Interview: US artist Ingrid Calame
Transferring transfers marks and cracks from ground outside to gallery walls
This article is from 2011.
‘This is it!’ exclaims US artist Ingrid Calame, waving towards a radiant tabletop awash with transparent sacks of bright pigments, a sea of reds, pinks, blues and greens. She’s referring to a new drawing based on tracings plucked from the cement embankments of the Los Angeles River, and destined for the walls of Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery.
Using a range of materials from coloured pencils on Mylar (architectural tracing paper), to enamel paint and most recently, oil paint, Calame is an artist who has long evinced a fierce commitment to an uncompromising working practice. It’s unsurprising, then, that when prompted to discuss this new commission, the artist dives into the technical nuances of her work, enthusing about her template, method, unconventional use of material and ultimate ambivalence over its final colours and composition.
A pure sweep of pigment ‘pounced’ onto the wall through tiny perforations in a transfer drawing, her new wall-based work ‘LA River at Clearwater Street, 2006-8’, although presenting a divergent technique, exemplifies the artist’s long-standing method of working. Since 1997 she has been tracing the marks and stains on the tarmac and concrete of parking lots, sidewalks and highways, forensically detailing the impressions of forces unknown – skids, slips, falls and drips – as well as the ephemeral traces of tags, graffiti and bill posters.
Reclaiming these neglected spaces, Calame’s endeavor has seen her map stretches of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Las Vegas Strip, as well as venturing inside the New York Stock Exchange. Once captured, each tracing is annotated and archived for use in future drawings and paintings. Unlike many of her previous works, this new wall drawing, detailing graffiti, is made from a single layer of unconstellated tracing and its composition has been determined over time, following return visits to the site, as opposed to in the studio.
‘The last time I went and looked at the graffiti, it had been completely rolled over by the city,’ admits Calame. ‘How funny that I have this drawing, for in a way, it’s a monument.’
Her practice is framed by the desire to capture, render or recuperate the unintentional mishaps of our existence. And seen as a whole, her incessant ‘making’ comes to represent a collective desire to fix those things that are often lost to us, parts of our lives that frequently come unstuck. It’s therefore poignant that Calame turns her tools to street art, a marker with a political legacy, as these urban traces are frequently erased or concealed. ‘I do set out to capture something,’ says Calame, ‘but I’m not thinking about making it permanent, I’m responding to something in the moment that I’m collecting and I’m making them finite. Because often they are not. Take a coffee stain on the ground, for example, it isn’t demarcated in the way that a drawing is.’
It is possible to trace an evolution in Calame’s practice from her earlier works, some of which will be on show at Fruitmarket, that involved a static working process and a hugely systematic approach, tracing stains around LA, returning to the studio, layering the drawings and filling in the colours, towards a wider organisational system that involves complex plans and working with a crew of tracers. It has become essential for Calame that a synthesis of experiences informs the creation of each work. Working with a team, Calame has found that she has begun to use her artisans creatively, giving voice to their different styles of translation.
‘What ends up happening, which is the opposite of what I intended to happen, is that the tracing becomes a little bit of a memento. A memento of what it was that I was tracing, that period of time that we were tracing and who it was that was helping me to trace,’ she says. ‘The drawings are not neutral at all. As much as the intention was to go out and find something to trace that I didn’t make, when you make it, it becomes personal to the community of people who have helped, even to the people who walk by and interact.’
Warmly referring to this exhibition as a ‘circus’ of kinds of work, Calame is showing her Mylar pieces alongside her drawings and paintings for the first time, and eagerly admits that this retrospective has prompted her to ‘ re-think the magnitude of her processes. ‘As much as I trace out in the world, I keep a trace of what I’ve done, and going back through this archive, I’ve found a new respect for what I do,’ recognises the artist. Renowned for their beguiling, strange abstraction and striking finish, it’s apparent that this exhibition of painstakingly considered compositions presents the laden results of great artistic labour.
Ingrid Calame, Fruitmarket Gallery, 225 2383, 4 Aug–9 Oct, free.