By Anita Malhotra
Twenty-seven-year-old artist Callen Schaub’s abstract paintings are bold, colourful and appealing but there’s a lot more to them than meets the eye. Namely the process, which consists of spreading paint on a canvas using innovative equipment he has designed and built himself.
The act of creating these paintings is an integral part of his work, and Schaub, who is based in Toronto, has performed his work live at galleries in Montreal, Vancouver and Ottawa as well as on Instagram, where he has more than 70,000 followers. A graduate of OCAD University who ran his own gallery for four years, Schaub has also had his work exhibited in Toronto, including at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and in Miami at Art Basel.
Throughout April, Schaub has been Artist in Residence at The Sussex Contemporary gallery in Ottawa, where his exhibit “The Arena” opens on Saturday, April 21. Anita Malhotra spoke with him at The Sussex Contemporary on April 17.
AM: Can you describe your show at The Sussex Contemporary?
CS: The show is called The Arena. It’s a residency in which I’m spending a month here, turning the gallery into a studio. That’s a very special kind of opportunity for me because my process is at the crux of my artistic practice, and the content of my work is the process.
My studio’s right near the window so people can come in off the street and ask questions, even post gallery hours. Different demographics that might not usually engage with the gallery feel more inclined to because it makes it a little bit more accessible by saying, “This is my process. There’s not a secret to it.” It takes away the barrier, or the sterile nature of the white space of a gallery, and brings the mess and the colour and rawness of the process in.
AM: What kinds of reactions have you been getting?
CS: A lot of people pulling out their phones and wanting to record. It’s very Snapchattable, so that’s fun. The one-on-one interactions with people have been extremely positive, which is a relief because I spend a lot of my time as an artist in this new-age technology, online, with videos and reading comments, and there is a lot of trolling and negativity that people behind the mask of technology feel like they have a right to say. So here – in real life – it’s been extremely positive.
AM: Can you describe your work?
CS: My paintings are abstract spin paintings. They’re done with an acrylic paint. I use different innovative tools I’ve created by hand – most notably my spin machine, which is a bicycle that I have cannibalized. I pedal the crank, and the chain goes to what would be the wheel, but instead it’s the canvas, and the canvas spins around.
When I’m explaining it to people for the first time I just say, “I splash paint on there” but I’ve been doing it for nine years, so there’s actually a lot of control in the way that I apply the paint to the canvas. I’ve also developed a swinging trough. It’s like a painting trapeze that deploys over the top of the horizontal surface of the rotating canvas. The image that is created is a relationship between the centrifugal motion of the canvas and the pendulum of the swing, and illustrated through colour.
AM: How did you first arrive at the idea of having your paintings spin while you created them?
CS: In my second year of arts university under the teaching of Dan Solomon, he gave the class the assignment to do whatever we liked. That was really exciting for me because I wanted to look around and see what my peers were creating.
So I’m observing as my classmates approach their canvas in a traditional manner vis-à-vis using a paintbrush, a palette, having their canvas on the easel. I saw that as an opportunity to do something different. I ran down to the potter’s department, got a potter’s wheel, brought it back to the classroom, strapped the canvas onto the potter’s wheel, and started pouring paint kind of haphazardly. And everyone is like, “What’s going on?” It was a performance piece – engaging my classmates and my teachers to say, “Hey, let’s think about this differently.”
And then it quickly developed and I was surprised by the results. I did 10 pieces, I had a little show in a café, and I sold a few pieces. I continued to paint with that simple set-up for a year and a half and then my friend had this bicycle that got smashed by a car. I chopped it up and re-welded it into the orientation which it has now.
That’s not my greatest triumph because there are other spin painters out there, so in terms of process, I’m really quite proud of the swinging trough and the relationship between the swinging trough and the rotating canvas. I think that’s a new idea.
AM: What role does chance play in your work?
CS: I think the pursuit of perfection is still there, and the way that I get there is unconventional. Instead of trying to control everything I create the parameters for chaos to occur and within those parameters I’m hands-off.
I like to remove myself as the artist. That’s why I don’t sign the work, I don’t use a brush, there’s no visual signifiers of a human hand. I do that with the hope that people can appreciate my work in the same way that they might experience something in nature.
Because in nature it’s void of the human touch. There’s a tranquil beauty that one may find in the sunset or the way that the striations are in rock formations, or the eddy swirls in nature. That’s what I’m hoping to gesture towards by removing myself – my ego – and just letting people have that experience.
AM: I noticed that in your live work you do paint over a work that you are not satisfied with.
CS: There is a pursuit of a visually beautiful thing – whether it’s the colours or the forms or the composition, but when it doesn’t meet that criteria of being beautiful I destroy it. And that’s why video and the live performance is so important for my work because it captures that process. And that’s where I assert my identity – where at the end of the day I decide where the painting starts and where it stops.
AM: What state of mind are you in when you create the paintings?
CS: I try to employ a state of mind of inner stillness so I can be very present in the moment. Akin to the way in an extreme sport, if you’re a downhill skier, if you’re not fully present when you’re at those top speeds, you could injure yourself. I try to employ a similar sense of urgency and immediacy to the moment.
I call that inner stillness or listening with your eyes to the visual cues that are happening. And to be one with the paint. I literally will cover myself in paint to help myself get into this kind of physical dance with the paint. I’m immersed physically and mentally.
AM: Is your state of mind different when you’re alone in your studio compared to when you’re performing?
CS: When I’m with other people – whether it’s a live demonstration or a live thing on the Internet – there is a showmanship, which I really enjoy.
People are hungry for a “wow” factor. We’re spoiled with technology. Everything’s 4K, everything’s fast-moving, so our attention span is dropping. When I have people’s attention I want to honour that, and I try to deliver by having it be satisfying visually or dramatic. When I’m performing I have crutches – things that I know are crowd-pleasers. But when I’m on my own I can explore things that aren’t necessarily my one-trick pony kinds of things and I can just have the privacy to be even more creative.
AM: What role does colour play in your work?
CS: Colours are just so emotional but there’s no theory that can fully describe that because it’s such a felt thing. So I’ve engaged with colour instinctually. I like to use a full spectrum of colour all the way from the very bright or very primary colours to very dark and very moody colours. And that way I’m not playing favourites. The human experience is in polarity, so we can’t understand positive if we don’t have negative. And so with colour I find bright colours are positive and uplifting and darker, muddier colours are more associated with negative emotions. I like to include the full spectrum of colour so wherever someone may be at emotionally there’s an access point.
In that way I struggle with doing commissions. When somebody has a vision – like they want a certain green or a certain pink – it forces my hand in terms of emotionally creating the work. There’s a liberty that I employ in my work that I’m not listening to anyone. I’m not even listening to myself. I’m listening more to the process itself. It’s like the way musicians sometimes describe it as, “The music is flowing through me.” I like to speak about it like that: “The colour is flowing through me.”
AM: How did you arrive at the circular format of your paintings?
CS: It’s new for this show specifically. And the circular arena as well. There’s been a theme of the circle and the sphere with my work for a time just naturally with the centrifugal motion and the rotation. And now I’ve taken it to the next step by departing from the square or the rectangle or the portrait or the landscape and going just with the beautiful shape.
On a technical note it’s very difficult to execute the swinging trough – to catch it onto a rectangular space where one side is longer than another. So it has allowed me for the first time to showcase the swinging trough live, which is nice because I think it’s something really special. I’m contributing to the history of painting with it.
AM: Can you tell me about your first experiences with art as a kid?
CS: My mom is an artist as well. So as a kid we had so many awesome opportunities. We got a dress-up box, all the art supplies at our disposal, we would do all sorts of fun things like we’d get covered in paint and play around in the bathtub. It was just always part of my life.
I’ve kept that going from doing art as a kid to going to an arts high school, going to an arts university, running an art gallery straight out of university and then becoming an artist full-time. At some point I had three or four different jobs to support myself and I would still do art – squeeze it in when I could.
AM: Can you tell me about the moment when you decided to be an artist?
CS: I think I always knew, but at some point I decided I was going to be an artist and that was the moment when I decided to believe in myself. That act in and of itself was very liberating. If you don’t believe in yourself, then how is anyone else going to believe in you? And once I did that it was like the universe rewarded me. I’m not sure if this is 50 Cent’s quote, but I think he said, “Once you can be yourself then you provide the world with something that no-one else can provide.”
AM: How do you handle the business side of your art?
CS: I was fortunate that I ran a gallery – Project Gallery – for four years. I also worked at a number of other galleries behind the scenes in Toronto and then ran my own and we got voted NOW Magazine’s Best Independent Gallery in 2015. So learned a lot about being an art dealer and how you value an artwork – how you put a price on something that’s priceless.
So now I do get to work with galleries but I also work independently and it’s amazing to be able to have a connection with my audience and with the consumer directly. As much as I would like to be free of money and not have to worry about things like numbers when I’m painting, the numbers are real. And being able to increase my prices every year since starting does really give me an in-tune sense of what the real market value of the work is.
I think that social media really gives interesting opportunities to connect directly with the consumer without the middleman of a gallery. Even when I do work with a gallery I still break that mold and I’m here and I’m representing myself very strong and I’m interacting with everyone on a one-on-one basis.
AM: Do you have any upcoming projects?
CS: Based on the success of this residency I’ll be doing another residency in L.A. with Joseph Gross Gallery this summer, so that’s exciting. For that residency the idea is that I will go with nothing and I will create a new spinner for the first time from scratch.
I have another alias, Moon Magic, which is collaboration with my girlfriend. She’s also an artist. She’s very environmentally conscious and she’s cued me to the negative impact of the plastics that I’m using.
I use an obscene amount of paint and it’s getting to the point if I want to be a role model for other younger artists, if I can find a way to invent, or create a paint, or work with a brand that does organic paints, that would be a good step.
That would afford me the ability to do my performances outdoors at all these beautiful colour festivals – the Holi Festival or these colour runs that are popular now. So that’s a research project that I’m working on.
Callen Schaub’s show The Arena opens on Saturday, April 21 at The Sussex Contemporary gallery in Ottawa and runs until April 30. For more information about Callen Schaub and his work, visit callenschaub.com or follow him on Instagram or YouTube.