Stations: Resurgam by Daniel Callis

By Jonathan A. Anderson
Daniel Callis, Hail Mary: Full of Grace, 2020. Oil on linen, 72 x 90 in.
Grids, Nets, and the Unspeakable

In 1979, the renowned art critic Rosalind Krauss published “Grids,” a seminal essay in which she sought to understand why the modernist grid had been so vital and so enduring as a visual structure throughout the history of twentieth-century art. She argued that the grid emerged as a dominant form precisely in tandem with “the absolute rift that had opened between the sacred and the secular” in Western culture. In her view, one of the prime values of the grid was that it enabled artists to strike a subtle bargain, giving them a structure for exploring a “naked and determined materialism” (mapping the material surface onto itself without any representation or signification), while nevertheless also providing a structure that (privately) can be conducive to strong spiritual implications and experiences (connoting immutability, infinity, and the unrepresentable). In Krauss’s view, the terms of this bargain were a fairly open secret in the early, formative decades of modernist painting, but by 1979 they had become “inadmissible” in serious art discourse, “so that by now we find it indescribably embarrassing to mention art and spirit in the same sentence.” She didn’t think this shame eradicates “spirit” from art but only inhibits its “mention,” forcing it into a largely unspoken zone where it persists “within the consciousness of modernism, or rather its unconscious, as something repressed.”

In his recent paintings, Daniel Callis takes up this dyadic ambiguity of the grid but reworks it in evocative ways, allowing the material and spiritual connotations of grid-space to play off of each other somewhat more conspicuously and without Krauss’s sense of embarrassment. Grids reappear throughout his works in exuberantly material surfaces that readily display (even revel in) labor-intensive processes, layers of lively mark-making, and finely tuned organizations of color and value. Yet these gridded surfaces are also consistently enwoven with spiritual concern, not only through the traditional connotations of grid-space that Krauss described but through religious points of reference that subtly recur—in paintings studded with rosary beads, serialities based on the Stations of the Cross, constellations of Greek crosses, and so on.

Perhaps most significantly, Callis reworks the modernist grid by rethinking it as a net—an open-textured surface defined by nodes of connection within a loose warp and weft, rather than by rigid axes of orthogonal verticality and horizontality. Callis’s net-works thereby retain integral aspects of the modernist grid while re-cognizing it as a kind of textile that can fold and undulate. Like all grids, the lattice work of his nets formally rhyme (and in some sense derive from) the rectangular shape of the canvas or paper, but they also digress from it, introducing diagonals, curves, and irregularities. This introduces nongeometric space into the grid, as the net seems to “open” laterally across the surface in a nonuniform way. But it also “opens” grid-space into a kind of visual depth, in which an alternating play of positive and negative forms suggest (without representing) a porous structure in, on, or over an undecidable depth.

As both Krauss and Callis recognize, formal structures are never merely formal. The endless possible variations of grid-space are also variations on the orderings of visual, spatial, conceptual, and social relations. When artists put these various orderings to work, subjecting them to scrutiny and experimentation, they are working with the simplified visual grammars of relational thinking that shape various dimensions of life. Orthogonal grids, for example, tend to organize information by superimposing a system of coordinates (as in a map) or by preimposing an apparatus for sorting data (as in a spreadsheet) or structuring places (as in city blocks). Nets, by contrast, reorder space insofar as they have so many points of connection that they cohere into screens that “catch” and redirect whatever is sizable and solid enough to span these connection points. Generally speaking, nets function in highly fluid situations (expanses of air, water, etc.), in which their open, flexible structures allow almost everything to pass through them, catching and holding only what is relatively substantive and bodily—and often living.

In this way, Callis’s subtle reworkings of grids into nets are formal structures that generate massive poetic force. The works in this exhibition were painted between 2020 and 2022—years that have been extremely challenging both at a social scale in this country and at a personal scale for this artist. In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic began sweeping the globe, bringing not only waves of sickness and death but also extended periods of isolation. That tumultuous year was compounded by the racially-charged murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and others; widespread protests; massively devastating wildfires; malevolent conspiracy theories; the chaotic final year of Trump’s chaotic presidency; and so on. Within these large-scale difficulties, there are so many enduringly beautiful and deeply human happenings that must be recognized and embraced, but there were also so many personal crises and tragedies that transpired. Of particular relevance here, in 2020, grief tore deeply into Callis’s life with the tragic hospitalization and eventual death of his son Jeremy.
All of this shapes the contexts in which Callis has been making these net paintings and “casting” them into view. They were fashioned in and for highly fluid and disorienting situations as a means of finding and retrieving something elusive but substantive, beautiful, and living. The openness and porosity of Callis’s nets are thus remarkably poignant. Poetically speaking, these are not structures for organizing, mapping, containing, or stabilizing experience; rather, they are flexible meshes for living with hope amidst and within the fluidity of time and being. This is powerfully exemplified in two series in this exhibition:

Hail Mary

In March 2020, on the eve of California’s “stay at home” order due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Callis began working on four large canvases, each keyed to a different color tonality: light blue, pink, yellow, and aqua green. This fourfold sequence is suggestive of some kind of familiar typology or temporal sequencing—four seasons, four gospels, four humors, etc.—without any conclusive identifiers. Early in his process, Callis began breaking these bright base colors with several thick black vertical strands of paint which are grouped irregularly across each surface. Over these, a loose weave of further horizontal and vertical strands appeared, rendered in various versions of the base colors. Several of the perpendicular joints in each of these weaves are marked with a small Greek cross (often with an eight-point starburst in each), creating constellations of such joints across the four canvases. Over all of this, one of four variations of a hand-drawn, boldly-colored grid is suspended in the middle of each canvas—two oriented vertically and two diagonally.

In Callis’s words, quite a lot has accumulated in these grid-nets over the two years he worked on them: “They hold tracings of national elections, protests and insurrections, Covid counts, and border crossings. They hold illnesses and healings. They hold the death of my son and the birth of my grandson. They feel like a prayer and a last-ditch effort. The series is entitled Hail Mary.” The title thereby plays on a double meaning in American vernacular, referring both to praying the rosary (in which Gabriel’s announcement to Mary in Luke 1:28—“Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee”—is repeated dozens of times in meditative prayer) and a desperate, extremely imprecise, end-of-game play in American football, in which a quarterback lobs the ball into the end zone in hopes that one of his teammates will catch it for a touchdown.

The association of these nets with prayer is bolstered by the fact that rosary beads are affixed to these canvases in the center of several of the starburst crosses. These beads come from two rosaries that once belonged to Callis’s wife’s mother, thus directly connecting his own Hail Mary to artifacts of a generational religious inheritance. The remnants of these dismantled rosaries are suspended on the surface of these paintings, simultaneously caught in these net-works (as substantive heirlooms moving through the flow of time) and constitutive of them (each forming an individual node or link in the larger lattice work).

Because they are rosary beads, they each represent a single phrase or station within a much larger, longer cycle of prayer. As isolated beads/prayers, therefore, they are suspended on the canvases not only spatially but temporally. There is no longer any linear sequencing of these prayerful phrases within the loop of the rosary; rather, they are constellated across a planar field. This puts a different kind of time in play. In one sense, this dis-orders the traditional prayer into an irregular movement from one node to the next, in a way that eventually equilibrates into a kind of simultaneity. In another sense, it shifts the temporal emphasis from the timeline of the rosary to a flow of rosary time through the net, which both receives and is reformed by it. This is the time of a single phrase suspended without sequence, or the time of the football suspended high in the air between the desperate lob and the contested zone at the end of the field.

Grief Nets

There is a tremendous gravity at work in Callis’s grid-nets, which is perhaps even more palpable in his powerful Grief Nets, which specifically reckon with the grief of his son’s death. This series of works on paper are organized into fifteen “stations,” loosely and allusively corresponding to the traditional fourteen Stations of the Cross (which culminates in the entombment of Jesus’s dead body), plus the traditionally implied (but often not represented) fifteenth station for the empty tomb or Resurrection. Whereas Hail Mary *consists of large, colorful paintings on canvas, the *Grief Nets are modest, achromatic works on paper extended out into a more complicated sequence.

These net forms on paper are generated through processes that combine mono printing and block printing, creating patterns that Callis then worked back into by painting, cutting, and stitching (both by hand and machine). The printing “block” used in this process is actually a previous oil-on-panel painting called Systemic Archeology, Excavating Old Patterns (2020), which Callis subsequently transformed into a printmaking plate by inking it up and running it through a press. The colorful net patterns in this panel painting were formed by embedding an actual net in plaster. In this way, the prints made from this panel do not simply evoke nets but contain indexical imprints of one.

The works in this series therefore unfold within fairly narrow material and procedural constraints, reiterating the same visual structure within a monochromatic grayscale. Yet, within these constraints, Callis unfolds fifteen nets into a remarkable range of possibilities. The same forms are given different orientations; different arrangements of black, white, and gray into different value relations (light on dark, dark on light, etc.); different oscillations of positive and negative; different stresses on different lines and shapes within the same patterns; different manners of sewing, joining, and layering; and so on. As with Hail Mary, there is a strong playfulness to this improvisational repetition, but it is a serious play. Each station enacts yet another way of “casting” the same net, over and over, each time trying out a different way of confronting the same problem—much like reiterating the same prayerful petition with endless variation, turning it over and over with different emphases but with the same basic griefs, needs, and longings. Or, echoing a scene at the end of John’s Gospel (in the strange time of the fifteenth Station), it is like net-fishing through a dark, seemingly futile night, repeatedly casting one’s nets without knowing how or where to find “the right side” of the boat that is teeming with life (John 21:1-14).

Each of Callis’s stations has a series of openings or woundings in its surface—places in which one or more of the negative shapes in the net have been cut out from the paper. The number of openings in each surface subtly corresponds to its respective place in the sequence of Stations—the first station has one cutout, the second has two, and so on, culminating in the fifteenth station bearing fifteen openings. All these openings reveal yet another set of surfaces behind them, all uniformly covered with an intensely black paint made from palm ashes used in Ash Wednesday services. Like the rosary beads in Hail Mary, the materiality of these ashen negative spaces are associated with prayer and petition, but they carry even more evocative implications. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the forty-day period of fasting and repentance in the Christian calendar, which culminates in the remembrance of the suffering and death of Christ signified in the Stations of the Cross. By linking these, Callis identifies the dark waters of his own net-casting as analogically Lenten in significance, ultimately having to do with the abyssal depths of Holy Saturday. The trajectory of the traditional Stations drives contemplation into the deepest, most horrific and hopeless of graves, but its logic is ultimately one of Exodus, pushing toward (but usually without depicting) an Easter Sunday in which the Life who descends all the way to the bottom of this abyss somehow emerges onto the other shore, having captured those who were captive to the grave (cf. Ephesians 4:8-9). Callis retraces this longer trajectory by giving us a fifteenth station, but he also keeps the meaning of this last station unsettled—or eschatologically suspended—figuring it not as a resolution but (in continuity with the other fourteen) as bearing its own fifteen open, ashen wounds around its central luminous quadrangle. Indeed, the undulating patterns of stitching that ripple outward from every opening in this series are most pronounced in this final station, seemingly emphasizing the greatest amount of disturbance in relation to its subject.

Implicit in any act of casting a net is a certain powerlessness, requiring a structure and a method for catching what is otherwise elusive (a fish, a bird, etc.) beyond the reach of one’s own capacities (water, air, etc.). The net is thereby devised to do what the unaided human body cannot do in a domain where the unaided human body generally cannot go. Especially when a net is cast into deep waters, this powerlessness also involves a certain blindness, whereby one cannot see anything that is happening but can only rely on the “feel” of the net to indicate if it has come into contact with something solid and/or living. Indeed, the openness of Callis’s nets suggests a noetic open-endedness—a lack of completion and resolution, a lack of ability to see what one is doing or what one is interacting with.

The visual structure of each Grief Net actually consists of nets within nets, wherein an inner semi-rectangular area is suspended within a larger net pattern in the rectangular surface of the paper. This structure repeats with many variations, sometimes with additional inner quadrilaterals and additional net patterns. Visual echoes of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915) reverberate throughout this series—sometimes inverted into white-on-black, sometimes flattened into a range of pallid grays, and always pulled even further out of whack than Malevich’s never-quite-square form. And there is indeed a substantive dialogue going on here. Whereas Malevich’s “single bare and frameless icon” sought to figure what is ultimately unfigurable, Callis’s Grief Nets similarly contend with something that exceeds visual formulation. Yet Callis recognizes that older apophatic icon as also having the function and “feel” of a fragile net, one sewn (and resewn) in grief but cast (and recast) in prayers unspeakable.

Daniel Callis, Grief Net Station 15, 2020-22. Ink, oil, palm ash, fiber on paper, 20 x20 in.
Daniel Callis, Grief Net Station 14, 2020-22. Ink, oil, palm ash, fiber on paper, 20 x20 in.
Daniel Callis, Grief Net Station 13, 2020-22. Ink, oil, palm ash, fiber on paper, 20 x20 in.
Daniel Callis, Grief Net Station 12, 2020-22. Ink, oil, palm ash, fiber on paper, 20 x20 in.
Daniel Callis, Grief Net Station 11, 2020-22. Ink, oil, palm ash, fiber on paper, 20 x20 in.
Daniel Callis, Grief Net Station 10, 2020-22. Ink, oil, palm ash, fiber on paper, 20 x20 in.
Daniel Callis, Grief Net Station 9, 2020-22. Ink, oil, palm ash, fiber on paper, 20 x20 in.
Daniel Callis, Grief Net Station 8, 2020-22. Ink, oil, palm ash, fiber on paper, 20 x20 in.
Daniel Callis, Grief Net Station 7, 2020-22. Ink, oil, palm ash, fiber on paper, 20 x20 in.
Daniel Callis, Grief Net Station 6, 2020-22. Ink, oil, palm ash, fiber on paper, 20 x20 in.
Daniel Callis, Grief Net Station 5, 2020-22. Ink, oil, palm ash, fiber on paper, 20 x20 in.
Daniel Callis, Grief Net Station 4, 2020-22. Ink, oil, palm ash, fiber on paper, 20 x20 in.
Daniel Callis, Grief Net Station 3, 2020-22. Ink, oil, palm ash, fiber on paper, 20 x20 in.
Daniel Callis, Grief Net Station 2, 2020-22. Ink, oil, palm ash, fiber on paper, 20 x20 in.
Daniel Callis, Grief Net, Station 1, 2020-22. Ink, oil, palm ash, fiber on paper, 20 x20 in.