Friday, August 13, 2010

Chris Callahan - He’s back.

Return artist exhibitions, RAs, mark anniversaries. It has been nearly a year since Chris Callahan was here last at Knapp. My excitement has not waned since hanging the show and enjoying Chris’ Artist Reception held last Saturday on the 7th. Chris’s latest selection of paintings Below See Level is a celebration of confidence, color and commitment.

The opening reception was awesome. We had a wonderful turnout with about 60% of Callahan’s buyers from last year attending the event. Leroy and Traci were absent. She did however stop in earlier in the day and loved the show. Leroy and Traci, overall, were my most committed collectors from last year. Refer to my November 12, 2009 blog: Traci and Leroy – Old City Collectors. Come to think of it, I’d like to photograph the bather painting the dynamic duo acquired last year with this year’s current bather painting as a comparrison of styles.

Throughout the night, collectors gathered at my PC sharing and comparing images from last year’s show and acquisitions. It was remarkable as they walked back and forth from pc to new paintings to compare changes from last year. There was lots of excitement. Donald Carter, long time Knapp Gallery patron and Philadelphia Art historian exclaimed “more than a social affair, this is what an opening is supposed to look like, people gathered around in front of paintings and talking about the work. You don’t see a lot of that these days.”

Chris has hung a remarkable show. The work is confident with a definably new palette made up of blues and greens. Earlier this year, Chris and I got together and swapped materials for some paintings. Included in the pile of paint was a 200 ML tube of Lukas 1862 Prussian blue. Well, I must say, he worked the snot out of that tube of paint. - Chris knows how to move me around when necessary. Sometime last year, Chris needed paint and materials. I had tons. I am not painting right now and could afford to let a quantity of material go to a good cause, in trade. It was a “good trade.” I’ve made similar trades with my other painters. I am aware that in my line of work, it is in my best interest to keep fresh quality materials around. Some of my best art has been acquired through trade. Now, I have a sizable Callahan painting collection.

In this new body of work, Callahan challenges us to travel back and embrace the freedom and power of our youth. Including a painting titled Me and My Chuck Taylors, Chris identifies with his core youthful force. This minute iconic detail, magnified by the title, in its minimalism breaks through the cacophony of color claiming its validation. Chris is defiant in the moment, knowing his strength and faith in taking on the challenges of his craft. Chris propped a youthful photograph of him at 7 years old in shorts and black hi-top Pro Keds on the Gallery side table.

I was so moved by the piece that I went out and bought a pair of Chucks. I have not owned a pair of All Stars in 34 years. Interestingly, I did not buy the traditional canvas high black so prevalent today. I opted for a current and cosmopolitan version with lined canvas and padded ankle support; old men like cushion on their feet. I am wearing them right now. In my chucks, like Chris, I am invincible. I am light with a fearlessness that claims dominion over life’s challenges and embraces its infinite possibilities. I called the sales and promotion department of Converse Ltd.; invariably they send you to an answering machine… “We’ll get back to you blah, blah, blah... My message was brief but shared the power of Chris’ paintings (there are a few paintings that include his hi-tops). I told them I wanted a truckload of black Hi-Tops for the opening reception. Apparently, they did not share my enthusiasm; they did not get back to me.

In my mind, a gallery filled of patrons being fitted with Chuck Taylor hi-tops would epitomize the art of Chris’ transcendent message; a real-time installation that spontaneously generates mass freedom, mass invincibility, mass fearlessness.

Walking in the confidence of his two shows last year, Chris introduces an abstract-landscape series of paintings that scream “I am here.” The show moves with a rythym, in and out of definable genres. Derivatives of last year’s Impressionist renderings are infinitely looser; leaving us room to fill in some of the blanks. While Chris’s figure and form representation is decisively Callahan, much of what we see is from the hand of a new painter.

Unique to Chris’s latest body of work is a study we might dedicate to the American painter. Fundamentally a depiction of God’s honoring of His creation and the creature, we are offered an introspection of Callahan’s subconscious. Thematically, Callahan has created an interplay between homosapien and the surrrounding creation; man’s lonely existence portrayed and juxtaposed to the forces of nature. Including titles Moonlit Camp, Lone Camper, The Poet and Truce, Callahan’s Ode to folk painting avails us to the painter’s nuts and bolts; the mechanics.

Callahan, enamored with the historicity and traditions of the American painter. Traveling north in summers, idealizing the landscape as spiritual metaphors, Callahan explores the symbology of his redefined iconography; the fire, hatchet, smoke, the stag. Taming the frontier of our inner selves and harnessing our desire for freedom, Callahan paints out confining societal constraints. Transcending our horizontal existence, Callahan’s romantic notions of self sufficiency acknowledges of our vertical spirituality through spiraling of smoke. “Day to day - moon to moon” Callahan visits Native American notions of air, fire, water and earth.

Meeting and exceeding all of my expectations, Chris has made good on the expectations of those that have passed on; one-time collector of Chris’s watercolors and pen and ink drawings, Violette de Mazia, one time Director of the renowned Barnes Foundation. Corroborating stories hold that when de Mazia’s personal effects were sold at auction, a box labeled "Callahan" was included. Beyond this historicity, I have seen the stack of drawings from which Miss de Mazia extracted her collection. With a remarkably confident “one-line” sense of purpose, Chris’s drawings excel as intimate gestures.

Chris’ dynamic history with the Barnes Foundation is nothing shy of book worthy. Interestingly, he downplays the significance of his intimate knowledge of what many consider the world’s foremost collection of post impression paintings. Chris wants to be known soely for his paintings and commitment to his craft. Nicolas King, Ex-Director of the Barnes Foundation sent me a letter last year, long after the Callahan exhibitions had come down:

“Karl, after several calls I have finally had a chance to see your blog. Your very kind, and astute, comments regarding Chris Callahan's paintings were welcomed. I would venture to shed more light on the relationship of Chris and The Barnes Foundation. Chris was hired as a Gallery Assistant (not a custodian) by me as Superintendent of the Collection. His duties were mainly assisting me with the care and preservation of the collection. This included the assembling (daily) of the average of 35 works of art from the galleries 96 walls and over 100 for the first-year class of Violette de Mazia. This practice was finally abolished at the urging of the National Gallery of Art for 10 years in 1991. Chris did however have an absolutely intimate relationship with the masterpieces in that collection. He further assisted me with the conservation and preservation of textiles (Navajo blankets, oriental rugs, tapestries, silver, furniture, and decorative objects in the collection (not paintings or works on paper).

The watercolors of Chris came to the attention of Violette de Mazia who avidly collected them herself but also promoted and sold them to the Seminar students (4 groups 50 in each group) at the Foundation.

In 1991 as Director of the Art Department, Director of the Arboretum, Head of Conservation (for the insurance values of the 82 paintings on the world tour [3.2 billion] and the inspection of the unpacking and packing of each item at all venues), Archivist, and Teacher of the First-Year Art Appreciation Class, Seminar and ever-expanding educational outreach programs and VIP programs I desperately needed help and asked Chris to return. He immediately endeared himself (again) to all who knew him with his capacity for hard work in his research and his intimate knowledge of the collection. His lectures for the docent program students (most had been students of Violette de Mazia) were not only respected but cheered. We were, and are, very proud of Chris. He is a remarkable man and I applaud your efforts on his behalf.

Thank you and wishing you, and Knapp Gallery, the very best.”
Nicolas King

I need to stop and share an important aspect of Chris, his paintings and our meeting. I’m in the mood to tell a story. Last year, Chris Callahan was delivered to me and the Knapp Gallery doorstep by the hand of God. It is clear that happenstance, serendipity or coincidence had nothing to do with our profound meeting. I believe in miracles. God, the author of miracles, loves Chris Callahan. He loves me too. Initially I was overwhelmed by the notion that such a remarkable and solid body of work not only existed but was also unknown. “Faithfully believing ‘the Lords will be done’, Chris painted patiently waiting for God’s plan and will to unravel. Nearly in a vacuum, Chris painted for 20 years in solitary; waiting and never perusing notoriety.” Until the Knapp gallery, Chris never showed nor sought gallery representation.

The tragic death of Chris’s stepson, Asher, raised from a young boy, knocked the stuffing out of him. Grief stricken and beyond depression, Chris sequestered himself and shut down his studio. Out of concern, a lifetime friend, Edward (Eddie) MacDougal physically put Chris into his car and drove him down to the door of the Knapp Gallery. I was closing and had the key in the door! As they say, the rest is history.

Only after I had offered Chris an exhibition slot, had hung Chris’s first show, had the First Friday opening did Chris share with me his Barnes Foundation story. Chris, desiring an acknowledgement based on a meritocracy, withheld his Barnesian connection. I actually found out through a friend of his that showed up at First Friday; an ex-Barnes Foundation student.

Nicolas King, ex-Director of the Barnes foundation, installed at two different times, once by Violette de Mazia and the other by Richard Glanton was Chris’ first boss at the Barnes. King’s visit to Callahan’s show and subsequent letter validated and corroborated Chris’ story. However, the story does not end there. Nicolas King, an accomplished painter in his own right, along with Petros Pappalas will be showing his work here at Knapp as my lead-off painter in January 2011. Just last week, Chris and I went to Dover, Delaware to make a studio visit to check on Nicolas’ progress. The reunion was emotional, tearful and dramatic. Listening to these two old friends talk about the “old days” at the Foundation was priceless. My photograph of Chris standing in front of Nicolas’ paintings reveals an irony that is beyond words; two old guard Barnesian survivors.

Chris’s body of work is about so much more than the Chuck’s. Foremost, we need to accommodate the frame of mind and reference regarding his work. For Chris Callahan, there is nothing else. There is only painting. I know this guy, good bad or indifferent. Whether you like it, understand it, believe in its authenticity or whether it has lasting value; this is all there is. For good or for worse, Chris’ contribution to humanity will be gifted through his painting. While he may have to do additional things to pay the bills, somewhere and somehow, by day’s end, he will be in front of the canvas. Of his viewers, buyers and collectors, Chris demands a commensurate commitment; having little patience for those of a lukewarm persuasion.

For me, Chris Callahan exemplifies and represents infinite possibilities. Having created, nurtured, cultivated and harvested this new Callahan crop, we believe that our 2011 calendar, made up of predominantly new artistsis is demonstrative of similar possibilities. We have sought out powerful art and artists from many sectors, states and countries. We are confident our 2011 crop will yield a few more relationships like Callahan’s. In the midst of my optimism, I am also realistic; 12 for 12 seems unrealistic.

Rarely am I satisfied. Short lived are my victories. I quickly turn to newer and higher goals. My goals vary in nature. My goal and commitment in representing Chris Callahan is to earn him just rewards for his dedication. Clearly, as a reminder to my previous blog entry, I want to accomplish this while Chris is yet living and above ground. I want somehow between our website, blog and gallery to generate universal confidence among collectors’ inquiries; eve from around the world. However, I’ll start with Philadelphia.

Recently, I had the opportunity to sell some non-Callahan paintings from my own personal collection. I had some paintings that I brought back from Brazil. A guest / collector at my home for dinner, I enjoy cooking, fell in love and had to have these four paintings by Humberto Nigi, my April 2011 painter. In this transaction I experienced a remarkable satisfaction in being able to share my artistic likes with a savvy collector. Agreement is a remarkable tool of validation. Consensus has its rewards. I’ll explain. I know my Artistic palette has value. When first saw the four Nigi paintings, I had the same reaction. Despite Nigi’s reticence to part with the treasures, “I had to have them.” Overwhelmed by my enthusiasm, Nigi packaged my quarry and I was on my way back home. Likewise, despite my reticence, Doug Webster left with my Nigi’s and a monster smile. Doug also loved the idea of being the first in Philadelphia to own Nigi’s paintings.

If agreement is the fundamental notion of sharing perspective and opinion, then non-agreement, conversely, is the absence of consensus. Much of my job unfortunately is spent seemingly speaking into non-agreement. In my attempts to offer fresh-new perspective, I am met with significant resistance at every turn. The wear and tear of being an educator at times has me throwing my hands in the air mimicking Roberto Duran in his display of “no mas, no mas.” Representing hope, confidence commitment and longevity, the Chris Callahan’s keep me in the game.

Just for the record, I am on my way back to Brasil next week to pick up the first half of the Nigi paintings for his April 2011 show. Having generated some significant interest, I am making the work available for some pre-show sales. I am a huge fan of preexisting red dots at an opening reception.

Gauging success is difficult. Discerning and selecting appropriate language that appropriately conveys the essence of this illusive vista is not without its challenges. Last year, my two Callahan exhibitions made up for the lion share of my sales. Significant is the idea that his artwork spoke and continues speak into agreement. In this business, multiple sales are the evidence of agreement. Last year we sold 8 or 9 paintings by Callahan. I don’t like that it distills down to the transferring of currency. It is what it is. To a great degree, we all enter this arena knowing that ultimately, this is about commerce. Beyond that, while paying the rent, we as a gallery exist as the means of continuance; the negotiating vehicle that assures future possibilities. I am here fighting for the survival of my painters; this as real as it gets.

Let’s stop and define fight. Placing myself in harm’s way for the benefit of another is a satisfactory explanation of love. Sacrificing self for the greater good, staking ones reputation based on the efforts of another requires substantial commitment. In selecting my painters now, I must consider these variables. I am willing to risk reputation on Callahan. I once told Chris, before I had sold one of his paintings; Any art dealer, if they concentrated their efforts of just his work, they could make a satisfactory living.

Look at a man while he is yet living. Here is a guy that handled the "dead guy’s" paintings on a daily basis. If we are to glean some knowledge and wisdom from the dead guys, let it be "invest in the living." Interestingly, I'm convinced the dead guys want their influence to have infinitely more value than unobtainable purchased prices. We are doing the lives of our master painters and their processes a significant disservice when we fail to investigate and acknowledge the living by-product of their influence.

Not too long ago, I received some feedback about a particular blog entry “be careful to keep my words soft and sweet as many have to eat them. “ At the time, I thought it was cute. I was showing Jim Bloom at the same time “Picasso” was showing at the Art Museum. Today, my tune and message has strayed little. I was selling wolf tickets, “I’m not afraid of the Art Museum – we just have different addresses.” The quote was something like that. The short of it is, I’m proud of the artwork that I show and promote.