Interview with Caleb Lyons: Piracy and ‘Abstraction in the 21st Century’

July 27, 2010 · Print This Article

Chicago artist Caleb Lyons, who was interviewed way back when on Episode 95 of our podcast, recently had a solo exhibition at the MCA Chicago as part of the Museum’s 12 x 12 series. Lyons and his partner in life and crime Kathryn Scanlan are the forces behind Old Gold — the latter now continuing operations with new presentations at Heaven Gallery in Wicker Park. Caleb also co-directed the late great artLedge with Brandon Alvendia, and is involved in so many ongoing projects that I could never list them all in full here. The following interview focuses solely on his own, recent artworks, which include paintings, a video (of the nude artist, surrounded by potted plants, offering himself up as a readymade artist’s model), and a mixed media installation of various cactii potted in handcrafted pipe-pots (or, um, pot-pipes? ANYWAY). It was a smart and provocative show, but unfortunately I was only able to catch it the last week it was on view, hence the un-timeliness of the following interview. Lucky for all of us, Lyons’ paintings are now on view at  Golden’s new auxilliary space, located at 3319 N. Broadway Ave, Chicago. (I also found some excellent pictures of Caleb’s work in situ at Golden on Strange Closets blog, so go check it out the excellent photographs on that blog and then head on over to Golden and see the actual works of art in person!).

The wall text for Lyons’ MCA show described him as a kind of Jack of All Trades, an artist whose practice “encompasses a diverse range of activities–gardening, DJing, and working collaboratively with other artists–reflecting his interest in the idea that ‘everyone is an artist’ and that everything can constitute an artwork.” Yet Lyons’ MCA show was called, somewhat ironically (and then again, somewhat not), “Abstraction in the 21st Century,” a title that was clearly designed to provoke a certain amount of bemusement and even incredulity on the part of viewers, given the relatively short history of 21st century painting in general. This provocative title was the first thing I asked Caleb about during our written exchange about his show, which was conducted several weeks ago while Lyons was on residency at The Philadelphia Art Hotel (Bad at Sports’ SF correspondent Patricia Maloney also happens to be on residency there this summer). I’m tremendously grateful to him for taking time out of his very busy schedule to answer my questions with such thoughtfulness and care.

Installation view of Caleb J. Lyons' exhibition at the MCA Chicago.

Claudine Ise: “Abstraction in the 21st Century” is a ballsy title for an exhibition – at least for an exhibition by an individual artist at a major contemporary art museum. I really like the way this title appropriates the language of the encyclopedic museum (more specifically, the language that this type of museum would use to introduce its gallery exemplifying Abstraction in art), but here it’s used to frame a solo show by an emerging artist. I am also intrigued by the fact that such a title implies the promise of a representative sampling of artists – which of course it doesn’t. So can you tell me a bit about why you chose this title for your MCA solo exhibition?

Caleb Lyons: Well I do have balls, or a pair of testicles–they were on exhibit in my nude video: The Artist Is The Model: Do It Yourself, Still Life, Amateur Hour, Idiot Box, which was riffing on the ego and vulnerability of the artist, as well as the idea that through our immediate technologies everyone has become a producer, the “artist” has become the “model citizen” for exploitation.

I am interested in the way museums and other institutions feel the need to categorize and define genres for the public. It becomes generic. I use the generic as a catalyst in my own work –– as in, ‘this is what an American abstract painting is supposed to look like’. I wonder why we feel like we need themes so badly. Will we really find it that hard to make connections otherwise? If museums didn’t try so hard to define things, would the public be confused or would the public figure it out for themselves?

The presumptuous title also suggests that the work will be heroic in scale and intention, and I find it funny that the work is very modest, handcrafted and is both abstract and representational. There is no abstraction without representation and no representation without abstraction.

Caleb Lyons. Untitled document, from "Real Pirates."

I think it is a symptom of our time (with best-of lists, and our need to categorize and rate the arts), the idea that abstraction would be surveyed only ten years into the century. The title also attempts to allude to our society’s growing disconnect with reality, and our increasing (as far as I can tell) loss of power and freedom. There is something attractive and deceptive about the anonymity of abstraction. Maybe in such an audacious title for a small solo exhibition some viewers will find the absurdity in genre-defining elsewhere, or maybe they will just think I am a pretentious asshole; either way, I’m happy. Read more