What are you, chicken?
by Talon Gustafson
a review of
Calvin Marcus's Green Calvin
C L E A R I N G Gallery

We’ve got a joker here people. What’s his bit? Artistic narcissism. Rich territory, considering nobody is more self-obsessed than artists. There’s plenty of evidence of this on Instagram. Pics of their work, pics of their studio, pics of them making their work in their studio, pics of a blog showing them making their work in their studio. So many art pics, you’re dying for them to throw you a mercy pic of their dinner to switch it up (The savvier artists already do this).

But this behavior comes as no shocker. Let’s remember, artists invented the selfie. They were making selfies back when people were dying of the plague. And throughout history, artists have made self-portraits for various reasons, namely to: address their own mortality, to contemplate their own psychology, and to promote their own careers. With Green Calvin, I can see a little of each reason at play, but, as the press release tells us, this show is not just about the artist, Calvin Marcus, it’s about the artist “reflecting on the narcissistic nature of art production.” And by “reflecting” I think we can assume there’s a critique implied.

So how does Marcus weigh in on this narcissism? By making a bunch of self-portraits. Irony rears its ugly chicken head. The show consists of several monochromes in movie-greenscreen green, roughly the shape of a letter box film. Hand crafted ceramic chickens protrude from the center, with Marcus’s face hewn into the top. These are oven-ready chickens, Butterball style, the kind you pop into the oven at 350 degrees for two hours or buy at Boston Market on rotisserie for $6.99 (Don’t quote me on that price. I haven’t been to one since 2008). The orientation of the chickens vary, sometimes the wings are on top, sometimes the legs are, either way, the limbs create exaggerated ear-like protrusions, adding a grotesque, gargoyle expression to the portraits. The overall appearance is reminiscent of the childlike gesture of sticking your thumbs in your ears while wagging your fingers around for the “nah, nah, nah, nah, nah” taunt.

In a similar “nah, nah" gesture, the monochrome is notable in art history for ending the evolution of illusionism in painting by referring only to itself. In 1951, Robert Rauschenberg added some illusion back into the monochrome with his White Paintings, rendered so glaringly white that the canvas became reflective. Marcus, riffing on this history, has chosen a color that is traditionally used to refer to anything but itself. The color that facilitates limitless illusionism and movie magic by being keyed out and removed. We never see it. Here we get to Marcus’s comment on the narcissism of art production. He’s keyed out all of the time consuming illusionism and craft that artists labor over. No hotshot painting. No charismatic brushwork. No narrative. Instead, he’s left us with an unusable CGI production tool and a silly face with a shit-eating grin.

Can art production not be narcissistic? Is Marcus advocating social practice or inventionist art? Is this a super ironic call to arms? Wouldn’t it be more direct to just start up an artisan soup kitchen or something? Bypass the irony.

If we do bypass the irony and take out the critique on self-loving art production the work quickly turns into an emo, one-liner – all we are are chickens in a sea of post internet image objects. I personally prefer this read because it hits on what I think Green Calvin is about – guilt and fear. We’re living in a time where there are more artists than ever before, however, art's role in culture is more confused than ever before. Artists are asking themselves, “What are we doing?” Self-consciousness is running rampant. Being self-aware is perhaps the most valued characteristic an artist can possess at the moment. It’s the primary thing taught in graduate schools. I know what I’m doing and I’m going to let you know that I know what I’m doing. It’s the equivalent of taking a selfie and hashtagging it #selfie, as if to say, “Ya, I know I’m being narcissistic. It’s a joke. I’m critiquing narcissistic people.” Artists need to let go of the guilt. You’re not teaching underprivileged 4th graders how to read, but that’s ok. You’re making art, and it is narcissistic. If you don’t think so, you’re probably a narcissist. I recently watched a Richard Pryor stand up special from 1982, which he performed a few months after a freebasing incident that caught him on fire and burned his face and body. I was surprised that he chose to joke about such a catastrophe, but he seemed to have no guilt over the subject and the bit went on for quite a while. He ended the show by retelling a joke that he overheard someone tell on the street. He pulled out a matchbook and lit a match. “Who’s this? It’s Richard Pryor running down the street.”

Robert Rauschenberg White Paintings, 1951