Conner Calhoun's revival of Medieval Decorative Arts

Conner Calhoun at the opening of the "Submerged" group show at the Mahler Fine Art. Photo by Rachel BerbecConner Calhoun at the opening of "Submerged" at the Mahler Fine Art. Photo by Rachel Berbec.

Conner Calhoun resurfaces Medieval Decorative Arts into modern day application.

Unpolished, heavily outlined structures. Flat and stiff figures with no depth. Castles and floral framing of the scene. These are the medieval qualities Conner Calhoun  includes in his artistic rejuvenation of the antiquated aesthetic.

Calhoun earned his BFA in Visual and Critical Studies from the School of Visual Arts, NYC in 2015. He’s recently shown his work in Leipzig DEU, Raleigh and Barcelona. He was a Regional Emerging Artist-in-Residence at Artspace in 2016 and also the recipient of the Leipzig International Artist Residency Grant. 

We recently caught up with the artist to talk shop.

AN: What sparked incorporating medieval imagery into your works?

CC: In college I used to hang around all these drag queens and colorful, queer nightlife spaces – everyone was very sparkly and decorative. It all felt like I was inside a medieval painting. When I first started learning about illuminated manuscripts in art history, I thought this was the perfect way to celebrate the people I was surrounded by; there were so many parallels aesthetically toward the decorative page and the life I was living.

In allegorical imagery there is no ambiguity or open ended interpretation because there is text beneath the image explaining the meaning and the moral compass of the image. I escape from this. I let my images explain themselves, allowing the text be a part of the image instead of imposing on it.

AN: What was an original source of inspiration to exploring medieval imagery?  

CC: The Unicorn Tapestries inspired my first essay. It was an attempt to understand and question decorative objects in school. What most interested me about these images wasn’t just the endless layers of symbolism but also that these images served as the climax of Christianity taking over Paganism. In images previous, the Lady depicted was in charge of the entire forest, including the hunters. In the Unicorn Tapestries the Hunters use the Lady to trap the Unicorn. The change in relationship with the Lady is subtle and startling; we need to really pay attention and investigate what we look at and where these images come from for fuller appreciation.

AN: Can you tell us a bit about the work you had in the ‘Submerged’ exhibition?

CC: I [show] things with, and related to, butterflies, fireflies, moths, and a term called “Fellow Feeling” which came about by sympathy theorist in the 18th and 19th century, such as David Hume, Adam Smith and others. The phrase is a dissolve of peoples microcosms to where we feel one another on an emotional level.

[Related: ‘Submerged’ exhibition at the Mahler to notice the unnoticed]

AN: Why is ‘Fellow Feeling’ an important idea to explore in your work?

CC: I’ve had a few events in my personal life that happened because of the political environment we’re in today. A position at a framing studio was revoked from me because they looked up me and my work up on the internet and realized that I wouldn’t be a good fit for the “conservative” business. I’m still processing all of it. Soon it will be draped with metaphor. This is how I process the world around me. My work isn’t inspired by pop-culture; I’ve spent most of my time being surrounded by and learning visual language from the fringes of society. A sub-culture, if you will.

I’m not mad about it. I think self-depreciation is the most intelligent form of humor. It takes a slur, slogan or word that someone has used against you and reclaims it. There’s no better feeling than proving people right.

AN: How is it being an artist in your twenties?

CC: Fabulous and scary. I remember in one of my classes I was making all this depressing work, it looked like a sad jaded old person was making it. One of my teachers told me that I needed to make work that was age appropriate, like a twenty year old. That put me in the fast lane for what I’m doing now a days. I still use some of the same ideas as before it’s just my execution of them is polar opposite, except for size. All my colors were dreary and all my figures had zero emotion … it was the opposite of theatrical.

AN: You were a Regional Emerging Artist-in-Residence at Artspace in 2016; what’s next?

Calhoun inside his Artspace studio, during his Emerging Artist Residency.

CC: I’m just going to paint. I’m thinking about moving back to NYC also… I miss living there. I see that Raleigh and Durham are trying to make bigger steps towards gathering a larger audience, which is good. Smaller cities need to figure out a way to do this without there being any negative impacts on lower income and long-term citizens, the environment and without raising prices. 

At the start of 2017, I received funding to continue working on modernizing medieval decorative arts in the Leipzig International Artist Programme, in Germany. I painted in the Spinnerei known to be the largest cotton factory in Germany at one time. Also, I ate lots of sausages and schnitzel and listened to techno in the woods… it was quite the modernized return to a medieval past.

AN: What would you say to someone in the space between college and establishing yourself as an artist? 

CC: Just create the space yourself. There are too many opportunities for artist these days, there are also so many artist out there. It’s competitive but in the end we all support each other.



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