Interview: Cal Siegel in Gowanus

Contributed by Rob Kaiser-Schatzlein / I met up with Cal Siegel last week at his studio under the 9th street F/G stop in Gowanus, across the street from Lowe’s and above Build it Green–an ideal location. Having recently returned from a residency at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Siegel shared some of his new work with me.
[Image at top: Cal Siegel, (not yet titled), 2014, plater and acrylic, maple on two panels, 35.25 x 48.25 inches.]

Calvin Siegel, (not yet titled) [relief painting], 2015, plaster, acrylic, sawdust, maple on oak 16.75 x 8.25; and (not yet titled) [relief painting], 2015, plaster, acrylic, poplar, maple on panel, 13 3/4 x 9 inches.
Rob Kaiser-Schatzlein: What are your compositional strategies?
Cal Siegel: Repetition of form is important to a lot of these. Trying to create a meditative space through that repetition. I do use framing as a
strategy. In both a negative and positive light, it helps locate the art. I think in some ways I have moved on from that, though.
RKS: How did you find these architectural bits–like the bannister and molding? Are you always on the look out,
or do you go to specific places to browse?
CS: I’ve done a lot of framing work. My dad owns a frame shop, so the materials have been around for a long time. The idea of mitering things was
already there, and then I realized that I could miter other things, too. Once that happened, I was always on the lookout, but I didn’t discover the bannister or molding shape right away.
Calvin Siegel, (not yet titled) [relief painting], 2015, plaster, acrylic, poplar, maple on panel, 13 3/4 x 9 inches.
RKS: How did you find the bannister?
CS: I think I just bought one at a second hand store, maybe at Build It Green downstairs. They have a whole bucket of bannisters. I just bought one, made sure
all the nails were out and just started cutting. I found it made this weird kind of egg sack form–a softer form than the pieces of
conventionally-cut molding.

RKS: So there’s a latent affection for mitering, then you find the object…
CS: I cut it up right away and put it in these smaller buckets. Like this one here, I started cutting it up and the cross section was like a little
Eiffel Tower or a chess piece.
RKS: You go out shopping for wood?
CS: Yeah, and I have been shopping for cool old pieces of wood that have a history. I found this one with a huge notch cut out of it. That one had a
weird built-in history that is a really nice jumping off point. As if the notch meant it was looking for a mate.
RKS: A lot of this work is about collecting objects…
CS: Putting them together, taking them apart, and then letting them find each other in the studio.
RKS: You mount them in these repetitive patterns and then you paint. How do you know when to start painting them?
CS: These two are an example from my previous work. I assembled the skeleton and then I would add texture–most of the time, but not all the time. The painting would be more about surface and texture–very intentional
addition of texture. I would paint it like an object–that is, just cover the surface with paint. But now I bring painting into to earlier
steps of the process.
RKS: What’s your most recent painting?
CS: I was at Skowhegan this summer, and I started the working process anew with this [angled painting]. This is what I’m thinking about.
Calvin Siegel, (not yet titled)[angled painting], 2015, plaster, acrylic on three panels with hardware, 88 x 48.5 x 25 inches.
RKS: But it’s totally finished.
CS: Yeah. I presented it in Maine with a window behind it. More of an installation situation. This kind of architectural painting intervention idea is what I’ve been thinking about.
RKS: And how do you feel about it?
CS: I’m excited, it’s definitely a departure. I had been making a lot of these kind of relief sort of panel paintings and this summer I got to think about
things that were a little bit bigger in scope, like where painting and architecture meet, and a little bit about color and experience. And interaction: the middle spins. It had a window behind it before, so it did this cool thing when the light moved across the panel. To
that’s the direction of my work; maybe not this literal though.
RKS: How do you mean literal?
CS: Color-choice-wise, it’s simple. I’m trying to provide a straight forward experience, and the interaction is pretty… dumb. Maybe
that’s a better word than literal.
RKS: Basic.
CS: Yeah, and I like that. It’s a good place to start. Not that I want to over-complicate it. Watching people deal with this thing is interesting.
RKS: So there are other manifestations of this?
CS: I actually built one that I installed at a friend�s property in Massachusetts. It was like an old hunting cabin. That was a cross-section piece with
a panel you could move. It came after this one, so it was the next step. But I’m not as excited about that one. I think it got too
complicated in terms of materials and reference to architecture. Architecture is interesting–the history of painting and
architecture together–and I’m trying to find a pocket in there.
Installation shot of Calvin Siegel, (not yet titled)[angled painting], 2015 
RKS: So this is a new series?
CS: I’m always going to be working on  the relief paintings. I’ll continue them, and ideally they’ll influence each other at some point. I
think they reference architecture. This one is a cut-up bannister, so I’m using vernacular architectural references that are cross sectioned. Rearranged, or
cross-sectioned like those “How It Works” books. I got to these just by reading about the history of cubism and its relation to architecture. I definitely
think there is some distance in these–there’s still something to learn.
RKS: Two threads then, in your work.
CS: Totally. Then there are also residual paintings that fit somewhere in between these two types of work. I’m trying to find a language
that is mine.
RKS: How did you start the work, particularly this angled one?
CS: Well it was interesting starting with a brand-new studio–I’d never done an artist residency before. Getting a blank slate, as opposed to this studio
that has years of stuff attached to it. I was starting to think about that specific space and thinking about Imi Knoebel, and these pieces that he had made
that were corners. There would be two colors, free standing with a reflective surface on the bottom. I wanted to start addressing space with painting like
that. Reaching out or something. I did some drawings for bigger iterations.
I was imagining it like a facade that is tilted back into the building, within another facade. Another guy I was thinking about was Glen Seator. He would
remove whole rooms, put them in the gallery and crank them up on chains to make them rest at weird angles. When you looked in it was almost a sickening
perspective. I think that’s part of the reason there’s that panel at the bottom because it affects the peripheral vision in a way that isn’t sickening, but
is off putting.
RKS: When do you work?
CS: In the studio? I work in here at night, during the week. I get here at 5:30 pm and work until about 10 pm. And then on the weekends I’ll usually get at
least one full day in here. Weekend work is a lot of the building and the buying supplies kind of stuff and weekday work is more of moving the chess
pieces around and fiddling and steeping.
RKS: You have days when you don’t do any physical work?
CS: Sure, yeah, definitely. I’ll just move things around in here sometimes, these [relief drawings] have been around for a while. It’s definitely time to
move things. And some of these paintings still need to find a home.
RKS: You’ve been in the space a long time?
CS: About three years, but I just took down one of the walls and expanded my space because someone moved out. I’ve wanted to do it for a while. It was
hard to come back from Skowhegan though.
RKS: Because it was big?
CS: It wasn’t that big, but it was just empty. Coming back here was horrible, but now I’ve finally expanded.
RKS: How do you know your works are done?
CS: I know they�re going to be done once the composition is done. So before the painting. There�s not much to be changed anymore, aside
from cutting and marrying. With the four relief paintings, I just ran down the line with the compositions and did them all at once. The color came after,
but I knew it was going to come.
RKS: How do you pick the colors?
CS: The colors are based on other building materials, other architectural surfaces, or even skin surfaces.
RKS: They’re in a particular vernacular language.
CS: I don’t know if this painting is going to exist in the world [points to two small paintings leaning against the wall on the floor], but those are
movable stripes that are every color I had in the studio at the time. I wanted to see what was going on with my palette. Color is something I tried to
address this summer. There’s so much to deal with with color. I’m probably wrong about this, but I feel like it’s either innate or it’s Josef Albers.
And finding your own language has very little to do with the science of color.
RKS: It’s something you could learn about intuitively or scientifically, but most people don’t learn either. And it’s so powerful. How did you come to
these three colors in the angled painting?
CS: This was basically an experiment in perception. I made a super matte paint with a mixture of powdered cadmium red and yellow, for the most
perceptual explosion. Then I added blue because of the orange. The black is interesting [opposite side of the rotating center panel]. That came out of a
conversation with a guy who’s a definitely a colorist, because I had pink on there for a while and it wasn’t jiving. Somebody had given me a can of black
gesso, which, as it turns, out is really expensive, so I tried it out and it worked. It feels like a shocker, like Halloween or something? It’s really
interesting watching people interact with the panel because the agency is with the viewer. Some people just spin it really hard, and some people are like
“that’s the blue, okay, now that’s the black, okay, not that’s in between…”
RKS: How did you decide on the angle sticking out from the wall?
CS: I wanted it to enter space, but I didn’t want it to enter space like a wall. There was something about having it protrude at the bottom rather than at the
top that I didn’t like. Protruding on top it’s more demanding, it’s like wave.
RKS: It could have been a steeper angle though.
CS: I guess I didn’t want to take up too much studio space, and I didn’t want it to be ceiling and it didn’t want it to be floor.
RKS: So not 0 degrees, not 90 degrees, and not 180 degrees. And not between 0 degrees and 90 degrees, so it had to be between 90 and 180. And the closer to
90 the more studio space you saved. And it’s a fairly moderate angle, not ridiculous.
CS: It’s kind of a silly thing but also kind of a refined thing. Not painting the edges was a very specific choice to talk about painting. To make it a
RKS: What’s a pictorial problem you remember resolving?
CS: Well, I had been fussing with the surfaces [of the relief paintings]. Using different brushes, and different size strokes. Fussing with it like a
fetishized paint-pushing activity. Then somebody came in here while I was doing that on a big piece. He asked me why I didn’t just paint it like
an object, and that made a lot of sense.
RKS: How long does a painting take?
CS: It depends. Some take a long time. This series [relief paintings] was done in one shot, so it took about three months to finish those four
paintings. The intention and trajectory was already set before I started. But a lot of the other ones took probably a year. Anywhere from a month to a year.
RKS: Has it sped up or slowed down?
CS: I think it has slowed down, because the planning has become a bigger part of the process. But then I also have this painting practice [found wood
pieces] where one might take a long time to find a home and one piece might be done.
RKS: Other materials I might not notice off the bat?
CS: There’s plaster under almost all of this stuff. It’s like a spray wall texture plaster, which stinks to high hell. But I love the texture of it. I
used to mix a lot of stuff into my paint, like saw dust and crushed clay pigeons. The clay pigeons are made of pine pitch and they make this very strange
green grey [washes]. That ran it’s course in terms of the idea though. It kind of came from Neil Jenney, bad painting, very funny. I used to like to make
funny things.
That’s important too, this [angled painting] is getting back to humor, which I had gotten away from. I started making text paintings, a lot of puns, I
love nerdy word play and stuff like that. These [angled paintings] start with an idea that can be very direct, just like humor.
RKS: How do you describe these paintings to people?
CS: Some people will describe them as friezes or low relief. To me it is little bit of perspective and a little bit of relief.
That 45-degree angle is super present in creating this Renaissance-era incorrect perspective.
RKS: Kind of an isometric perspective. It is much more pictorial when you describe it that way.
CS: Old Renaissance reliefs are definitely a good way to start thinking about them.

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