R. Callner
  Richard Callner's Birthing Chamber  

by Ken Johnson

Richard Callner traffics in a quality that you don't see much of in the mainstream modern tradition: I mean opulence, the dazzling richness of an extravagantly decorated surface. (I'm thinking in particular of the pictures from the 1980s involving vases and rugs in strange, empty rooms, but it is evident throughout his oeuvre.) It's not that alone, however, that accounts for the fascination that his work engenders in the viewer; the opulence in his paintings is not there only for its own sake as a raw opticality like that of the more properly modernistic works of Frank Stella, for example. The opulance of Callner's work is in the servvice of a mystery. It's that combination — opulence and mystery — wherein lies the un-modernistic eccentricity of his art. More than with any post-Picasso/Matisse modernist, it allies him with Beardsley, Klimt and other decadent fin de siec/e dreamers; with 17th century Persian and Indian miniaturists; with Christians manuscript illuminators of Medieval times; with Egyptian tomb decorators. It places him in a tradition in which optical splendor is felt as a psychological metaphor for the awesome wealth of the imagination, the magical other world (into which Alladin, for one, descended), the dreamy unconscious.

To be sure, you don't think of metaphor at first. The moist immediate experience of one of those vase and rug pictures is a mindlessly pleasurable absorption in the sumptuous profusion of minutely detailed patterning. You get right up close to the work and you pour over it, visually wallowing in the luxurious accumulations of little spots, circles, lozenges, stripes, zig-zags, etc., and you savor the delightful candy store varieties and mixtures of color. The effect is sensually stimulating yet soothingly hypnotic.

While you're looking, you also think about the paintings as crafted objects. Here again Callner seems the non-modernist outsider. This is no art of Angst-ridden expressive gesture nor of cerebrally calculated form. It seems rather the patient product of many simple procedures, like embroidery. You can see every move he makes, every brush stroke, every dot, dash and wash; you could almost count the number of additions it took to yield the final sum of a given painting. You feel the unremitting devotion to this endlessly additive repetition. You can imagine the artist in monkish solitude alone in his studio hours on end lost in his craft. You imagine a state of grace.

The paintings are, of course, pictures as well. Painted vases, empty mostly, stand on tables that are draped with patterned fabric. These stand in bizarrely skewed rooms, rooms that Renaissance perspective forgot. You can see other rooms receding this way and that with patterned rugs draped everywhere, on walls and floors, obscuring whatever underlying rational structure there might be. It's a slightly scary, funhouse architecture. What is this place? Clearly meant for no human habitation, it concedes nothing to the needs of ordinary mortals — there are no chairs, no magazines, nothing to eat, no television, no human debris. It seems a sacred place, a sanctuary set aside for spiritual matters, an exotic chapel, or, with its urns containing ashes of the dead, a mausoleum. There is an eery silence, though it may not seem so at first, so riotous are the colors and patterns, so comically cartoony the rendering of objects. On the surface there's humor and manic activity, but underlying that, there's this mystic stillness. It's not a gloomy, mournful ambiance, though. There's a quality of waiting, an expectancy. Those womb-ish vessels, fertilized with the remains of the dead, they're pregnant now, gestating dreams and visions in Callner's birthing chamber of the imagination.


Still Life with
Flowered Vase

Medium: acrylic / oil
46 ½ x 27 ¾ inches


Copyright 2008- Carolyn Callner. All Rights Reserved.