“It’s so easy. It just flows. Without effort—effortless,” reads a mantra assiduously repeated in various fonts in the background of Kristin Calabrese’s painting How Things Feel (2021). Yet despite their airy appearance, the artist’s illusionistic canvases depicting stylized text and mundane objects are anything but effortless, sometimes taking years to complete. Compounding this “easy” painting’s ironic undertones, its title is boldly emblazoned in capital letters in the foreground, as though the panel were a handmade sign rather than an artwork. How Things Feel also lends its name to the title of Calabrese’s show at Louise Alexander Gallery / AF Projects in Los Angeles, setting the tone for understanding her work as a dynamic exploration of psychological states.
Since the late 1990s, Calabrese has dedicated her art to processing past traumas and navigating emotional labyrinths born of hardship. For instance, an early series of monumental paintings, which Artforum critic Christopher Miles praised for introducing “in a frank, simple manner material that has previously been romanticized, exoticized, or tokenized,” presents ruined interiors as metaphors for the artist’s difficult upbringing in a dysfunctional family. Her present work continues such analysis by recording her anxieties relating to the pandemic, aging, mortality, and other societal concerns.
In this exhibition, a captivating array of canvases—featuring interiors, detritus, text, plants, and even nonobjective abstractions—coalesces into vignettes from the artist’s life. (Several diminutive paintings, including Democratic Coalition from 2020, also touch on sociopolitical divisions of the moment.) Despite their personal origins, these open-ended portrayals allude to universal issues such as the passage of time, the effects of memory, and the physical and mental effort involved in maintaining one’s existence.
For example, the monumentally scaled Mom’s Panty (2021) depicts a wrinkled, silky blue “granny panty.” The image, which the artist painted from a vintage undergarment like those her mother wore in the ’70s, feels like a memorial—not necessarily to the woman herself, but perhaps to childhood memories of her. Emitting a preternatural sheen against a velvety black backdrop of vertical brushstrokes, the looming pair of briefs is laid out as if to be put on, intimating apprehensions of aging or of becoming like one’s mother.
Emphatic tensions between messiness and mastery permeate Calabrese’s other paintings too. At first glance, the trompe l’oeil image of stairs in It’s an illusion (2020) appears covered in an accumulation of paint drips suggestive of snow; but closer inspection reveals that the white areas are, in fact, gessoed canvas left bare as Calabrese painted the wood grain around them.
Calabrese’s technical finesse, semi-autobiographical content, and compositional references to movements such as Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism locate her within the legacy of painters such as Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Vija Celmins, and Catherine Murphy. Yet in contrast to those artists, Calabrese frequently incorporates painterly interludes, surreal flights of fancy, phrasal snippets, and passages of raw drawing that allude to the steps involved in the artistic process, while also giving material or verbal form to suggestions of distress and destruction.
Back to School (2021), a vanitas encapsulating trepidation about returning to classrooms amid the pandemic, depicts an artificial skeleton in shambles amid a pile of unfinished sketches and art supplies. In a manner recalling Plimack Mangold’s cropped landscapes, a blank border of unprimed canvas surrounds the painted scene. Calabrese achieved this effect by creating the image on a smaller stretcher and later restretching it onto a larger one. By-products of that process enhance its emotional impact—drips over the sides of the original stretcher suggest bodily fluids, staple marks provide a latent sense of violence—and become integral parts of the composition, calling attention to the skeletal structure supporting the painting itself.
Such an emphasis on effort, process, and mundanity brings to mind not only process art but more pointedly the “maintenance art” of feminist performance artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who is known for spotlighting the devalued importance of essential tasks such as sweeping and scrubbing floors or collecting trash. Though Calabrese’s practice diverges widely from hers, the two share an interest in revealing routine labor hidden in the background of pursuits deemed more important. In conjunction with frequent references to disorder and mundane chores, the range of marks in Calabrese’s paintings—from accumulated glazes to stray gestures such as the apparent erasures in Trash Ballot (2016)—speak to larger hierarchies of activities. For instance, just as “finished,” additive brushstrokes are typically valued higher than the pencil lines or erasures that constitute their foundations, the act of painting is generally deemed more important than that of preparing breakfast. But even artists need to eat. Next to a sink containing dirty dishes in Saving My Eggs (2019), a thickly raised texture underneath a veil of refined glazes playfully enhances the materiality of a pile of cracked eggshells, as though the canvas itself were turning into a fractured egg.
After spending time with this show, a viewer becomes aware of how many hours must go into creating a painting to be looked at in a moment. Given enough time, Calabrese’s oils also expand the feeling of a single moment, transmitting a thirst for wonder in the quotidian.