Two Elder Bohemians, at Doubting Thomas

Installation view of works by John Saile and Stephen Calhoun, in the unmistakeable middle gallery at Doubting Thomas.

“Two elder bohemians” is how Stephen Calhoun described himself and John Saile while introducing their exhibit, Luxuries of Being, which opened at Doubting Thomas Gallery June 14 and closes June 29. It’s a quickie, and the middle weekend of the short run was closed in response to Northeast Ohio’s sweltering heat, but you’ve got one weekend left to see their work. Calhoun and Saile are among the region’s more active and visible artists, included in a slew of group shows between them, and solo shows too. Calhoun, in particular, is out looking at other artists’ work steadily, adding to conversations about the scene. 

Together at Doubting Thomas, they each show several facets of their continuing explorations of media that respectively intrigue them: this is what they’ve been playing with, and how.

For Saile, that means working with the materiality of acrylics and print techniques, informed by emotion and memory, with print process support from his collaborator Rebekkah Wilhelm. For Calhoun, it’s about  manipulating reality via technology–in his kaleidoscopic, iterative photos, and in other ways more akin to storytelling. There’s a place, for example, dreamed up by this elder bohemian and dubbed “Weedlandia.” We’ll get to that.

John Saile, Diana’s Contemplation, acrylic and screen print on canvas.

Saile’s work is principally abstraction, both in paint and screen print, though elements of representation appear via figures screened into the cloudy vertigo of his colorfully stained canvases.  All his work in this show was created in the first 5 months of 2024, which is a sizable and varied output. A number of the canvases start with his staining process, using diluted acrylics to create transparent clouds and flowing, organic forms in playful color. Among these a standout is Diana’s Contemplation, with a screened image from a photo he took of Diana the Huntress during a trip to Paris.  It’s as if she’s calmly contemplating the world’s turmoil, surrounded by a mix of cheery, colorful gestures layered over a dark cloud, as if from a fire. Of Saile’s works in this show, these that combine clouds of stained and smeared color with screen print layered in have the most depth.

Screen prints by John Saile.

Another group  of Saile’s works is harder edged than that: a series of his screen prints are geometric abstraction–not op art, but as if a glowstick baton twirler were captured via stroboscopic photography. They have something in common with a Spirograph. 

A tray of colorful scraps and knicknacks, as an example for demonstration purposes of Calhoun’s raw material.

Calhoun also exhibits works of tumbling, bold color, but made with a digital camera and some software. The show includes some insight into his process: on a pedestal in the back gallery, a little square wooden tray sits, filled with a jumble of vividly colorful scraps of yarn, paper, rubber bands,  and plastic toys. This is the raw material. Calhoun photographs stuff like this, then manipulates the result with ColoramaS on his Iphone, and Affinity on his MacBook to create what sometimes look like mandalas, as in two juxtaposed, round pieces– Navigators Travel Through Circles of Time, and Namita’s 23 Twins. 

Stephen Calhoun, Navigators Travel Through Circles of Time (left), and Namita’s 23 Twins, iterated photographs.

Other works resemble the view through a kaleidoscope, with lines where the software–in lieu of a kaleidoscope’s analog mirrors–slice the content of the original photo into pieces, flipping the reflection into rings of  symmetry. But these are more complicated than that, because it is not mere symmetry and repetition in planes.

Stephen Calhoun, Lasti g Hearts Key Keeper, iterated photograph.

Lines bend around curves, with different effects seemingly applied in different spheres or realms of each image. Like mandalas, looking at these will bring to you what you bring to them. Meaning? What is that, even?

Installation view of Weedlandia, generative AI images prompted by Stephen Calhoun.

But I promised a trip to Weedlandia. In the back room, Calhoun presents a wall covered with  AI generated portraits of the “sages, holy jokers, artists and medical specialists” of that place, a planet which, his didactic says, is “not so far away” and “older than earth.”  As portraits of fictitious, celebrated figures from a fictitious place worth celebrating, they have something in common with the late Arabella Proffer’s  National Portrait Gallery of Kessa. Instead of hand-painted aristocrats in the renaissance style, though, these characters are AI-generated using prompts that reference cannabis and the 16th century Italian artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who made portrait-like figures out of vegetables, flowers, fruit and other objects. Guided by Calhoun’s prompts, the generative AI software produced figures be-feathered and bejeweled with marijuana leaves and buds, among other flowers and foliage. It gives new meaning to the phrase Heads of State. Whatever anyone thinks of artificial intelligence, they are fun to look at–perhaps moreso when weed was illegal. 

It’s worth noting the impact Saile and Calhoun had on the galleries at Doubting Thomas by replacing all the burned-out spotlights and aiming them effectively at the work, with support from John Sargent. Legendary for its neglect, some element of its “As-Is” presentationis a part of the venue’s charm. Should the whole place get a thorough cleaning, or would that destroy those decades of patina? And what about the bare lath and plywood walls in that middle gallery? Gut that and put in clean drywall, or no? Calhoun and Saile stopped with the lighting, but no show at this last remnant of Old School Tremont has ever looked so good.

Assuming the heatwave has passed, Calhoun and Saile will host a closing reception noon to 3 pm Saturday, June 29, including an artist talk and an interactive demonstration of Calhoun’s process. 

Luxuries of Being

June 14 -July 4, 2024

Closing reception, artist talk and demo noon to 3 pm Saturday, June 29

Doubting Thomas Gallery

856 Jefferson Avenue

Cleveland, Ohio 44113

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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