When sculptor Mark Calderon arrived in Seattle, he walked into the city’s prestigious Greg Kucera Gallery to show Kucera slides of his work. The work featured cardboard, sand, chicken feet, flies and wax.
“It was completely new and fresh and work that I hadn’t seen,” Kucera recalls.
That was 30 years ago, and Kucera says Calderon remains a Seattle artist to whom other artists always pay attention. His work has never wavered from the unusual, the poetic or the symbolic, embracing subjects from extinct animals to spirituality to human hands.
Affable and sincere, Calderon notes that people can’t help but connect to a handprint. “The mark of man,” he says during an interview in his Central District studio. It’s a topic he explores in Show of Hands, the name of his 10th solo exhibit at the Greg Kucera Gallery, which continues through December 23. (He’s tied with Roger Shimomura as the longest-showing artist at the gallery.)
In a city whose artists often stick with one style that sells, Calderon, 61, refuses to be a one-note creative, constantly asking, Will it look cool if I make it? Will it be interesting to look at for a while? “I have always tried to push myself out of my comfort zone,” he says. In this show he pushes into territory that’s more political as well as personal, including his own multiracial heritage.
The work around his studio ranges from the achingly realistic—a snake so curvy it looks like it’s made out of rubber rather than lead—to the disconcertingly abstract. He uses multiple mediums, including bronze, cement, wax, book-spine repair tape and, most recently, felt. He peels back a sheet of plastic that covers his 2001 bronze “Madrina.” It looks like a long-haired, robed woman until you circle around it looking for a face—and there is none.
“I’ve always been attracted to silhouettes,” says Calderon, referring both to “Madrina” and a pair of cutout silhouetted hands on the wall, his 2016 “Manus (Reversal of Fortune).” The hands were inspired by Caravaggio’s 1590s painting “The Fortune Teller,” in which a Gypsy steals a man’s ring while reading his palm.
Calderon zeroed in on the duplicitous act, cutting hands out of sheets of mica whose mottled translucence has a fleshy tone. If you don’t know the Caravaggio backstory, this appears to be a kind of “Kumbaya” moment, different ethnicities (light and dark mica) reaching out to one another. But Calderon flips the meaning of the betrayal. In Caravaggio, the lowly Old World person takes advantage of New World wealth. “But I see it as the New World oppressing,” he says. Adventurous but meticulous in choosing materials, he was inspired by a carved mica hand created by the Hopewell people, First Americans whose art traces back to 200 BCE.
Image Courtesy Greg Kucera Gallery
Calderon’s “Manus (Reversal of Fortune)” is a riff on thieving hands from a Caravaggio painting
To illustrate part of his creative process, Calderon stretches his arms straight down, palms up and briefly closes his eyes. It’s what he did to picture a sculpture of his arms. It needed heft, so he fashioned small tiles of mica and stitched them together with wax string to build out a three-dimensional limb. “It got interesting.” The result is a pair of arms that are just stiff and crude enough to look like a kind of protective armor you might want to slip into. But their coppery color signals human skin tone, so they look like amputated limbs; you’re thrown for a loop.
A Mexican-Norwegian-Irish-American from Bakersfield, California, Calderon is preoccupied with nature, death, religion, and ancient cultures and society. He says he hasn’t set out to make work that’s about race, but then again, he has. “I think we’re finally paying attention to the discrimination of African-Americans and Hispanics. It’s a fascinating time.”
Another set of handprints, pressed and molded into white acrylic and cement tiles, reference a 2013 series called Lacuna, which means the place where something is missing. Lacuna hinted at missing people, including Trayvon Martin, Abu Ghraib’s victims and Calderon’s late stepson, Nap. At Kucera, these hands are raised up at actual “frisking level,” yet embedded into a gallery wall, looking like they might have been there for a while. But did we ever really notice?
Mark Calderon | Show of Hands
Through December 23 at Seattle’s Greg Kucera Gallery
Pioneer Square, 212 Third Ave. S; 206.624.0770; gregkucera.com