CALZETTA: Line Dancing
Kate Regan 2001
make art, Tony Calzetta has to draw the line. His paintings and
sculptures begin with sketches, and he says he thinks of himself
as a "drawer" more than a painter. "That's when
I get the most enjoyment, putting the line down. I'm attracted
to graphics, and graphics meaning line, as opposed to painterly
graphics." And whereas most English idioms involving the
word line refer to defining limits or boundaries - toeing
the line, staying in line, behind the lines - Calzetta allows
his drawings to wander freely, finding their own curious directions.
It was Paul Klee, also enamoured of the power of graphics, who
wrote of "taking a line for a walk," to see where it
would go. In the same spirit, Calzetta invites his lines to dance,
zoom, fly, gesticulate, spin and toddle. Colour and texture are
vital to his paintings, but it's the idiosyncratic drawing that
gives them punch. In the sculptures, lines jump into a third dimension
and wriggle to life.
And what of Calzetta's images, these strangely capering biomorphic
creatures, half animalistic and half machine? His figures maintain
their cartoon edginess while encountering a variety of threats,
uncertainties and jests. Amusingly wilful, they inhabit a world
where pathos and playfulness meet, yet, his paintings have unexpected
depths. They are light-hearted but not lightweight.
How does Calzetta arrive at these scenes of sinister wit? Why
are some shapes amusing and are their effects universal? Are certain
lines funny? "I think it's the application, not necessarily
the shape or form," he says. "It's part of the emotion
with which you put it down. It's an elusive thing, the play of
seriousness and not-seriousness. Robert Motherwell, for example,
the gravity of his work may come from the sparseness and darkness
and lack of clutter in his forms; clutter seems to take away from
If not actually cluttered, Calzetta's work does seem busy and
full of movement. Phallic clouds whoosh across the canvas, lamp-like
figures wiggle and spout, boat-shaped contraptions float or founder
in rocky seas, and a hirsute vehicle on mismatched wheels wobbles
along an azure incline. He aims for a sense of the precarious.
Simultaneously, his colours, bright and clear with acidy yellows
clashing with pinks or brilliant blues, compound the comedy.
An element of surprise - first for the artist and then for the
viewer - is essential to these works. "I wanted to make something
that was my own, that didn't depend on someone else's theory,"
Calzetta says. "The preliminary sketches are not premeditated,
but they have a direction where they're going. Developing something
from these doodles is an intuitive process, opening myself up
to the possibilities of line and form and colour. The imagery
comes out of the subconscious and builds on itself. Making something
that surprises me is the excitement."
Calzetta's titles, always enigmatic and often hilarious, add to
the intrigue. They have grown wilder over the years, just as his
earlier, somewhat calmer, work has morphed into the antic vivacity
of his most recent series. Jive Ass Atomic Art Queen is
fairly self-explanatory, perhaps, for the depiction of a vehicular
gizmo with attitude tootling under a lemony sky. However, what
is one to make of Mother Hubbard Arriving at the Cupboard Knocks
Two Times Because Marcel Duchamp Lives There or Lester's
Love Wagon Leaves Late?
Originally, there was no connection between titles and the content
of a painting or sculpture. They were deliberately whimsical and
obscure because Calzetta didn't want to force interpretations
about the work. Now, composing a title, he says, "has become
a side art form." Sometimes they conjure up little-known
art "factoids", as in Marcel Seemed Quite Content
in His New Suit With Two Pairs of Pants, a tall, spiky sculpture
crowned in steel. It's a reference to Marcel Duchamp's happy discovery,
upon buying a suit in New York City, that it came with spare pants.
The titles still don't offer a clue about what's going on inside
Calzetta's scenes and constructions. They may imply a mood, perhaps,
or add a sardonic level to the complications of a painting such
as Bob's Life was Quite Exciting With the New Art and All.
This particularly lively panel has two humanoid beings under imminent
assault by fist-like clouds, while a fallen form on the left foreground
is gushing a splotch of something white.
We don't know what it all means, but what's remarkable in the
paintings is their implication of drama, depth and animation.
Each is "framed" in painted borders. There is a clear
impression of top and bottom, foreground and background, wherein
certain events are at play. Cloud shapes that appear both menacing
and funny often loom over the central figures.
What may not be so immediately obvious is how beautiful and stimulating
Calzetta's pieces are. You can be captivated by their humour and
then stay to savour their intensity.
Although he emphasizes that his work is "not really to do
with paint," since he draws first in graphite or charcoal
and then colours in with oil sticks and/or acrylics, Calzetta
in fact has developed a distinctive and subtle use of colour and
texture. If he is not "painterly" in the sense of piling
on the pigment, he is a master of tone and mood. The brightness
of his primary palette is enriched by contrasting blacks and greys.
Frequently he creates a delicate shimmering effect by scratching,
cross-hatching or overpainting his background fields. The radiant
play of light on these canvases deepens their drama.
The current exhibition includes three of Calzetta's large sculptures,
constructed of tightly corrugated cardboard, steel, charcoal and
shellac. He began working in three dimensions at a time when he
felt stalled in his painting and needed a new challenge. "Turning
to sculpture turned me around because of the unfamiliarity of
materials; it was a new problem to solve."
There's a clear relationship between the postures and gestures
of Calzetta's constructions and those in his pictures. While monochromatic
rather than vividly tinted, they have the same jaunty defiance
of his graphics and indeed, originate from drawings. Miss Spike,
with its demure little back legs, funky front wheels and a crown
of wavy steel, looks like something Miro would have played with,
while Good Morning Trotsky has the quirky dignity of an
alien observing its observers. Marcel Seemed Quite Content
in His New Suit With Two Pairs of Pants, less zoomorphic than
its cousins, confronts us with a spirited, prickly presence.
"Making the work yours" is what an artist has to do, Calzetta
says. "You have to extract it out of yourself. There is so much that's
written, recorded, catalogued, filmed, photographed, that you can spend
all your life researching and looking at stuff and not doing anything
of your own. At what point do you stop, draw the line?"
Regan is an independent writer and curator based in Toronto.