Bob Nickas

Catalog of the Exhibition, 1984-2011

2nd Cannons Publications



Ben Berlow—Graham Caldwell

Martos Gallery, New York

...As with most people we know, there's no particular story to how Graham Caldwell and I first met: I was out one night to see a band, Orphan, whose records I would subsequently release, and he was there, a friend of the band. Often, the people you meet at shows are either musicians or artists or both. Graham told me he was an artist. When I asked what sort of work he did, and he said that he made blown glass sculpture, I wasn't sure how to react. Like a lot of people in the art world, it had taken me a while to come around to craft, or at least to anything that doesn't fit within a prescribed notion of contemporary art. Certain artists were able to shift that way of thinking, and in many ways reverse the idea of the kind of works that were being dispensed "over" or "under the counter"—from the knitted pieces of Rosemarie Trockel to the ceramics of Mary Heilmann. Even so, this could still be easily dismissed, and usually by male critics and curators, as women's work. But it was hard to understand a bias against the handmade: weren't most paintings and drawings made by hand? Weren't those works that evinced the sign of th ehand more greatly valued because they left behind traces of touch? The hands-off esthetic of sculpture in the '80s, characterized by works involving more of a fabricator's time than an artist's, had descended from Judd in the '60s through to Jeff Koons. The art of fabrication, not that it seems like a lie, feels anachronistic today, either soulless or corporate. That said, we can see that for all their "impersona" facture, the work of both Judd and Koons is a highly personal endeavor, no less so than a glazed, ceramic bowl or a knitted balaclava.


Glass, as it turns out, is another matter. In art it is almost always seen as decorative. To my mind, one of the main reasons is because it's usually modest in scale, found in lower and middle class homes, and easy to damage. (Of all the living post-war artists, Daly Chihuly is probably the most despised by housekeepers far and wide.) In contemporary culture, there is no more psychologically avoided and maligned material than glass. So when Graham Caldwell told me that he made blown glass sculpture, I couldn't think of anything to say except, "Why don't you invite me over to your studio." Pairing Graham's work with Ben's didn't come out of that visit. In fact, it's hard to say just when I thought of them in the same moment. Clearly, to me they were both "inside outsiders," artists who, like Richard Aldrich, Xylor Jane, Chris Martin, and Josh Smith, are well-aware of contemporary art and art history, and at the same time inhabit a world of his or her own making. At the time of the show I wrote about Graham's sculptural practice, and in almost Smithsonian language:


....he produces works that often feature a constellation of elements, both large and small, with myriad associations—to science, science fiction, and worlds both natural and unnatural, molecular and menacing: stalactites, crystalline structures, teardrops, arteries, bulbs, globes, convex and concave mirrors, antlers, talons, claws. Although they are materially fragile, some of Caldwell's works appear dangerous, capable of drawing blood. They are both beautiful and gnarly, able to attract viewers and to keep them at a distance. If it's difficult to link Caldwell to other contemporary artists, or even to a history of artists employing mirrors and glass, it's precisely because his work doesn't immediately remind us of things we've seen before. Although his mirrored pieces have an affinity with the Narcissus Garden of Yayoi Kusama, and his glass sculpture with the work of Josiah McElheny, as they take perception elsewhere, positing a world that extends from the work and the body outwards, Caldwell's is a more fragmented reality, one that can only be perceived discontinuously. In terms of what has come before, his work in glass—forensic, cool, and clear—seems utterly alien and seductive.


As is often the case, it wasn't until Ben's and Graham's works were in the gallery that the connections between them were visible, whether formal or spiritual, and we could appreciate the chance nature of working—for both the artist and the curator.