex tangle - her two black-clad arms flow like a pair of highways beneath his thin, pale one. You can only see one eye of each face, and both (surprise!) are red-rimmed. Plus ça change ... A single hand also plays a leading role in Half Mast. A yellow-haired and, yes, red-eyed young man stares out of the canvas and holds up his hand, his middle finger almost - but not quite - lifted up in a universal sign of aggression. But that's as far he gets. It's as if he simply can't be bothered to follow through his original impulse (anger can be so enervating).

If ennui as a pose is a little tiresome, as a look (imagine Alex Katz doing time at MTV), it can be revealing - every generation reinvents it differently. Although Calvin isn't doing anything particularly new (artists have painted images of people hanging around for centuries), the way he mines the expressive potential of contemporary gestures and off-kilter frames of mind is compelling. (Remember W. B. Yeats' famous line, 'The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity ...'?)

It's too easy to give into the temptation to confuse a representation of something with what it actually is. In other words, Calvin's may be paintings that explore the physiognomy of slackerdom, but they are not, in themselves, slack. Good painting is too hard for that.

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.