Brunch, 2021, Callan Grecia, Cosmic Disco

Callan Grecia and his expedition through the multiverse

Cosmic Disco: Callan Grecia pays homage (and gives the middle finger) to the Western art canon in a celebration of acrylic, spray paint and ink.

Callan Grecia is an artist from Durban whose solo exhibition, Cosmic Disco, showing this month at Whatiftheworld in Cape Town, is a millennial’s world in which art history, the religious pantheon, pop culture and the internet age collide.

We catch up with Callan about this latest addition to his multiverse.

How did Cosmic Disco come about?

I wanted to make paintings that made people dance. I was initially hooked to the idea of making a show that could play alongside the rave and jungle music I was listening to in studio. The show I had in my head looked very different and was supposed to be called Amen Break. That idea ended up being so insular. There wasn’t as much to explore as I initially thought and I ended up being stuck and frustrated. I remembered a painting I made in 2018 with the title “Cosmic Dance”. It was more in line with where I wanted to go with the work and kept things open. That painting also had so many elements that ended up dictating where I thought I should be going. It all started to flow for me from there.

Tell us more about the characters  –  who or what do they represent for you?

They’re all a little bit of me, my friends, people I’ve seen, and (very intentionally) art historical references. They are an exploration of form, but not necessarily figurative form. They’re also an homage (and middle finger) to the long, white, western canon of painting. Mostly, they are intuitive access points for the viewer, and what you take from them depends on who you are.

What are some of the topics you explore with your work?

Durban and whatever comes from having lived there, if I have to say. I’m not sure though, my brain darts around from serious to funny and back. It mashes it all around in there and I spit it out, and that either becomes cohesive or it doesn’t. I explore paint first and let paint lead the exploration rather. The topics you can see in the end are more like notes from the expedition. 

What’s your artistic process like? Do you have any morning or daily creative rituals?

It’s super boring. I wake up, check my emails, eat my oats for breakfast (every day), have my coffee and go into the garage and see what happens. Being in the studio every day is great because there’s a 0% chance that you’ll make something good every day, but that just means that there’s a 100% chance you will learn something every day. I think the biggest part of my process is learning the different languages of painting to articulate myself better and be a more fluent painter. That’s maybe why things are always in flux for me visually. I’m painting to learn how to paint.

How do you see your work evolving with each show? Do the artworks and subject matter form the same universe for you or new ones?

It’s nearly always new. Or not new, but more like a multiverse, where timelines run concurrently but the possibility and variance is endless. The work evolves with time and access to infrastructure. How it evolves I cannot tell you. Chance?

How does your own context inform the universe you create in a body of work, such as Cosmic Disco?

I’m contextually both ambivalent and hyper aware so I’m not sure. Sometimes work is reactive, in that I want to not be pigeonholed and make whatever I want to make (Laps Around The Sun) but then I want to also embrace myself and my identity as a brown, gender non-conforming, person in South Africa, from Durban with a Master’s in painting and access to infrastructure and information in 2021 (Cosmic Disco).

Who are some of your idols or creative mentors?

I’m not sure I idolize anyone, we’re all people in the end, but Tanya Poole who wrote the text for Cosmic Disco and Nigel Mullins have been my creative mentors since my university days and I always appreciate hearing what they have to say and seeing how they tackle their own artistic practices. Cameron Platter and Zander Blom have been a bit of a godsend as well just in terms of people making now that I totally resonate with because of their relationship with art and how they make it. I do also look at a lot of Tal R and Caravaggio and Whistler and Daniel Richter and Wilhelm Sasnal and Philip Guston and and and. But I really do look at as much as I can, old and new, and now because we have the access and there’s always something new to learn. 

Many of your characters resemble religious deities (with contemporary superhero flair!) Were you brought up religious (are you now?) and how has that impacted your thinking?

I was brought up in a religious household, yeah. But it was never forced on me, and my family always encouraged me to think for myself, which I appreciate. Funnily enough, I was an atheist for a long time and that changed completely when I came back home from university. I became more open to the mystical and – although I wouldn’t say I’m a fervent religious fanatic – I do feel quite spiritual and more open to the ideas of Hinduism particularly. The culture, history and teachings are so rich that it’d be a shame to not embrace them, at least in whatever way I have now.

Being open to change and chance completely changed the way I think about making art and now I’m quite happy to shift and swerve and fail and be stuck. When I initially came back home I was very set in my ideas and it was to my detriment in the end. I only wanted to make big, oil paintings and I couldn’t afford to. I didn’t have the space or the means and it drove me up the wall, so I stopped painting. But as I became more open, so did my openness to trying new things in life and the studio. So I credit that a bit to my shift to acrylics on paper. That and Louis De Villiers who gave me the advice to make the change so that I could actually practise. 

As an artist, what are some of your concerns? In terms of expression, what you communicate, how you are perceived…

I’m not super concerned about how I am perceived, I just make the art. My main concern is being able to make whatever I feel like making and the paint and act of painting itself. I can only hope that people see a work, and either have an immediately strong reaction, and if not, I hope that something sticks with them after, like a stone in their shoe or a name they can’t remember but it’s on the tip of their tongue and they won’t stop until they remember what it is. 

Gender fluidity seems to be characteristic of many of your subjects – where do your views sit in that conversation?

My parents have always let me express myself, so I’ve been fairly gender fluid in the way that I present myself for as long as I can remember. It’s not so obvious now or maybe ever, and I’m not sure how people perceive me but I’ve always been fluid. As I said earlier, I like to think some of those figures are me, or at least how I’d like to see myself sometimes. 

For you, how do technique and subject matter cross-pollinate in your work?

They inform each other. Technique is your toolbox and you use different tools to accomplish different things. You could technically use a screwdriver to hammer in a nail, but ideally you’d use a hammer. No one is stopping you from using the screwdriver though, and whatever the result is, you made a choice and something happened. That’s kind of what it’s like. So for Cosmic Disco when I was using Rubens, Renoirs, Wileys and Richters as form references for the figures, I had to really figure out what to use from my toolbox to emulsify all of these things together in the right way. 

Having done a Master’s in Fine Art at Rhodes University, what are your feelings on academia and its role in the art world and that influence on you as an artist?

I can only really speak about my own experience and I’m in-between about it all. I wouldn’t trade my experience and the things I learned during my time at university, it helped me get sharp, it’s where I figured out that I wanted to paint (I went to uni wanting to be a photographer) and I got to meet my painting class (we’re all still close and in contact and painting somehow). BUT, on the converse, it’s not really accessible. The infrastructure isn’t for everyone. Ideas were almost always prioritized over practice, rather than realizing some people are practically good and ideas can be developed (and vice versa). I don’t know. It felt like you had to write the exhibition statement before you made the work, or, like the work didn’t matter if the statement was great. It didn’t really allow for anything mystical or outside of the western way of looking at art. It also prioritized things that don’t really matter in the real world, things that could put you at a real disadvantage if you don’t realize that they don’t matter. Like oil paint, and Fabriano paper, etc etc etc. I left convinced that the only way I could make “real” art was if I painted with oils on canvas which was completely false, but you couldn’t have convinced me otherwise. So. I did learn a lot, but I had to unlearn so much afterwards as well. 

How did growing up in Durban inspire you, and what is life like for you now, living in George, and how does that affect your artistic practice?

I love George. It’s quiet, and peaceful and the weather is great and I have a bigger studio without scary Durban bugs. But it definitely isn’t Durban. I love Durban with all my heart. Green doesn’t look as green as it does anywhere else. The air is thick. The colours are brighter. I don’t think growing up in Durban really inspired me in any way, I wasn’t really thinking about it like that? And the good things that happened then were more just good things to remember. But when I came back to Durban after 6 years in Makhanda I had to learn how to be a Durbanite again in a way? You have to reacquaint yourself with the slang, with the humidity, with the colours.

It’s not all roses though, I wasn’t prepared to hear people refer to my style of painting as “naive” (because, what, only the West is sophisticated?) 

I wasn’t prepared to be called a moffie or a coolie in 2018, not that bigotry is endemic to Durban but it doesn’t hide. So.

What’s next for Callan Grecia?

Hopefully only good things. 

Cosmic Disco by Callan Grecia is showing at Whatiftheworld in Cape Town until 27 November.

whatiftheworld.com | @callangrecia

Exhibition information

WHATIFTHEWORLD is pleased to present Cosmic Disco, Callan Grecias’ first presentation with the gallery. 

The pantheon of characters in Callan Grecia’s Cosmic Disco are aspirational figures. The men have big muscles, the women have voluptuous curves and the gender-fluid demi-gods are magnetic. Everyone has great hair. Nakedly sensual, they are hanging out, looking cool and engaging in leisurely, pleasurable, instagrammable libations.

The imagery that the South African artist Callan Grecia channels is both contemporary and ancient and he dips into the span of the Western art canon, the work of contemporary African artists, the Hindu pantheon and the internet image economy. He allows us to see the method of the construction of his painterly worlds: they are mystical and otherworldly but they have been informed as much by the lens of his experience of living in the real world as by his imagination, and the aesthetic luxuriousness of the paintings contains clues that reveal a more serious and worldly underpinning. Grecia is a Durbanite whose eye has been formed by both Kwa-Zulu Natal’s natural tropical abundance and his Indian cultural heritage and at the heart of his drive into conceptualising Cosmic Disco was a desire to pay homage to the images of Hindu gods in the paintings he was surrounded by at his family home but had paid little or no attention to. He says “I was stuck for a long time only really looking at the west, so it was a good way of extending my sphere of investigation.” The works are a kind of visual speculative fiction and propose an alternative universe or a Utopian future. At the same time, they contain cues that reveal the artist’s global consciousness, his upbringing in a country with a violent and divisive past and his urge to redress an art historical focus whose eye rested primarily on the West. This particular combination of the difficult and the sublime is potent because it makes the inventive joy of these Utopias even sweeter by complicating them.

Born just prior to the Born Free generation of post-1994 South Africa, Grecia is part of a generation of South Africans emerging with a confident, assertive and questioning identity. In his studio practice, Grecia allows the visual to lead and trusts this process to prompt an ongoing stream-of-creation where he draws from his own particular narrative and imagination. He often works intuitively and quickly and swaps between lateral and critical thinking. The studio process begins with drawings on paper and he extends and expands these to large-scale colour-saturated paintings. He has collections full of images drawn from everywhere and everywhen with his magpie eye. He has a headful of imagery, he has notebooks full of palimpsests of drawing and overdrawing: Callan Grecia stands at his own nexus of historical time and place, speculative fiction, art history, internet image saturation, decolonisation, childhood cartoons, Hindu prayers and fashion brands. He is a creator of demi-gods and otherworlds, shape-shifting, gender-fluid, dynamic figures that shimmer and flicker with bursts of esoteric symbols. Their immediate environments are sparsely graphic and defy placement – could be a dance floor, could be a temple wall. Their formats pulse with visual energy,  the surface animated by line drawings of visual symbols drawn over, behind and into the figures. He squeezes his compositions by drawing in an additional line frame which sits inside the edges of the format and this intensifies the crammed space and allows some aspects of the drawings and paintings to push up against this inner frame and some to burst out over it as if the energy in the works cannot entirely be contained. His thinking is astute and unpredictable and he brings this quality into his drawings and paintings – it’s a trick that the artist loves playing where he configures and reconfigures graphic cyphers, characters and emissions, slippery in meaning and mercurial in intention. This slipperiness is not to confound the viewer or deny access to the works but is a visual device of the artist meant to subvert the idea that we can assign specific meaning to specific visuals, and which instead opens up Grecia’s fabricated worlds to readings of layers of shifting meaning and endless reinvention. In an initial look at Grecia’s works, symbols and cyphers may evoke particular meanings  but in looking longer, it is clear that there is a multiplicity of meanings and that these motifs become more open-ended and interconnected. Backing his hyper-referentiality are the actual facts of his context: the conditions of his time and place.

An example of how Grecia pulls this together can be seen in this tumble of imagery, inference, meaning and interconnection: the stars in the works and all the different ways in which Grecia uses them: the end of a caduceus, the end point of eye rays, the flash of a cigarette ember, the dazzle of an offering, a floating superpower, the twinkles of light from a cosmic glitterball. I think of Callan Grecia himself who wears wings on his sneakers and of his shoe obsession … the Nike swoosh which immediately invokes the Nike footwear brand, and could also evoke (from the word Nike) the ancient Greek winged victory, and from this, with the image of wings in mind, the various wings in the artworks become more evident. There are wings on shoulders like extra hands, and winged ankles invoking Hermes and Garuda and other flighted beings. In consideration of this, it becomes clear that there is another prominent motif linked with wings that appears and reappears in these compositions, often centrally: the Myna bird. This bird species, named in English after its Hindi name, is native to India and came to South Africa in 1860 on ships from India bringing indentured labourers to work on sugar cane farms, a bird known for its intelligence and mischievousness. Grecia says: “They came here with us on the ships and they’re classified as an invasive alien species in SA. Just like us. That’s why some have the antennas too. I like that we had company. They’re like ancestors in these paintings to me.”

We could see Grecia’s works as generators of meaning, where we consciously allow our own personal and historical references to inform the meaning that we derive from what we see – in the knowledge that the artist is making a rich and complex set of indices for us to play with, to connect, to create our own meaning in relation to the artist’s. The symbols and visual cues in Grecia’s paintings come from a deeply personal space, yet spiral out to contain a wider and profound context. This is part of the pleasure of the paintings and drawings, the artist’s mercurial, illusionist, trickster-thinking ability to provoke such multiplicities of meaning which are able to describe the artist’s own worlds, inner and outer, that spin a web of references which catch the viewer with the familiarity of shared cues, shared aspects of history and knowledge and invites them to share in the divinity of our best selves in the great Cosmic Disco.

Artist Biography

Callan Grecia was born in Durban and currently works in George. His experimental, almost playful approach to painting combines figures, still lives and geometric abstractions. By combining these modernist techniques with pop culture and classical canonical references, Grecia fashions scenes that seem mythological, yet familiar, creating a hybrid world where the history of art collides with a futurist fantasy.

In 2021, Grecia presented a solo body of work, Laps Around the Sun, as part of the Artist Room series presented by SMAC Gallery. Notable group exhibitions include: No Experiment Lab Showroom, Paris Fashion Week Men, Paris, France (2019); Everything’s For Sale, KZNSA Gallery in Durban (2019); POROMPOMPOMPO, The Cosmopolitan in Johannesburg (2019), South Africa; and Shady Tactics, at SMAC (2018). His work is represented in the public collection of the Durban Art Gallery.

Interview and introduction: Sarah Jayne Fell
Exhibition text: Tanya Poole
Photographs: Courtesy of the artist
Artwork images and artist bio: Whatiftheworld
Production: Sarah Jayne Fell