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Flora, Fauna and Victoriana

Scott Calhoun's work takes a new turn

Given his smart-ass sense of humor and his history of using collaged porn in his artwork, Scott Calhoun is one of the last people you would imagine making works that draw on things like Victorian faerie paintings and chinoiserie. But for the past several years, Calhoun has had a day job working in the library at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where he comes into contact with a far more eclectic range of material than most of us would probably ever run across in a decade of library visits. Maybe there's also less time for porn, because Calhoun's work has been completely overtaken by images from art books and auction catalogs.

Calhoun's work is a mixture of painted and collaged elements pulled from old daguerreotypes, 19th-century society portraits and botanical prints, among other things. The thirtysomething Calhoun might never have become infatuated with Victoriana, etc., if not for his constant contact with the wide-ranging collection in the MFAH's library. It has been a boon to his art.

As you might imagine from his recent influences, Calhoun's paintings are really, really pretty. But that prettiness is subtly undercut by the little strange and creepy bits he inserts into his work. His new show "Scott Calhoun: Nature Is a Language, Can't You Read?" is on view at Mixture Contemporary Art.

The prettiness of Calhoun's works is undercut by strange and creepy details.
Courtesy of Mixture Contemporary Art
The prettiness of Calhoun's works is undercut by strange and creepy details.

Nightly Cares (2004) is painted on a narrow rectangular canvas reminiscent of a scroll painting. A slender branch elegantly snakes across the dark ground, growing up from a cluster of shelf moss and terminating in lovely but improbable leaves and flowers. It seems like an extremely well executed if conventional painting by an Asiaphile -- until you look closely. An enormous spider rests on her egg, perched atop a tower of fungal forms. The spider's body sprouts the porcelain-complexioned head of a 19th-century lady, complete with an uptight, upswept coiffure.

The creature, like the insertions in all the other paintings, is pieced together from a color Xerox. By using color copies, Calhoun gets a broader range of material, and the images he uses have a consistent surface and paper quality. This allows them to more easily blend into their painted surroundings than images clipped from a variety of sources.

Farther up the branch are two well-dressed young Victorian women. They're wearing bonnets and cloaks. One unconcernedly helps the other up the branch as if they were exploring the countryside on a day's outing. It's a lovely painting with enough spooky surrealism to keep it intriguing.

Queen of the Savages (2004) could depict one of those proper young ladies after she spent too much time in the narcotic thrall of Calhoun's decadent natural world. The woman stands with her exquisitely patterned kimono left indecently open, revealing pale rosy nakedness. The painting has a light, parchmentlike ground and sparse, delicate foliage that harbors butterflies and a hummingbird.

In other works, Calhoun continues to insert people into a fanciful but slightly ominous nature. In Killing All the Flies (2004), two young boys sporting pageboy haircuts -- no doubt refugees from a society portrait -- aim arrows at moths, striking a few of them. Accompanied by their King Charles spaniel, they lurk in the base of an exotic bush that strikes one of the few off notes in Calhoun's exhibition. Its branches and flowers are painted in unmitigated and unmodulated cadmium red. The thick, flat and bright strokes sit on the surface of the painting and overpower it.

But another risk Calhoun took paid off well. The week before the opening, he decided to add a mural into the exhibition. He used two paintings as a starting point, and the foliage and fantasy grew from there. Because he's using acrylics in his paintings and on the walls, the surfaces and painting style feel consistent and graceful even as nonsensical vegetation spreads over the entire wall. The only problem is that now you really want him to do an entire room. It would be great to be surrounded by one of these paintings.

Calhoun is using his collaged images much more sparingly than before, but sometimes things feel a little too restrained, their subtle edge dulled. It's a tough tightrope to walk, but Calhoun manages to do it successfully most of the time. He's making lovely paintings that flicker back and forth a hundred-plus years, moving from the 19th to the 21st century.

 
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