MIXED DOUBLE: Alex Caldiero and Frank McEntire hit on a unique collaboration in After the Tree Had Fallen.
by Ann Poore
So, a Mormon sculptor who was once a Hare Krishna devotee and this Sicilian poet who used to be a computer geek go into a barmake that an art galleryand they decide to put on a show. The first guy thinks it’s about Kali, Hindu goddess of death and rebirth; the other thinks it’s about environmentalism. That both of them are right is evident in this fun and thought-provoking exhibition, “After the Tree Had Fallen” at the Art Access Gallery in Salt Lake City’s west side.
Caldiero is a poet and performance artist who spent nearly 18 years as a technical writer. He was the second writer hired by WordPerfect and remained there making manuals “up until version 5.0.” He believes “poetry is the ultimate technical writing,” and credits time spent in the computer world with improvement in his creative work in terms of “understanding what this writing thing is about.” Today, he teaches humanities at Utah Valley State College.
McEntire is a sculptor, assemblage artist and independent curator who was the art critic for The Salt Lake Tribune and Salt Lake Magazine while working in the finance department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is now executive director of the Utah Arts Council.
McEntire is reserved; Caldiero brash and effusive. But these very different men have established, over 15 years, what Caldiero calls a brotherhood. “As different as we are, we are so alike that it’s scary,” he says.
These recent paintings, sculptures, and mixed-media collaborations started with a poem of Caldiero’s, beginning with the line “after the tree had fallen.” McEntire says, “We grew it from there.”
The two probe their concerns with the extinction and creation of species, languages and environments through their art.
“The exhibit is both a mourning and a celebration of the transformative forces at work in the wheel of creation and extinction,” Caldiero says. He and McEntire held lengthy discussions about how the creative process mimics the life cycle of the planet and all activity on it. “Just as whole ecological systems and biological species appear and disappear,” McEntire says, “so do languages in their written, verbal, and visual forms.”
Caldiero has witnessed languages disappearing. “In Zurich, there’s a society for endangered languages … I myself am probably the last generation that speaks pure Sicilian. So I feel this thing of extinction very personally.” McEntire recalls a poem Caldiero wrote about the death of the last speaker of a language. “The language of an entire tribe went to the grave with him,” he says.
In Caldiero’s performance piece, the poet takes small objects and puts them in his mouth one at a time as he recites stanzas of his work. Halfway through, he has so much in his mouth you can’t distinguish what he’s talking about; then there’s more and he no longer can even speak, at which point he starts taking things out again andvery slowlyyou begin to distinguish his words as the second half of the poem is presented.
For McEntire, that became a collaborative link, reminding him of a recent news story about the dispute over ownership of three ceremonial buffalo hide shields. The valuable artifacts were ultimately returned to the Navajo Nation by the National Park Service because,” McEntire said,
“One tribal elder knew and could practice the ceremony in which the shields were used. One person held the key. When that person is gone, the key to the secret knowledge is lost … So, the Navajo have a second chance. Maybe this Navajo holy man can live long enough to train an apprentice.”
The pair worked together on several pieces in the show, visiting each other’s studios and “seeing what resonated,” says Caldiero. “Collaboration has to be as natural as anything else that is authentic in producing art,” he says. “You have almost an intuition about what possibilities arise.”
McEntire saw a possibility for integrating his and Caldiero’s work in an old Burroughs calculator. It has glass sides, so the machine’s inner workings are visible. McEntire made a pedestal for it and the paper calculator tape is now a scroll. The whole piece is a fine artist book titled: "Tzim Tzum (pronounced “zem-zoom”) for Burroughs."
“AlphaTrough Sounding” is made of an old cattle water trough that McEntire salvaged from a junk store. He placed a florescent light fixture in the bottom of it and filled it with wooden forms once used to cast metal letters. It is now placed against one of the gallery walls. Inside it, Caldiero placed a scroll that unrolls eleven feet up the wall “in which the letter ‘i’ begins to rise and meets the letter ‘O’ and becomes this living thing flowing off into space,” he said.
The Other Side of the Limit
By Scott Abbott
In his introduction to the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein writes that the book’s whole meaning could be summed up somewhat as follows:
“What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
The book will, therefore, draw a limit to thinking, or rather not to thinking, but to the expression of thoughts; for, in order to draw a limit to thinking we should have to be able to think both sides of this limit (we should therefore have to be able to think what cannot be thought). The limit can, therefore, only be drawn in language and what lies on the other side of the limit will be simply nonsense.”
Although Alex Caldiero and Frank McEntire are supremely curious about what lies on the other side of the limit, although they approach that limit with all the canniness of Newtonian/Leibnitzian calculus, although neither of them has any inclination to remain silent in the presence of limits.
And although both are variously inclined to eclectic and infectious mysticisms, these two artists catch our eyes and ears and imaginations precisely because (1) they practice the honesty of clarity and (2) they aim the knowledge that is wit at those of us who eschew clarity for occluding trivial mysticism.
These recent works and collaborations, individually and as a collective show, probe and tweak and celebrate the limits of what can and cannot be known.
And, quickly, whatever else we say about the meaning of these works, there remains the sheer beauty of them: the simple lines and textures of Caldiero’s drawings/paintings on golden-grained birch, the singular beauty of polished obsolete machines in surprising contexts in several of McEntire’s pieces, the bright splashes of red, white, and blue in and among the dominating muted colors of wood and paper and fabric and steel and tin and cinderblock. These works are, formally, simply breathtaking. And, as one expects from these two artists, the striking form is in the service of provocative content.
Caldiero’s “In Tongues First Series” was first exhibited in 1994 in the Salt Lake Art Center’s show “The Unclosed Hand.” But much has happened to the original monoprints on birch since then.
These images of mostly upturned faces with flames burning deep inside the heads and with words forming inside mouths that omit an occasional upside-down or fragmented utterance, these black-ink images on wood have taken on patches of primary colors. Red clouds, a blue face, white stripes alongside blue ones, red flames, yellow streaks make these seven subtle works shout from the wall where they hang.
What do the newly painted pieces say that the earlier versions didn’t? At least in part they proclaim the agony of the artist seeking an adequate form for his ideas.
The words “to,” “not,” “or,” “in,” “of,” and “for” comfortably inhabit cavities inside a long-haired head. But when the word “flower” leaves the mouth of another head, it loses its spider-web context and reverses direction not at all (and yet like) what was said.
“When the tongue turns back, it is too late to speak,” states a cartoon obelisk rising before a face with an impossibly doubled or tripled tongue. The originals said these things about the impossibility and inadequacy and yet necessity and brilliance of language.
And now, as Caldiero paints over the birch, as he follows wood grains with paint, as he experiments beyond words and lines with acrylic and markers and oils and crayons and gessoes, as he speaks in additional tongues, he performs the limits of these languages too. This is what I’ve got to work with, he seems to be saying, I can’t speak otherwise, and yet these media are completely out of my control.
At first blush one might think this naïve painting, and Caldiero professes to have no formal training in these media. But on second thought, in context, it makes more sense to see the inadequacies on display as a statement of having approached an unapproachable limit.
In the moment they turn to glossolalia, to ecstatic speech, the tongues begin to babble. Representation is always inadequate, as Caldiero laments in a poem:
I paint a cloud
& I paint a hand
I paint a cloud
& I paint a lizard.
When will I paint a cloud?
“In Tongues” depicts visually the poet’s passionate mental and physical battles for truth, for insight, for meaning. The materials, new and old, are as fallible as the words of the poem. If Caldiero were a better painter (or poet), he would be less an artist.
Across the room from “In Tongues” stands McEntire’s “Royal Script,” a rather large crucifix being rolled into the carriage of a Royal typewriter raised up on a delicate wooden stand. A crucified Jesus Christ being (word)processed into a text! The text, of course, will be a verbal replica of the crucifix which is itself a replica in wood and ivory of a religion-founding event.
McEntire’s “Royal Script” lengthens this string of signifiers, Nietzsche’s “mobile army of metaphors,” as a sculptural portrayal of the act of writing that depicts a crucifix that stands for a story written in a holy text, itself a representation of a supposed event.
As if to emphasize this repeated and exponential distance from the “thing in and of itself,” McEntire has placed a bound and wax-sealed set of three books on a shelf beneath the typewriter. No matter how open and evident the text will seem, what it wants to mean remains closed and bound and sealed.
Caldiero and McEntire continue to probe the limits of the languages that are their tools with a collaborative work they call “AlphaTrough Sounding.”
An oblong tin trough large enough to bathe in sits on the floor, filled with dozens of large wooden letters of the alphabet. A bright light filters up through the letters.
Out of the trough rises a wide band of rice paper, lifting up to the high ceiling where it disappears behind a heating vent. Painted in black ink with a calligrapher’s brush are a flock of lower-case i’s that float up out of the trough to where a black line ends their flight. An “O” breaks that line, out of which rises a thick black line. The line tightens into a spiral, loosens up out of the spiral, tightens into another spiral, floats loose and, shedding its density, its substance, its blackness, ascends thinly until it disappears behind the vent.
What we witness here is an ascent from alpha to omega, a daring light-induced neo-Platonic movement from substantial three-dimensional letters of the alphabet to two dimensional i’s to the final omega beyond which even two-dimensionality fades as it inhales and exhales to finally disappear.
Another collaboration by the two artists, “Tzim Tzum for Burroughs,” repeats the motion of closing and opening, this time guided by the memory of the writer W. S. Burroughs, whose family owned the Burroughs company that manufactured calculating machines like the beautiful steel-and-glass model perched on a tall and delicate wooden stand and by the Kabbalistic notion of “tzim tzum,” a teaching that in the beginning God was all encompassing and so, in order to create the world, had to withdraw to allow the other to exist.
It is jarring to see Caldiero’s handwriting on the calculating tape (manuscript written with three sizes of markers so the words contract and expand, thinner and thicker, systole and diastole) spool out of the fat rolled tape into the heavy machine whose keys read “error,” “repeat,” “non-add,” and “total,” to fall in loops and folds across the floor. The calculator can’t possibly translate the thoughts of the hand, yet it gleams as the only possible mediator. Impossible machine. Impossible communication. Incongruous beauty.
Speaking of incongruous beauty, McEntire’s “East Fork,” looms delicate and deadly on a bed of cinder blocks. Four long, sharp steel tines curve down from a light wooden-and-steel frame. It’s a salvaged “Jackson fork,” used to raise hay bales into a loft, and so the “East Fork” title has an agricultural flavor.
But under the tines of the fork is a dark bronze woman’s head, Japanese letters on the back, resting on a steel bow that was once a leaf spring. The effect is peaceful, Zen-flavored pure form. Conceptual art at its formal best.
And like the best conceptual art, the piece has an aftertaste. It leaves one who has read Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” in a cold sweat:
“’It is an odd apparatus,’ the Officer said to the traveling scholar as he cast an admiring gaze over the machine he knew so well.”
With the harrow poised over a flat bed, Kafka’s steel-tipped creation inscribes a judgment on the body of any given prisoner. McEntire’s machine, with all its beauty, evokes (probably unintended) nightmares of guilt and harsh justice.
McEntire’s “Sealed Kali Upanishad” continues the themes of beauty and hidden truth and subliminal terror.
Suspended in a striking steel-slat receptical/coffin lies a corpse-like and heavy 100-feet-roll of Jackson-Pollock-splattered tarpaper, decorated with colorful Hare-Krishna strings and beads, resting on a pair of silver boxes. The pure beauty of the piece reminds one again of McEntire’s uncanny ability to bring together found objects in awe-inspiring conjunctions.
Like other works in the show, the sacred text remains almost entirely hidden, sealed. The title identifies the black roll with the fierce black Hindu goddess Kali. Sunken between steel slats, tightly rolled, and named Kali Upanishad, this sacred text promises to sever heads and hands of unwary readers/viewers.
Standing between “Sealed Kali Upanishad” and “In Tongues,” a visitor to the gallery might recall the opening paragraph of Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti’s autobiographical The Tongue Set Free: “My earliest memory is dipped in red.”
Each morning as a little child he was carried by a girl out of a door into a passageway whose floor and stairway were red. A man came out of a door across the way, stepped up to him and said “Stick out your tongue.” The boy did so. The man opened a pocketknife and threatened the boy with the blade: “Now we’ll cut his tongue out.” This happened every morning for a long time. Ten years later the boy asked his mother, for the first time, what the memory meant. She said that when they found that the 15-year-old Bulgarian nanny was having an affair with the young man across the way, they felt responsible and sent her back to her parents.
Caldiero and McEntire dip their show in red, calling up disturbing memories as they explore the gifts and curses of tongues. “After the Tree Had Fallen” improvises on the chords of birth and extinction, creation and destruction, humans and machines, the exposed and the hidden, beauty and beast. Formally striking, conceptually challenging, witty and wily, the show threatens to cut out our tongues while giving us tongues we never had.