Unnatural Habitats
Tim Callaghan @ William Busta

Our earliest memories are also usually the simplest: something happened, something
memorably nice or not-so-nice, while the sky was a certain color, or a certain sound, or a
smell, or a taste was running through it. The senses coagulate around a singular event in
all their bright specificity, like brilliant smears of paint. It’s only much later that a storyline
emerges, imposing the interlocking grid of plot and significance, making sense of an
experience/image that was originally about as orderly as hair caught in a drain. Tim
Callaghan’s paintings attempt to be simple in this way, not wasting paint or undue
draughtmanship in works that are conflations of brushstroke, form, and deliberately cursory

Like many other ambitious painters of the past century (Francis Bacon was an especially
expressive and articulate example), Callaghan seeks to use painting as a tool to escape
from the mental drudgery of routine perception. His paintings at William Busta’s gallery
combine brushy sketches of real things with passages that resemble abstract paintings, as
if trying to close the gap between them. Many of Callaghan’s titles reflect a taste for
literature and music as well, emphasizing the synaesthetic nature of perception. Mark Twain
(2007) for instance shows us a scene in a downtown-type artist’s studio. Toward the center
a pile of stretchers teeters unsteadily next to a table fan and jars of acrylic paint, while a
blank piece of paper curls high up on a square support column. Plastic sheeting subsides
along a line of sunlit windows in the background. There’s nothing too Huckleberry Fin n
about any of that, while a friendly, contemporary American feel to the composition and
pastel coloring push it toward ‘toon-iness. It could almost be a painting by Dana Schutz,
Callaghan’s classmate at the Cleveland Institute of Art in the late 1990’s. But the
determined absence of the human figure sets it apart, plus an almost contemptuous
disregard for the real presence of paint. But the title here is a clue, and like Samuel
Clemens’ pen name it means several things, including “notice that there are two.” On closer
examination, Mark Twain falls apart here and there, devolving into steaks and blotches of
pure color, like a Sonia Delauney painting from the 1920’s, or like the nearly abstract small
landscape journeys of contemporary artist David Dupuis.. It’s also a little like a glimpse of
underlying code in director Andy Wachowski’s 1999 film The Matrix.

Callaghan’s paintings are steeped in art history and popular culture, to such an extent that
their overt claim to simplicity is really just another footnote. The great American painter of
the 1950’s Fairfield Porter is probably the grandfather of these works, but the uninflected
flatness that Callaghan aspires to also owes something to Alex Katz’ portraits and
landscapes. And it seems important that Callaghan stops before his depiction gets too flat,
probably because on the way back to perceptual freshness he stirs the embers of an old
quarrel between the illusionistic intentions of painting and theoretical notions of abstraction
as a less agenda-driven activity. But Callaghan is a peaceable artist and even as he
revisits that old struggle, sparks hardly fly He seems to consciously avoid drama at all costs
in order to maintain a state of painterly reverie, where substitutions, elisions, and informal
concatenations float on a hard-to-define scrim of mood.

One of the least narrative, least emotional, most nearly abstract paintings in the current
show is The Idiot Son (2006). Again like Dana Schutz, and like another well-known
classmate, Craig Kucia, Callaghan sometimes likes to paint piles of things. Maybe for all of
them it’s a trope for the painting of stuff in general, for the mere accumulation of marks and
paint – literally a whatever statement. Callaghan’s pile in The Idiot Son is placed at the right
margin of the canvas; it looks about the size of a haystack and is especially indistinct, just
at the threshold of not being a picture of a pile at all. Still, it does appear to be composed of
logs, and in a gray semi-circle of shadow at its base the painter has sketched a couple of
stumps. Bisecting the pictorial space vertically from the bottom of the canvas, something
like a board rises, then stops in the middle and is stuck at right angles to another board,
heading on out of the canvas to the left. That’s it. You can almost hear the painting
muttering to itself, So what?.. The title could mean something about futility or the
destruction of the environment, or not. The whole thing is the equivalent of a shrug.

Yet despite all the evident ennui there is a surprising amount of calm visual pleasure in
works like The Idiot Son, and my own personal favorite, Perspective Denizon (2007). Most
of Callaghan’s subjects appear to be daytime visions, but in that work a bright sphere of
white light flashes against a distinctly nocturnal gray and black background. The three-point
perspective referred to in the title culminates in what may be a streetlight seen from below,
surrounded by a fish-bowl horizon of clumpy buildings, stumpy tree branches, and a splash
of dark gray-black clouds. Near the center and close to some prickly pine needles, a
reddish orb hovers. It looks enough like something to not be just a mistake, a blotch; but
what is it? Probably this is the painting’s “denizon,” and what more can you say? Most of
Callaghan’s paintings seem to be made as temporary shelters for any ragged, belated
feeling or perception that might stagger past: habitats for whatever truth can evade the
“truthiness” of custom and usage.

William Busta has long been committed to showing the most adventurous and ambitious art
that northern Ohio has to offer. His new gallery on Prospect Avenue is off to a very solid
start. Tim Callaghan’s work is up-to-the-minute contemporary painting by any standard, and
it’s exciting that this is the artist’s first solo show. An exhibit of other recent and long-term
Busta artists in the smaller front gallery is also convincingly strong. Matthew Kolodziej’s
large painting Effervescence, recently on view at Oberlin’s FAVA Gallery (Free Times
3/21/07) hangs in the front, surrounded by smaller works from some of the region’s best
artists: Eva Kwong, Don Harvey, Hildur Johnsson, and Christi Burchfield.

[Free Times 4/25/07]]