In each installment of The Artists, T highlights a recent or little-seen work by a Black artist, along with a few words from that artist putting the work in context. This week, we’re looking at a painting by Calida Rawles, whose first solo exhibition in New York will open at Lehmann Maupin in September.
Name: Calida Rawles
Based in: Los Angeles
Originally from: Wilmington, Del.
Where and when did you make this work? In my studio in January 2020, right before the pandemic.
Can you describe what is going on in the work? I would say there is a figure in solitude, enjoying the water or having a moment to herself because she’s totally submerged. Her movement is graceful. She becomes a shape and then a reflection, and the reflection isn’t even exactly accurate. When I look at this I feel at peace. One of the feet looks like maybe Degas, like one of his ballet dancers. The work is photo-realistic and then it becomes impressionistic. I was able to let go and make some things up.
The orientation is vertical, but I think naturally it would be a horizontal piece. When I first did the shoot for the photo reference, I knew this image looked great, but then I rotated it and I thought: “Oh, this is the way it should go.” Changing the orientation made it much more interesting to me — I saw an inkblot, a kind of Rorschach test. I thought that people might be able to see more than what is there — more than just the Black body, more than just this woman.
What inspired you to make it? I think there was a desire to celebrate the female form, but I was also trying to find peace. I’m always trying to find that — that’s why I go to the water. It’s therapeutic for me. I am an anxious person by nature. I don’t do yoga, but I probably need to. What makes me anxious is not knowing what’s coming next — maybe it’s about control. I paint with teeny tiny brushes, which I think is psychologically connected to control. It’s funny because most of the artists I admire paint loose. I admire them because I wish I could do the same. At times, I have gotten the bigger brush and tried to let go, but then I come back and I’m like, “What is that? What were you thinking?” Even here, there are certain areas that are very fine-tuned, even if I painted them in a way that looks loose. But there are also moments when there is just the stroke, like that foot might have been one stroke of the brush, and I was so proud.
What’s the work of art in any medium that changed your life? When I was at Spelman, it might have been in 1996, they had a show called “Bearing Witness.” One of the pieces that was in the show was from Carrie Mae Weems’s “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried” series. I just remember being so moved by the photograph with text — it was the red on the figures and the text itself. It was so strong, it stood out and it just seemed so smart. It made me think about my history and how humans are so complicated. Weems presented these photographs so beautifully, yet it was so disturbing. In my work, I am always trying to hit those two marks: A subject or a message that doesn’t feel good, yet you still want to look at it. It’s weird to feel these things at the same time, but I like when I see work like that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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