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Mike Calway-Fagen: The Indeterminate Length at Good Citizen Gallery

[uds-billboard name=”mcf”] For Mike Calway-Fagen’s new sculptural installation at Good Citizen Gallery, it is perhaps best to start with the one work not in the gallery–but on top of it–which speaks to the larger themes of the entire exhibition.

Calway-Fagen’s photograph went to leave (2012) is by far the most successful work to date of several that have appeared on the billboard right above the gallery. The photograph is of a written statement, “I WAS/HERE/BUT NOW/IM GONE,” drawn by the artist with chalk in huge letters on a two-lane highway. Calway-Fagen described in conversation how he chose a section of a road in rural Tennessee and drew the phrase while his mother acted as a lookout. The photograph itself was taken from a bridge about 120 feet above the highway, and is formally framed on the left side by the strong verticals of the road lanes and on the right by a rectangular mowed section of greenish brown grass off the side of the highway. The written statement is a part desperate, part comical claim to existence, referring to the daily time limits of the comings and goings of life, but also to something grander, like the deeply cherished great American road trip. This desire to leave a mark (initials carved in benches or words scratched into road stop bathroom walls come to mind) is here too, balanced by the fleetingness of the moment, emphasized by the use of chalk. Yet, just as the medium of photography begins to give the temporary statement more permanence, it is immediately countered by the decisive impermanence of the image on a medium like a billboard. On the other hand, the action of greatly increasing the size of the photograph, and lifting the road into the sky, gives the event of went to leave to people for only a few seconds as they drive by and are made aware, ever so quickly, the image’s, and their own, constant displacement.

Essentially, that is what Calway-Fagen’s expansive sculptural installation within the gallery walls is all about, too–the displacement of things over time and the way the clever manipulation of content through form gives new and unexpected life to the everyday. The title of the work as a whole, The Indeterminate Length, encompasses everything in the gallery (and on it) and figuratively implies ‘indeterminate’ life through re-purposing. The main substance of the installation itself, though, is reclaimed furniture – chairs, cabinets, lamps, and ceramics–collected from around St. Louis and rearranged in unsuspected ways: an entire wooden chest is held up by a little child’s play chair; a ladder holds up a bed frame. As you walk through and around the installation, you’ll find little surprises like small vases inside of drawers or a photograph of a pretty young woman wrapped up in a textural, white blanket hidden in a shelf.

Yet, despite the surroundings of vintage vases and former family heirlooms, the installation is far from quaint or crafty. Within it are four sections of photographs, mostly large-scale, which balance the used objects with a sense of solidity. There is one image the back of a grey station wagon filled with flowers and another three-sided one of a flower vase, subjects that allude to both the temporary and the permanent. The objects have limited life spans–or so it seems.  If those car parts are salvaged or the petals are dried and pressed, their lives are extended by the act of the photographer. The artist is also interested in form, and sight lines are strong throughout the installation, as is a careful attention to create a solid sense of balance and order in terms of height and depth.

Adding an even stronger sense of the importance of form, all of the discarded furniture sits atop scraps of different colors and types of carpeting, pieced together in a way similar to the arrangement of the objects. Calway-Fagen is particularly interested in the markings left by the objects on the carpet and, throughout the duration of the exhibition, he will be coming back to the gallery and moving or reducing the furniture, right up until the very last day, when the exhibition will look very different from how it began; it’s worth visiting more than once. The installation, Calway-Fagen says, is site specific in terms of the city of St. Louis (his source for material that he adds and takes away) rather than specific to the gallery. This editing, or as he says, working from a place of “intuition,” really speaks to the larger theme, stated principally by the billboard (I WAS/HERE/BUT NOW/IM GONE), of the naturalness of change, the impossibility of holding onto things forever as they once were, and the embrace of the formal beauty that can be found in accepting it. Time is essential here, but not fixed.

Mike Calway-Fagen: The Indeterminate Length continues at Good Citizen Gallery at 2247 Gravois Ave, Saint Louis, MO through 25 February.
Images courtesy of the artist and Good Citizen Gallery.

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