Los Angeles-based artist Calvin Marcus’ work can be characterized by its humorous, playful, and often psychological qualities. Known for his embrace of the subconscious through automatic drawing practices, Marcus employs painting and drawing as meditative processes, in which the mind is encouraged to run wild and meaning is only interpreted after the fact. Following in the footsteps of his surrealist predecessors, Marcus is concerned with unfiltered ideas, underlying fears, and unspoken desires, which can only be channeled when the limiting structures of the psyche are unlocked, when our inner thoughts can somehow manage to escape. Unlike André Masson, Joan Miró, or Jean Arp, however, Marcus alludes to something more sinister in his work, and that is particularly the case in his latest solo exhibition at Clearing’s Upper East Side gallery location.
In ‘Automatic Drawings,’ Marcus presents the audience with a stripped down and subtle continuation of his previous approach, while maintaining its strange, unsettling, and comical edge. Moving away from the silly, colorful, and dreamlike canvases and installations that his viewers are accustomed to seeing, Marcus’ ‘Automatic Drawings’ are entirely black and white, evoking a nightmare more than anything else. An unnerving mélange of seemingly familiar cartoonish characters and repetitive forms inhabits the otherwise empty canvases. A black, bubbling cauldron recurs in multiple drawings, a horizontally positioned skyscraper creeps into view, while dark, beady eyes peer out from the blank void. It is as if the white canvases are plagued by these ominous figures; a clear mind troubled by dark thoughts.
“The artist’s mind isn’t just a site of production but a route for escape,” the exhibition’s press release states, thus begging the question: If this is where the artist escapes to, what on earth does his reality look like? Grotesque and looming, it seems that when purposeful thinking is removed from the creative process, the artist’s mind goes to a rather dark place. As viewers, we can sense the same helplessness that we might feel in a dream, not being able to run fast enough from an unknown and impending doom. In terms of the mind acting as a tool for escape from the harsh realities of life, it appears to be failing us, allowing confusion and chaos to seep back in. Our fantasies, collages of convoluted and nonlinear excerpts from previous memories, encounters, and emotions, begin to topple inwards upon themselves, trapping us in an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ sort of spell. Where is the escape button?
Perhaps it is not, then, the artist himself who escapes through the act of creating, but the thoughts and emotions that are usually suppressed, finding a way out through the artist’s mind. Marcus’ ‘Automatic Drawings’ are honest and raw in their depictions of the human mind in all its perversity, but they are not particularly interesting to look at. While they may be a source of introspection for the artist, revealing a nervous, trippy, anxious, and agitated individual, they are difficult to connect to as someone on the outside. Previous works, like ‘Green Calvin’ and ‘me with tongue,’ had a certain brightness and compelling creepiness about them, inviting us to get to know more about the artist, but Marcus’ latest work is less exciting. Images appear and dissolve into the canvases, but the artist fails to call much to our attention. In fact, he repels us with the monotonous and menacing subject matter of his work. In their black and white minimalism, Marcus’ drawings seem to reduce the power and variety of our minds to a series of cliché, psychedelic visuals. What we are left with is an exercise in automatism that barely scrapes the surface of what the subconscious has to offer; a bad trip, if you ask me, or maybe this is just not the type of escape that I was hoping for.