Stephen Calhoun: “My intent washes away”

Stephen Calhoun, Mixed process photograph, Two for the Dance Floor, 2018

Stephen Calhoun is an artist of paradoxes.

Concretely, his works are photographs altered through generative computational processes. The finished products are luminous mandalas, characterized by symmetry and color. However, Calhoun’s thinking and processes are characterized by ideas in tension.

His images are the product of both painstaking craftsmanship and blind mechanical algorithms. His art is abstract, but made of photographs of real objects. He draws inspiration from both mystics and hard-headed scientists. His ultimate goal is to compel audiences to choose to linger over his work. Even when displaying good-humored humility, Calhoun describes himself with an oxymoron: “accidental artist.”

That humility is sincere, however. Calhoun will cheerfully discuss the ins-and-outs of his craft, and the philosophy informing him. However, he becomes more guarded when personal history and “artistic intent” are mentioned. Every inch of each of Calhoun’s works is packed with complex detail—mosaics of hues and lights, symmetrical mirror-images, systems nested within systems. However, not all of this staggering complexity is put there by the artist.

“A lot of people don’t get how undetermined my art is,” Calhoun says, selling himself somewhat short. His oeuvre embodies a spirit of both “improvisation” and discipline. Every piece requires Calhoun to assemble a collage of floral matter and small items, to photograph the assemblage, to judiciously crop the photograph, to hand over the photo to a generative program, and to pick out the program’s best outputs.

However, all this labor is undertaken without a specific end in mind. Any art rightly called “generative” (as Calhoun’s is) involves handing materials over to nonlinear, unpredictable processes. However, the generative image manipulation software Calhoun inputs his photographs into is far from the only tool which opens degrees of freedom in his process. Indeed, chance is his partner from beginning to end.

Stephen Calhoun’s studio is amply supplied with materials for the colorful still-life photos
that form the base of his multiple process, digital manipulations

Take the still life scenes Calhoun photographs. The assemblages he shoots are put together in shallow boxes. Most of the material inside the box comes from the garden of Calhoun’s Cleveland Heights Home—petals, leaves, curly dried vines. But literally any object can go in. Various mandalas contain Christmas lights, costume jewelry, Buddha sculptures, garage sale bric-a-brac, and even pet supplies. (Viewers can be forgiven for mistaking pastel-colored hamster bedding for actual lilacs.) When crafting an assemblage, Calhoun says he is not even thinking far enough ahead to imagine what the photo will look like when cropped and symmetrically reflected back on itself. He stops and takes the picture when he intuits it’s done. Surely, Calhoun’s intuition is trained, and years’ worth of practice informs his judgments. But when he puts into words what he’s trying to make, the goal sounds simple: “a critical mass of chaotic detail.”

The experience one constructs looking at a Calhoun image will be partially determined by the image he has printed to paper or glass. But some—maybe even most—of the experience is shaped by the viewers themselves. They notice patterns Calhoun himself doesn’t, allow the light and color to guide them to places the artist has never been to. Unlike many nonfigurative artists, Calhoun encourages pareidolia. Like a cloud watcher or psychoanalyst administering a Rorschach test, Calhoun invites us to play with association, impose shapes onto the flux, find signals in noise.

“At the end of the day, it’s very clear that my intent washes away into the background,” Calhoun said.

Controlled “accident” is not only a defining feature of Calhoun’s work. It is also the arc of his career. Calhoun’s professional background is in organizational development. He retired from music in 2015, after nearly 45 years of playing. (To this day, he counts among the luminaries inspiring his visual work numerous jazzists—Abdullah Ibrahim, Abbey Lincoln, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk.) Innocent of training, he took up acrylics in the 1990s. In 2012, Calhoun discovered generative art through Dreamscapes, a browser app programmed by the Argentinian artist Leonardo Solaas.

Impressed by his own productions, Calhoun printed and framed a giclee version of a generative image. He was flattered by occasional compliments for the piece, until 2014 when a family art collection was appraised. The appraisal was done by Deba Gray, president and auctioneer at Gray’s Auctioneers in Cleveland. Gray saw Calhoun’s work on the wall alongside the collected pieces. After coaxing a sheepish admission of authorship out of Calhoun, Gray kept him on her radar. The next year, she facilitated the first sale of Calhoun’s work, and in 2016, curated his first solo show.

Selling and exhibiting his art prompted Calhoun to “hit the books” and delve deeper into art history and theory. However, rubbing elbows with other artists has been the most enriching reward of the artworld.

Kathy M. Skerritt, a Cleveland-based painter, makes textured paintings with a mixture of acrylic, tempera, charcoal, and varnishes. Despite the difference in their media, Skerritt says she appreciates how Calhoun allows in-the-moment engagement with his materials to guide his craft.

“I’m very interested in process. I recognize in him a freedom in being led by a process he’s discovering,” Skerritt said.

Skerritt says that she likes art that invites her to see it through her own “lens” of understanding. However, she describes a “fun” back-and-forth she has with Calhoun about artists’ responsibilities to viewers.

“Are we putting too much on the viewer?” is Skerritt’s unanswered, maybe unanswerable question. Calhoun has obviously staked out a more extreme position: Since he works without a particular goal, it’s up to the viewer to cultivate her own meaning.

Yet even though he leaves the viewer more or less to her own devices, Skerritt does not doubt that Calhoun respects their attention.

“He values more than anything the time of the viewer,” Skerritt said.

“I have the utmost respect for anyone who takes time, because time is a premium,” Calhoun says. It is an “incredible challenge” to get someone to linger on an artwork, and Calhoun values every second of his audiences’ time. He cannot help but exclaim, thinking about onlookers’ choice to attend to his work: “If you can get someone to stand in front of your art…wow!”

If any consideration beyond immediate apprehension of balance and light guides Calhoun’s artistic evolution, it is desire to seize gallery-goers’ attention for even longer. A vital puzzle is “how to make it even stickier.”

Calhoun fantasizes about borderline coercive art viewings—strapping aesthetes into amusement park trams and rolling them through an exhibition, or installing illuminated art in Vantablack sensory deprivation tanks. However, a new direction he is currently exploring is less strong-armed: video. Calhoun has shown images on a wall-sized screen at Colortone in Solon, and produced slideshows of his works. He hopes to eventually animate his images so that they morph into each other with almost imperceptible slowness, loosening and re-seizing viewers’ attention as they notice subtle metamorphoses.

Stephen Calhoun, Mixed process photograph, Thrills of the Middle Way, 2018.

However slow Calhoun’s self-education may be, he seems content where he is. He is not sure if he is the only one doing the sorts of art that he’s doing—he is not even sure how much longer he’ll be able to continue his current practice. Some of the generative programs released by Solaas have been discontinued, and there are no forthcoming updates or patches for them. Of the browser app he currently uses, Calhoun says “It will stop working one day.”

Until then, he’s taking his time.