From dead soldiers and devil-faced chickens to ceramic fish, emerging American artist Calvin Marcus presents the absurd and surreal in meticulously crafted artworks across multiple mediums and styles. The Whitney Biennial artist's dynamic practice asks questions of and sheds light on the underlying pillars of artistic endeavour.Read More
Born in San Francisco in 1988, Marcus' parents were graphic designers who instilled in him a nuanced sense of design. Marcus completed a BFA at the University of Oregon in 2010, and an MFA at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2015. Marcus lives in the West Adams neighbourhood of Los Angeles next door to his studio converted from an old synagogue.
From early on Marcus has sought to pursue multiple avenues of art simultaneously, allowing different approaches to 'cross-influence' each other. He points to artists like Philip Guston, Paul Thek, and Francis Bacon as well as everyday objects as influences on his style and confrontational subjects. When describing his practice he says, '[I] take everything around me and then combine it with myself and make my own version of it.'
Deliberately evasive of having a 'brand', Marcus starts each body of work afresh using different forms and styles including mixed-media painting, sculpture, and drawing that range from cartoonish figuration to minimalist monochrome.
One of Marcus' seminal series, 'Green Calvin' (2014) consists of ten monochrome canvases painted with a shade of green that is evocative of the green screen used in movies. At the centre of each is a green hand-sculpted ceramic relief of an upside down chicken carcass that incorporates the artist's face. Across the series the chicken carcass is rotated, relative to the face; this kind of variance within the parameters of a serial form underpins many of Marcus' works.
Originally intended to be a straightforward devil mask, the idea took a more surreal form when the artist noticed that a chicken is faced-sized and its inverted legs look like horns. Inverting the psychological paradigm of looking in a mirror and seeing someone else, here the artist looks into his food and sees himself. The artist revisits the monochrome painting and devil mask formula in later works like blue devil (2019).
In the show Were Good Men (2016) at New York gallery C L E A R I N G, Marcus broke from his previous style and presented a series of 'dead soldier paintings'. The concept for the paintings came from a series of smaller drawings made with crayons and sharpies that the artist presented at Frieze, New York, in 2015. The series entitled 'Military Man With Tongue Out' (2014–15) depicted images of old-fashioned military men in different forms distress but presented in a style that evokes both children's drawings and Japanese samurai prints.
For Were Good Men, Marcus scaled up the smaller drawings and collaborated with a New York paint make, Robert Doak, to produce to two-inch-thick versions of crayons from archival pigments that could replicate the waxy quality and colour of Crayola crayons but at a larger scale.
The work is an example of how the artist works in series, honing in on the key elements of a work and creating parameters within it for creating a new one.
Marcus has been known to play with small-scale sculptures, one of the more notable examples being his ceramic series 'Fish in Dish' (circa 2016–18). Across the series the artist presents fish at various stages of gutting and dissection, and in styles that range from simplified pastel-coloured forms to the ultra-realistic. In the large work Fish Lamp (2019), the artist uses four ceramic fish with open mouths as the base of a stand for a Japanese-style paper lamp.
Later, in 2019, Marcus used the fish motif again when he created four 22-foot paintings of elongated sturgeon, inspired by the stretched limo craze of the 1970s and fisherman's watercolours of their catches.
Since 2019, Marcus has made many standalone paintings that incorporate surreal humour and play with disgust and shock: from Pinocchio with his nose cut off to a confluence of three interacting ambiguous anatomical features set against a landscape background. In an interview with the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, the artist said, 'I want my own voice in art to be far from polite'—a rejection of any need to make his work digestible for the viewer.
Even his plant paintings from 2021, based on photos taken of a Begonia that his great-great-grandfather brought from England, seek to instill a sense of disgust. The artist acknowledges the detailed depiction of every hair and fibre emanating from the plant, as somewhat disgusting and appearing almost like pubic hairs.
Marcus has shown his work in solo and group exhibitions internationally.
Solo exhibitions include HER, C L E A R I N G, Beverly Hills (2021); GO HANG A SALAMI IM A LASAGNA HOG, David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles (2019–20); Calvin Marcus: Structure Series, K11 MUSEA, Hong Kong (2019); the inner is the outer of the other, The Power Station, Dallas (2017); and Calvin Marcus, Peep-Hole, Milan (2015).
Group exhibitions include New Acquisitions, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk (2021); Just Connect, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (2020); Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art (2019); Private Passion, Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo (2019); and High Anxiety: New Acquisitions, Rubell Family Collection, Miami (2016).
Calvin Marcus' Instagram can be found here.
Michael Irwin | Ocula | 2022