Now Featuring Mike Calway-Fagen
Mike Calway-Fagan’s work straddles a strange space between eeriness, humor and grace. Using materials that range from direct, simple collages to sculptures incorporating animal parts, vintage doo-dads, his combinations evoke the actions of a cataloguer, a prankster and a mourner all at once.
MH: There is a feeling that place and experience inform your work in very specific way and so I’m going to ask a question that I hate getting myself, probably because it’s so generalized, but also sticky and relevant for me, and maybe it will be for you: how did you start making art?
MCF: I’m going to skip all the “I was born with a paintbrush in my hand” kind of answers. I do think I have approached all aspects of my life with a near reckless abandon and desire to squeeze out as much as I could. Fast forward a number of years. I was racing bicycles at the semi-professional level, I had been out of high school for 4 or so years, and eventually ended up getting offered an athletics scholarship in Kentucky to race bikes. I’d never been much of a student and I remembered art class in high school was where I went to get relationship advice and escape Spanish, trig, English, and whatever other academic toxicity waited for me with the next bell. Art was easy, or so I thought. Eventually I would renounce my cycling faith and drop out of school and reapply at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville…. as an art student.
These were my formative years but in a strange way mimic my practice today. It is very much an amalgam of experience- necessary successes, failures, shortfalls, and triumphs.
MH: I’m interested in the collaborations you’ve done with your parents, including Words of mouth and continued legends (2008-present) a series of news clipping of prize catfish catches, which I can’t tell whether your father is participating in order to make work, or to share clippings (as parents do). I like that some of the warmth of the work involves not knowing whether they intend their contributions to help you make work or just to share something with you. I don’t want to lose that mystery but I want to ask you about it anyway.
MCF: Words of mouth and continued legends was very much in response to memory- of family, of home, of nearness and closeness, familial or otherwise. My family has a long history, as many families do, of mailing snippets of newspaper articles the receiver might find interesting or relevant in some way. As a bike racer I would often get such articles from my grandmother, now dead, about the latest helmet law passed or some other such story. All in all the articles amounted to very little in terms of content but it was a way for our family to keep in touch, to extend contact, and to exchange little parts of ourselves. At some point my dad, over his Sunday paper, took particular interest in an article from the outdoor section. I had worked as a fly fishing guide in the Smoky Mountains for a number of years and was always trying to get my dad to let me teach him. His fishing revolved around a chair, a pole, a mess of chicken livers, and a lot of waiting. Still, we found similar solace and spirit in fish. To this day, at 70, he breeds fish, looking for a way to retire without checking out. So I’d like to think I received this article in my Queens, NY mailbox as a result of all of these things. The article still held breakfast-time pen scribblings in the margins. This article was as much the story of a trophy catfish that was caught, driven to a grocery store, carried to the deli counter to be weighed, record validated, and driven back to the lake and released as it was about my family. Our histories, oral and spoken, thought, or not. This was a way to understand the fish and its primitive legacy and our own primordial fabric.
MH: In your video White Gold (2009) you (appear?) to huff spraypaint and then spray paint your face gold. It’s a concise piece and should be funny but is actually pretty wrenching and difficult to watch. It’s a major jump in intensity, at least as a viewer, from your other work, but the humor and matter-of-factness are in line with other projects. Can you talk about it?
MCF: White Gold, this is an interesting piece. For one, that’s not me. I’m behind the camera. Secondly, Seth is definitely huffing the spray paint and definitely getting high. The video requires empathy; you are there, you are huffing, you becoming gold-faced. The cameraman, me, becomes a kind of arbiter. Not just because I am neither immediately taking part or pulling the directorial strings but also because getting high, particularly in this way, is so immediate. The performer reaches ecstasy only to dilute his person with metallic, gold, paint. He has reached a higher plane — he is a gilded pharaoh — or has he? The more dormant ascription is one of whiteness, of authenticity, of otherness, and of identity. There is violence, toward the self, toward the us-as-self.
MH: A lot of your collages seem to refer to a time and place that’s familiar but not quite the here-and-now. With these vintage materials, and some items you use in your sculptures, their uniqueness (and the way you carefully make materials lists) serves a kind of memento mori. Can you talk about how you find your materials, and how their stories and your work intertwine?
MCF: The source material for my collage work is vast. I have amassed something like 500 books, at least this many magazines, and numerous other clippings, cards, and detritus that one way or another creep into the work. Really the whole process form beginning to end is one of collage. A kind of aggregation where I’m seeing things that pique my interest on the shelf in the thrift store, or a table at a yard sale, or in the street gutter. I like to think of the process as a way to enter into an object/image’s lifecycle. Much like the process of collage where images from distinctly different sources have relationships drawn between them- simultaneously specifying their connections and opening up potential for the image’s growth as a singular thing. (The work of John Stezaker is a prime example of simplicity and its potential for complexity.)
MH: Your mention of John Stezaker is a good starting point… who are some of the artists who excite you and influence you?
MCF: Let’s see: I feel a certain kinship with Bas Jan Ader’s work, Adam Chodzko, Mark Manders …you know, really I don’t much look at art. I think maybe it’s more important to talk about the books I read and music I love as I find them far more influential than artists. So here’s a list of those; I love to read and I think it’s important that the collection of books begins to really color my interests: a lot of Southern Gothic writers; Thomas Wolfe’s The Hills Beyond, The Web and the Rock, You Can’t Go Home Again, Beth Conklin’s Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews, Blue Arabesque by Patricia Hempl, I Swear I Saw This by Michael Taussig, Gone to Croatan: Origins of North American Drop Out Culture, The Animal Dialogues by Michael Taussig, An Anthropology of Absence: Materializations of Transcendence and Loss, William Faulkner, Edward Abbey, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Susan Sontag, The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, Rudolph Steiner, Italo Calvino, Straw Dogs, Ernest Becker,Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, Playing Indian by Philip J. Deloria, Looking at the Overlooked by Norman Bryson, The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery by Wolfgang Schivelbusch. I’ll stop there.
And music I find particularly influential: Roscoe Holcomb’s Appalachian folk music, Rainer Maria, female vocalists of all kinds, Songs Ohia, old Modest Mouse, Sunny Day Real Estate, Enya (yeah, that’s right).
MH: What kinds of projects and travels do you have coming up? Place seems to influence your work to some degree, subtly, with the fishing work, and the wood in some of your work from you time at Skowhegan immediately recalling me (I’m from New England) to the woods of home. I’m aware that is sense of place might be there for your viewer more than for you…
MCF: I’m in a group collage show at Southwestern College that opens in a few weeks, and I have a public project through the PODS (Portable On Demand art projects) coming up as well. I’ve just published and released an art book with writers, Rujeko Hockley, Itza Villaboy, and Ivy Cooper. In the fall I’ll have a residency in Indianapolis culminating in a solo show. I’m keeping my fingers crossed on a bunch of other things. I want to go to Djerassi so badly.
To touch on issues of place, location, geography, home, history, memory, etc. have a remarkable effect on me. I’ve noticed a particular impact in being away from my home, Tennessee. Here’s a statement I just wrote for a fellowship that might be of help: I’m continually drawn back to the land, people, and place that is a focal point for so much of my adult life. Tennessee has left an indelible mark on me: a stalwart commitment to the traumatic and defining past , a susceptibility to myth, an unabashed desire for romance all deeply entrenched in my sense of self. My conceptual interests deal with some big ideas, eking out space to understand questions like human worth and insignificance, existence as animals, faith, time, death, love. I look for spaces between established ideas, for what’s uncertain, things outside of scientific inquiry and hard-line rationality. This includes the athropocentric tendency to establish animals as others and prop up the human self by separating, differentiating, and minimalizing a distinctive primeval kinship.
We are in jeopardy of losing our collective imagination, with any meaningful contact with daydreaming, and becoming instead exceedingly more grounded. I make things for people to slow down, look, listen, think, and feel.
For LPP TV we take a look into his work at Good Citizen in St Louis, Missouri. The exhibition dates were January 20- February 25, 2012.