R. Callner
  Where's Lilith?  

by Ken Johnson

Richard Callner's art doesn't look like anyone else's. Yet it is deeply traditional - indeed, it is a veritable hall of mirrors in which, as you follow its labyrinthine twists and turns, you glimpse here and there reflections of traditions modern and ancient, Eastern and Western, high-brow and folk. A restless sampler, Callner has borrowed freely and unabashedly while assimilating his influences into a world all his own.

What kind of world is this and how does it fit with late 20 -century experience? The earliest pictures in this retrospective show Callner starting out to create a horror world in the tradition of mordant satirists from Goya to Leon Golub. Like many artists and writers of the Post War era, he was driven by revulsion at the con-sumerist surface of Post War America. But around 1960, he embarked on a different course.

Callner has said that the change in direction happened when it occurred to him that there was enough ugliness in the world and that there was no need to contribute more. What the world needed was beauty, imagination and love. He was not alone in this intuition. As the political turmoil of the 60s and the Vietnam War loomed just over the historical horizon, a whole generation turned toward the possibilities of hedonistic gratification. While popular culture surrendered to the instinctual desires awakened by Elvis, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, abstract painters gave themselves over to the pleasures of color, surface and form. Pop artists joined in with tongue in cheek and even the Minimalists, who are too often thought of as Puritans, made sensory, bodily experience paramount.

For his part, though he too began to cultivate the sensual delights of paint, color and pattern, Callner stuck to symbolism. From the early 60s to the mid-70s, he focused on a female figure named Lilith, a goddess in Jewish mythology whose rebellious and adventurous personality was expunged from the Bible, clearing the way for Eve. Lilith, in Callner's cosmology, is a personification of creative imagination. She is the mother of artists and inventors, while Eve is the mother of ordinary people.

Callner's interest in myth and literature sets him apart from mainstream art in the 60s, when the laws of Modernism as interpreted most influentially by Clement Greenberg banned symbolism, representation and story-telling - anything that might distract attention from the purely visual experience of form. It was a time when "it's illustrative" was the worst thing you could say about a painting.

For Callner, however, Lilith and her sisters Artemis and Pandora were not characters to illustrate so much as inspirations for a certain kind of imagination and a way of painting. The female figures in these paintings are never passive, fleshy odalisques lazing about for the delectation of the male gaze; they are curiously busy — long-legged, slender, sinuous silhouettes, who run, fly, and dance; they shift shape, grow multiple breasts and limbs, and metaphorphize into animals. It is this active, unpredictable spirit of invention that animates Callner's painting not only in its otherworldly imagery but in its material dimension — in the teeming, swirling, pulsating surfaces.

Other artists were captivated by the female figure in the 1960s. Andy Warhol's Marilyn, Roy Lichtenstein's distraught comic book heroines, Tom Wesselman's Great American Nude, and Richard Lindner's amazons, are some of the decades most powerful icons. Some of these verge on pornography — Mel Ramos's pin-ups, for example. Others, like John Wesley, veered toward a Pop-inflected erotic surrealism. Pop Art's ambivalent embrace of movies and advertising certainly influenced this development, as no doubt, did the new mood of sexual freedom that swept the 60s culture. So while many of Callner's references were to things antique, in his approach to the erotic as a gateway to new imaginative possibilities he is very much of his time.

Times change, however, and one of the changes that came along in the 70s and collided with the sexy girl artists of the 60s was feminism. Paintings open to accusations of sexism began to disappear from the artworld. One might wonder to what degree if any this accounts for the disappearance of Lillith and her sisters from Callner's paintings in the mid-70s. But another explanation is suggested by one of the artist's most intriguing works, a large ink drawing from 1980 called Three Birds in Search of Lilith.

Drawn in bold black lines, Three Birds in Search ofLilith is a dream-like picture of three giant, luxuriantly feathered birds swooping into a mysterious, empty, oddly skewed room with richly patterned walls. As though in a vision from The Arabian Nights, doorways open up to rooms further back, implying a warren of hallways continuing to unknown distances. Strangely, the birds are not flying freely through the air; rather, they have merged into the floors and walls, as though they'd been projected there or hallucinated. The paradoxical conflation of figure and ground is a typically delightful Callnerism, but it is also a clue to Lilith's whereabouts. A prosaically minded visitor searching for Lilith would wander through ever-receding hallways and empty rooms and never find her because, as the birds know, she has left her body and blended into the fabric of space and time.

So while the change from figurative imagery to interiors^ still-lives and landscapes is the most visible development, what happened might better be termed a shift from paganism to pantheism - from psychic energies personified to a world animated through and through by spiritual energies. In some of his landscapes, Callner has slyly feminized topographical features like lakes and mountains, invoking the age-old trope of landscape as woman's body. Pictures of chambers richly decorated by Oriental rugs and containing altar-like arrangements of vases and bottles have a haunted air, tilted walls and floors, trapezoidal windows and undulating carpets seem to reverberate in response to an unseen presence. In more recent, abstract work, that animating spirit inhabits the elements of painting itself, generating a kaleidoscopic jazz dance of color, shape and line.

Do such unseen presences really exist in the world? Some great minds have thought so — William Blake, William Butler Yeats and Carl Jung, to mention just three. Most of us today, indoctrinated in the beliefs of modern, empirical science, would view them as fantasy, relegating the mystical to the realm of entertainment, the stuff of Hollywood movies. And so contemporary prejudice would view Callner's art as a whimsical diversion from reality.

But what is reality if not the product of collective imagination? And not just one collective imagination but many, a plurality of imaginations dreaming a multiplicity of realities, many in murderous competition with all the others. This particular world we inhabit — the world of modern America — is no less haunted by ghostly presences than Callner's: the presences of power, competition, speed, money, greed, cruelty and guilt. It's a man's world, some might say, where might makes right, where abstract certainties trump intuitions and sensuous pleasures, where sex is hard and fast rather than blurry, soft and lingering. It's not Lilith's world, but Callner has been in touch with her and in his own valiant way he has made a place for her. So if you want to know where's Lilith, look no further than the surface — she's right there hiding in plain sight.


Lilith Tapestry

ca 1970
woven dyed wool (Mambush Studio, Israel)
80 x 60 inches


Copyright 2008- Carolyn Callner. All Rights Reserved.