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Essays about the artist
Calzetta: Getting to Here
Time, as we do end up experiencing it at middle age, as a surprisingly dense, packed sediment of years, is not linear, but fluid. It can be compressed, telescoped, and pierced, even rended. So, thinking back to 1980 and Tony Calzetta's exuberant and delightful pink, blue, and cream coloured murals installed in Toronto's ultra-trendy Bloor Street Diner, it seems impossible that these were painted so long ago, and that in fact it has been eight years since the diner and murals were demolished for new development. Can't I still go in and then upstairs and order that trendy meal of spinach quiche with a glass of white wine? - sipping and munching amidst the fanciful city-vista themes of those images that said on canvas what we were reading in places like Toronto Life magazine: Toronto was on the verge of becoming a world-class city, and here was proof.
The period of the late seventies in Toronto was the critical and commercial heyday of the painters so-nicknamed the "shrubs" of Jack Bush. The year 1977, that of Calzetta's first commercial solo exhibition, was also the year of Bush's death. But the influence of the senior abstract painter held on for several years, especially on a loosely acquainted group of mostly abstract painters working within a pretty recognizable genre of lyrical abstraction. Calzetta was a fairly marginal participant in this scene and it was his quirkiness of form and "image" and emphasis on drawing in his paintings that set him apart. His main sources or artistic heroes were artists who had also managed to give drawing a strong role in their painted works, or artists who mostly drew: Jim Dine, Jasper Johns, Pierre Alechinsky, Cy Twombly, and then the figurative work of Philip Guston. But Calzetta was extremely anxious to have his work be his own, and didn't want to be an imitator. Ultimately he feels that the greatest challenge he has had as an artist has been to let his true self out in his works, to be true to his real self in his art, and to give his inner creativity completely free rein. In Calzetta's case, this has meant allowing his drawing to always be at the fore, and allowing his wacky humour to play an increasing role. He would doodle and draw on paper in an automatic fashion, then pare down from the many resulting images a set but evolving repertoire to use (cloud-like forms from 1978-79, waves and bands in 1981, curtains and a stage-set organization in 1983-85).
Thinking of his images as "abstract funnies" or "surreal cartoons", he knew he was running the risk of people not taking his art seriously. Other artists have faced the same dilemma: high art has usually been serious and popular culture (comics, animation) has clutched the risky area of humour to itself. One thinks of Jim Nutt and the Chicago Imagists who worked and showed together in the late 1960s as the Hairy Who, for example, or of the various California Funk artists. High art can mine popular culture to good effect at times, and Calzetta has won himself a following of writers and collectors who have responded positively to his commitment to the "bizarro".
* Michael Ondaatje, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left-Handed Poems. Toronto: Anansi, 1970, p. 41.
Liz Wylie is the curator of the Kelowna Art Gallery. Previously she was the Art Curator at the University of Toronto for eleven years. She has written extensively on historical and contemporary Canadian Art since the late 1970s.
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