Los Angeles

Ingrid Calame

Karyn Lovegrove Gallery

One good look at a painting by Ingrid Calame will reveal that the warm critical reception extended to her oeuvre amounts to mountebank persiflage. The gimmick behind the project—Calame traces the shapes of sidewalk stains, then transfers them to aluminum and fills them in with sign-painter’s enamel—was flimsy enough to begin with, and by now it’s just fatuous. The device is intended to bring in chance and, I suppose, free up the control of the ego, but it’s not the cultural anthropology that her fans claim it is. Her process was recently given full view in Los Angeles: Three plans of her stain outlines in neon oranges, acid yellows, etc. were displayed for three weeks, after which a single new ho-hum painting was “unveiled” with all the solemnity and self-importance of a new Rothko. Here, metallic copper and gold splatters among navy and umber only gild the obvious: Despite somehow abjuring psychological and existential aspects, the work smacks of expressionism (the strip-mall variety). The tired hocus-pocus extends to Calame’s titles, gibberish that supposedly onomatopoetically represents the ambient sounds she hears when she completes a painting (motors whirring, fans oscillating, etc.). Yeah, right. Two weeks into its presentation, the new painting was still untitled. (Maybe it took Calame all that time to figure out how to spell ffwsptffwsptffwspt.)

The titling shtick is as moronic as the stain-hunting procedure. Not that stain hunting in itself can’t lead to something remarkable. With Ed Ruscha’s stains, for example, the actual residue of different materials (from beets to Vaseline), you get a visceral sense of content: that different things stain differently, with different intensities and force, even with different temporalities. His stains are palimpsests, stand-ins for painting’s history, artmaking as messmaking. When Ruscha uses staining to make a text, the referential gaming really gets going. In Calame’s work it doesn’t matter what the substance of the original stain was: Dog urine, motor oil, bird poop, cat piss, and blood simply become patterns to be filled in by any color of paint at all. Even if the stains remain life-size, they no longer have any relation to their original context, and there is no literal or metaphorical staining relished in this work—no translucency or merging with the surface, and the colors are no longer dependent on the narrative between stain and pigment. But maybe I forgot to pick up my decoder ring at the door.

Calame’s apologists have invoked art movements and artists ranging from Process art to Conceptualism, from Arp and Rauschcnberg to Smithson and Pollock, to illuminate the meaning of the artist’s flat, splattered paintings. The concept of chance that bolsters Calame’s oeuvre is something that it needs but doesn’t earn; she may rely on found objects, but since she chooses the stains, the colors, and the composition, her process is chance lite, or maybe just chancy. For all the procedural hijinks, Calame’s work is about as conceptual—or interesting—as that kids’ plaything Colorforms, in which bright vinyl shapes arc stuck to a slick surface. Formulaic to the extreme, Calame’s process is not painting. Fine, except that chchchcbchcbch, 2000 (named for a water sprinkler), hanging in the back of the gallery office, convened Pucci-esque splatters of lavenders, pinks, and periwinkles—and if Calame’s folderol really is about the zesty pleasures of sheer opticality, then one wishes that someone would have had the generosity to put the Pucciness front and center where any viewer could have looked, said, Aw, pretty, and left it at that.

Bruce Hainley