New York

Loren Calaway

Althea Viafora Gallery

Loren Calaway’s mixed-media constructions use the vocabulary of elegant furnishings and fine carpentry. These wall-mounted and free-standing consoles contain drawers, doors, cubbyholes, marble tablets, and fine brass hardware. They are constructed in ways that play with the viewer’s expectations by reframing habitual perceptions into awkward moments of self-doubt. The closer one looks, the more one is trapped in a labyrinth of semantic turmoil. Calaway’s work invokes a kind of double-talk, where the language spoken is recognizable yet ultimately nonsensical. The functionality of fine furnishings is reversed and becomes the site for a defiantly uncategorizable dysfunctionality.

The exhibition is a survey that spans Calaway’s artistic production since 1976. In the earlier works, Calaway employs text and image, playing with the viewer’s anticipation of a conventional relationship between these two elements, where one in some way illustrates the other. In A Deceitful Trick, 1977, Calaway presents a framed text that describes a driver’s passage through a small town and his wonder regarding the origins of the town’s name. The text is accompanied by a row of seven identical photographs of a wooden duck, and by seven little boxes. The absence of any logical relationship between the photographs, the boxes, and the text’s narrative forces the viewer to focus upon unsatisfied expectations rather than any correlative content. This undermining of the conventional modes of pictorial expression and the viewer’s reception are central to the artist’s project.

Calaway’s work from the ’80s is more sculptural and omits text. It begins to explore the role that purer, more furniturelike objects play in relation to the spectator’s preconceptions. Untitled, 1983, which resembles a desk, stands low to the ground on thin, spindly legs. The top is lined with tin, and framed by tiny cubby holes. Some drawers have been left empty, while others are filled with boxes and numbered lead weights. A framed landscape drawing resembling a freehand copy of a computer-generated image is inset upon a backboard. The whole setup seems familiar, akin to furnishings one might find in a New England home or an antique shop. Close inspection, however, reveals that the disparate elements have no intrinsic relationship to one another. A mechanical drawing framed in a brass plaque is riveted to the tabletop. Its format immediately makes the viewer expect the diagram to be a blueprint for the sculpture’s construction. However, this key unlocks no doors. The result is a piece that sets up a tension between the familiar and the artificial.

The gallery’s typical whitewashed walls and pristine setting detracted from the work as a whole. Each piece might appear stronger if presented in the context of a home or a museum of natural history, where the tension would not only be between the viewer and the object but between the object’s context and what the viewer expects to see in such a situation.

Kirby Gookin