I came across a quote from John Waters in the current issue of Juxtapose magazine that neatly threaded together three things in a way I hadn't previously realized: What I loved most about his last solo exhibition (titled "Rush" at Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco, May 27 through July 10), one of the primary draws I have to looking at art, and why I'm also so drawn to the current solo exhibition of work by Maira Kalman, titled "Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)," at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CMJ) in San Francisco.
Waters says: "Art is exactly when there's nothing there and only you can see it. If you go to art galleries all day and you really learn to see, when you walk home, at least for a couple of hours, you'll see something on the street that will remind you of art. It fades; you have to go back to galleries. But then everything you see will look like art..."
John Waters, Pecker Still Life (4), 2010, chromogenic color print, ed. of 5, 13 3/4 x 16 3/4 inches (framed) Courtesy Rena Bransten Gallery
This is why I so loved Waters's recent series of photographs, "Pecker Still Life," which debuted in "Rush" and depicted unremarkable sights behind the scenes of movie filming -- bits of the crew's everyday life -- as well as the piece "Shooting Script", a photo of a grid of nine pads of yellow lined paper with all the pages ripped off and only the cardboard left. These are common objects with great stories.
Maira Kalman, Self-Portrait (with Pete), 2004-5, gouache on paper, 16 x 15 inches Courtesy of the artist and Julie Saul Gallery, New York
New York artist Maira Kalman takes this elevating of the everyday even further: She's turned just about anything in her world -- from rubberbands, shoes, a candy bar, and a single pink present to hotel rooms, a found couch, or a dream -- into artwork. "Basically I get paid to be myself," Kalman says in a quote from one of the show catalog essays, "and for my imagination." And what a joy.
Maira Kalman, Pink Package, 2004-5, gouache on paper, 14 1/4 x 11 1/2 inches Courtesy of the artist and Julie Saul Gallery, New York
Kalman's work is most familiar outside of the context of the fine art world. She's long been an illustrator for the New Yorker -- having created many covers -- as well as twelve children's books (most of which she either wrote or co-wrote), the first of which, Stay Up Late, was a collaboration with Talking Heads front-man David Byrne. She's written and blogged for the New York Times, has worked on a set for Mark Morris and designed with Isaac Mizrahi and Kate Spade, among other projects. She is also a photographer and embroiderer. This, her first solo museum exhibition, is a retrospective covering thirty years of Kalman's work and also includes an installation of objects from her home and studio; it premiered at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania earlier this year, will be on show at the CMJ through October 26, and then travels to the Skirball Cultural Center in L.A. and The Jewish Museum in New York.
Installation detail; Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco
Kalman is not a formally trained illustrator or painter, but that's not to say her pieces are uninformed by the art world. The work is layered with cultural and art historical references from Matisse and Chagall, Dadaism, Surrealism, and Futurism. Fashion, travel, and design also figure greatly. In addition to illustration, an arena Kalman has had a profound impact on is design; she was very influential in the work of her husband Tibor Kalman (now deceased), who founded M&Co, a firm that is credited with changing the world of contemporary graphic design. Among other projects, M&Co created Bennetton's Color magazine.
Maira Kalman, New York, Grand Central Station, 1999, gouache and ink on paper. 15 3/8 x 22 1/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Julie Saul Gallery, New York
Kalman's work, however, does have an outsider art quality -- quirky, unique, absurd and highly imaginative. Figures and objects are not rendered precisely but possess personality and a distinct loveable quality. And, they are often funny. "Maira Kalman," says curator Hiroko Tanaka in a catalog brochure of the artist's 1989 exhibition at Ginza Art Space in Tokyo, "your pictures are so crazy that everyone wants to hug them."
Kalman's work engenders great affection, no doubt. Her honest representations hit their mark. In another of the essay's for this show, Kalman is quoted describing a painting she did of Le Corbusier's kitchen sink. She says her intension was that it be "an earnest and loving presentation of something I fell in love with."
This is the very heart of Kalman's work, and why we heart it so much. Not only do we share her love of what she presents to us, we begin to see the love-worthy bits of life's art we unattentively pass by every day.