If there are two non-art related words that stand out in a conversation with Alexander Kaletski
these are: communism and cardboard. Kaletski has a high opinion of one of these and a low one of the other. His story is a fascinating one, even in the long history of artist-immigrants to the United States.
Kaletski is first a painter but he was and remains a well-known actor in Russia. He just completed a self-produced film in the USA (Song of Silence
) with his wife. He is a musician and he has written several novels, including a best-seller.
At Art Miami, during Art Basel in Miami, some of Kaletski’s work on cardboard was on display. What drove him, after emigrating, to work in this peculiar medium? The motive wasn’t totally aesthetic.
“I always wanted to paint oil on canvas, when I came to America I had no money. I couldn’t.” he says.
But wandering around in New York, he saw something beautiful—and something scarce in Russia, or at least not piled up on the street.
“I saw, on the streets of New York, there was recycling, pieces of cardboard. Coming from Russia they looked so beautiful. There was no cardboard in Russia. Each box was a masterpiece in my eyes.” says Kaletski.
And Kaletski made many pieces from cardboard and continued to work with what we throw away, even after his finances improved and he could afford canvas. There is something in this about America and Americans—something sort of sad. What we throw away others can find beautiful and make more beautiful. We take our beautiful junk for granted.
Kaletski didn’t, and doesn’t. He still makes his cardboard paintings. And it isn't just slapping paint on cardboard. He first applied white or black gesso (used to prepare canvas as well).
“You can put oil on cardboard but it eats cardboard and makes ugly spots. Sometimes I use pastel and you can mix that with gesso. When gesso is on cardboard you can put oil on top of it—whatever comes to mind and is nearby, glue…When I start with cardboard I never know what I am going to do. The spirit of the cardboard comes out of the box.” says Kaletski.
These days Kaletski’s main work is oil on linen. He adheres to no specific style. In each new work he strives for something different and not only stylistically.
“All painting I tried to do is experimental, every show is different. I try to do something different technically.” he says.
He considers the oil work to be his experimental, serious work. While his oils are drying he works on cardboard pieces which he says are for “fun and the soul.”
Creating is what fuels Kaletski’s soul and even in a brief conversation you come to understand the challenges faced by a creative mind in the repressive system that was the USSR.
“When I was a child I was painting all the time—I won every children’s competition. When I was older I had to go to University,’ says Kaletski. “In Russia at that time you picked an area of training and that is what you did for the rest of your life.”
And if you decided to be a painter you didn’t run with your muse. You didn’t try to create something new; after all, you lived in a society that was already the perfect ideal.
“You had to paint Socialist Realism. You couldn’t paint anything except this style. They had even started to teach the style in the children’s classes.” he says.
He didn’t want to do it. More than that, given his temperament, his spirit, he couldn’t do it.
“I didn’t want to follow instructions” he says—a trait unlikely to lead to success in the USSR.
He also realized that the training would kill his love of painting. So Kaletski took a different tack. He opted instead to go to theater school—an exclusive one—and studied to be an actor. He could act and he could do it within the confines of the system because, while it is something he enjoys and excels at, it wasn’t part of his soul like painting.
“I became a successful actor involved in those stupid Soviet movies. I hated them.” he says
But they gave him money to live on and he kept painting and writing songs on his own. While making the films and being an actor he also lived a double life.
“I still painted and made collages of Soviet posters. They are always the same colors. I sold the drawings to foreigners. It was considered to be a crime. I was also writing songs. I would say songs of protest but very independent. It was about the same time, in America, as Bob Dylan,” he says. “It was parallel. Songs and paintings were underground. I got really involved in the underground—living in Moscow illegally.”
Being involved in the underground, selling paintings, writing protest songs was a dangerous thing to do. American singers of such music often feel put upon. In some cases they have been harassed but the situation in the Soviet Union it was far worse. Kaletski feared he might be caught with his art or music and sent to a psychiatric hospital. If you were against the perfect Soviet system? You were obviously insane.
He decided to leave the USSR.
“In America I first made living selling paintings, performing at colleges or at Russian Clubs. I sang in Russia. It was natural for me to do different things.” he says.
He also made money hand painting silks for boutiques. This is not so far, perhaps, from painting on linen in form. It clearly had to differ in style (alas fashion is not always art).
One of a series of five short films by Kaletski and Anna Zorina
The move was not easy for Kaletski. He emigrated and it was the hardest thing he ever did. He says if he had known how difficult it would be he would not have come. His language studies in school had been French and German, not English. His idealism also took a hit when he arrived.
“I was anti-communist and want to help America fight communism. It sounds idiotic now.” he says.
But it was his mission, fighting communism. He wanted to show people that the glimpses of freedom Russians had. He brought the underground to America. Yet it his ideal of America and the reality did not mesh. It was culturally horrible for him. He liked the country and the political system but day to day living was not what he had pictured. It took time but eventually he came to terms with his new home.
“I got past ideology and how America can be a tough place. I thought America would take me as a hero fighting communism but no one gave a shit.” he says, laughing. “Now I know what America is and I love America. Nothing is easy her but you can do whatever you want. Still, in my heart, I am a Russian idealist.”
Imagine being a movie star, an idealist, an anti-communist, who moves to the leading nation in the west and no one cares. Imagine you wind up painting on cardboard because you have no money. But also imagine being able to find beauty and wonder in the cardboard. It worked out. The cardboard paintings helped keep his soul intact.
They cost him little but no one wanted to buy them (at the time). He did it for himself, to satisfy his need to create. It is a lesson to artists. The best work isn’t what you create to hang in a bank lobby or a commissioned painting of a rich old lady’s poodle. It is what you create for no reason other than you feel compelled to make it.
Kaletski became something of a celebrity. He was on the Merv Griffin Show twice—once with Arnold Schwarzenegger. His wonderful quasi-autobiographical book, Metro, became a best seller. Griffin was taken with Kaletski and his story and therein is the origin of Metro.
“Once I was on his show as a singer. He said; ‘You have such a great story, let’s make a movie'.” says Kaletski.
They gave him a writer. Kaletski didn’t like what he was writing and asked for a new writer, He was told “no” and decided to write it himself. It took seven years. Metro became a best seller but the film was never made.
Contemplation #41 (oil on linen) by Alexander Kaletski
Kaletski continues to sing, here and back in Russia. He has an exacting schedule. Kaletski rises early and first plays guitar and sings for an hour. Then he paints for five or six hours.
“Then I write to punish myself. Writing is the most difficult thing for me.” he says.
He writes for 40 minutes to an hour. He has written another three novels but painting has remained most important to him. It has not kept him from branching out further.
“I just finished a movie, acting as myself. There is my music, my story. My wife and I are finishing it in two or three weeks. It is fiction, a murder mystery.” he says.
Song of Silence premiered in New York City In February 2012.
He also still acts in Russian movies.
His main work, however, remains painting. It isn’t just work though. Painting is a spiritual activity. When he discusses his work, his process, you get the feeling you are talking to a mystic about some secret rite. But then his ease and good humor transform that spell.
Despite the effort he puts into it. Despite the hardships he endured to become an artist, Kaletski has, perhaps, a surprising view on what makes good painting.
“Good painting should be random. It should be accidental.” he says.
Art should be, perhaps, as accidental as finding beautiful bits of cardboard that others, unseeing, throw away.
“Then the Morning Comes”by Wade Millward
This year’s South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival, which hosted acts from FIDLAR
to Fiona Apple
and Dan Deacon
to Danny Brown
, featured plenty of young bands looking to penetrate the U.S. market. Morning Parade
, a five-piece from Essex, England, was one such band trying to go the way of past SXSW breakouts from across the pond. According an article on Spinner
, this includes The Darkness
, Arctic Monkeys
and Amy Winehouse
.The band, which finished introducing Americans to its brand of Coldplay-esque anthemic pop rock on Thursday, comprises singer-guitarist Steve Sparrow, guitarist Chad Thomas, bassist Phil Titus, keyboardist Ben Giddings and drummer Andy Hayes.
Speaking just after the band’s March 7 show at New York’s Terminal 5, the premier of its first U.S. tour, Sparrow revealed his mantra for dealing with traveling the large, heterogeneous country: “trust the tour manager. Don’t worry about anything else.”
“It’s a big place,” he says of the U.S. “There’s a lot to do.”
Faced with a packed touring schedule, which included a Livestream performance later that day, the 25-year-old said he’d try to abstain from partying too much.
“I also like to do my job as well as I can and enjoy the music as much as I can,” he says.
The band prides itself with fan communication, staying in touch through Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and a website featuring behind-the-scenes and a-day-in-the-life photos and video and a “Live Map” showing previously played locales. Sparrow said the “Live Map” was the band’s way of “naval gazing,” comparing its look to WWII-era invasion plans.
“We’re basically saying we’ve gone a step further than the Nazis,” he joked.
He said a band talking to its fans is a nice gesture. He even recognizes repeat audience members, and Morning Parade tries to fulfill online song requests in its shows.
“We try to cater to them as much as we can,” says Sparrow.
Additionally, the band’s opened a contest allowing fans to create the music video for the single “Headlights” off its self-titled debut album. Entries are due Monday.
The band’s first American gig, touring with The Kooks, took them from the Northeast to Austin, Texas, to play four shows during SXSW’s six-day festival, and ended Thursday at Los Angeles’ Roxy Theatre. For Sparrow, SXSW was not just breaking into a new market. To him, playing in Texas and eating barbeque was experiencing America.
“It’s not just the shows,” he says. “It’s the culture there.”
He said he found out about the performance after seeing the dates go up on the website, but a coveted SXSW slot wasn’t a surprise.
“It was always in the cards,” he says. “That’s the time you find out what you’re made of.”
Sparrow said touring the states was simpler than touring across Europe. He said the common language removed one barrier of playing the Continent, where he needed the help of Google Translate to speak to the fans.
“It definitely gets quite confusing,” says Sparrow. “Europe is so varied, you never know what you’re going to get.”
Sparrow’s not kidding. He said touring Europe led to encounters with a 7-foot transvestite and a girl in Germany who came backstage to show her sound-activated vibrator.
“Germans are quite liberal in that sense,” he says. “Touring is a funny kind of blur.”
Morning Parade owes most of its fan base to heavy touring. Last year, the group played the V Festival in England and toured with The Kooks, The Wombats and 30 Seconds to Mars, as well as shared a stage with Coldplay at the Rock am Ring music festival in Germany. Sparrow said the band’s debut on Astralwerks Records, which releases in the U.S. and Canada on June 19, took about a year to make.
He says time was taken up by writing the songs and then testing them in front of audiences.
“We never do things the normal way,” he says.
To him, the album is about life’s ups and downs. Its emotion was inspired by the band members’ personal lives and the shakeup of getting a record deal.
The band recorded the album with producer David Kosten (Bat for Lashes, Everything Everything) at singer Damon Albarn’s 13 studio.
Sparrow says it was overwhelming working in the Blur and Gorillaz frontman’s studio. He even stood next to Albarn.
“It’s an inspiration to be around people like that,” he says.
He says even before the album’s March 5 U.K. release, the band members felt the pressure of expectations from enthusiastic critics.
Comparing the hype to an impenetrable fortress, Sparrow says they learned to perform under it, making the band and friends stronger.
He says the early welcome was the best thing to happen to Morning Parade.
“I think we found ourselves within it,” says Sparrow. “We’re just five guys from a town in England who write songs.”
Trevor Young In Front Of His Works
The next time you go to a rural gas station, in the middle of the night, to take out money and buy a Yoohoo take a close look around. You are looking at wonderful design. According to nightscape painter Trevor Young
, you are looking at art.
Young’s paintings capture locations we take for granted in the modern world. He paints “non-places,” locales that are ubiquitous, that have become a part of the worldwide collective subconscious. This sounds rarified and quite high falutin’ before you know Young’s subject include gas stations, airports and parking lots .He paints them, mostly, as nightscapes.
Why the night and why paint these manmade, artificially lighted bits of modernity at all?
“I think I am genuinely attracted to florescent light. I paint in a studio that the majority of light comes from fluorescent. And I think sometimes when you are driving down the road and you see a gas station and it is illuminated to the extreme,” says Young. “There is this hard edge and the light is trapped under this cover, this shelter where the gas pumps are and the colors and saturation. It is asking to be painted.”
And it is this light, the light that illuminates our nights, rather than the moonlight or starlight that is usually the light in Young’s paintings. The paintings offer a different perspective on nightscapes. They change with the subject and are not simply a juxtaposition of light and dark.
“Some people admire the sunset because of color saturation. I love the color saturation and the primary colors of manmade places. And the intensity of them and the mixture; there will be a fluorescent light on this wall and a mercury light on this wall and they are mixing together creating this experience that doesn’t happen in nature,” he says. “These are manmade experiences and we take them for granted. I will roll up on a kiosk and it will have a coca cola machine and a bank machine. It is just sitting there it is a sanctuary we go to that place, not even hesitating; ‘oh I gotta get some shit lets go in there’.”
The design of these places appeals to us on some level. We trust them. The design matters but the illumination is more important.
“Illumination is a powerful element we take for granted. It is very new, I think the way fast food and airports illuminate stuff we take as a given. But it is one of the most modern experiences to have,” says Young. “People die in the dark. You can’t read. You can’t drive. All These things are possible with light pollution that is really beautiful.”
Young notes that there is no mechanism, no hesitation that tells us to not go in. It is almost universally welcoming. To Young, this is not just because it is something we see on the corner. It is the intention of the designers and those designs reach out to him.
“There is something about those design elements that are really sexy to me. We do not question taking $300 out of a bank machine in the middle of nowhere. We don’t question the safety of it. Yes, it is an action of getting money but it is the design that disarms us. It is the illumination,” says Young. “It’s the fact you can get Bugles and Cheetos and Combos and then get $500 dollars—just for the example of the kiosk w bank machine. So they want us to disarm ourselves. Those elements that disarm us are really powerful and they are primary.”
It isn’t just the light, the artificial light, which Young looks to in his work.The darkness matters too. But he doesn’t try to recreate “truth” or “nature in the work. He tries to capture the conflict between light and dark.
“It’s funny I love Whistler and he says nature is very right to such an extent that nature is usually wrong. I took that and said ‘natures wrong,” But in saying that is nature is wrong it is just because nature kills and just devours us. We just can’t survive very long in nature. We have to organize and formulate a survival mechanism. And light is one of the key essential elements of doing it,” says Young. “Light is pushing into this darkness it pushes into the darkness it is fleeting constantly… It takes a lot of power to light. It takes a lot of energy to make the dark go away. I am very specific about how I like the dark to take over the light. When I am making a painting I am aware of the fact the dark is the monster and the light is the little baby that is going to be crushed.”
One of the modern landscape’s most reviled residents is an inspiration to Young. He sees more in it than meets the eye—more than our familiarity allows us to see at a glance. He finds McDonalds to be a modern design marvel.
“I look at what McDonalds has; its red and gold. It is the color of the sun. The sun is the most powerful icon in the world and then the red represents earth and blood. It is the most basic most rudimentary color system in the world,” says Young. “It is the first two colors is actually gold and oxide. Those things are still very attractive to us. We try to discount them but they’re beautiful.”
Young says we dress in black and try to be bourgeoisie. In other words we want to be outside the norm, outside what appeals to the masses. Yet it is difficult to argue that the elements of these transient non-places are powerful with their pictograms, numbers and color saturation.
“It brings us in. and I think there is a cultural problem in the works. And this is what I am fervent about because people want to attack McDonalds. Ok, fine but just look at it for a second, it is a beautiful place.” says Young.
In fact, Young goes so far as to say some of these manmade things are the most beautiful things of all time. He was working on a 100 inch McDonalds painting for a museum show at the time of this interview.
Airports and airplanes also have a special place in Young’s work (and these are not always depicted at night--in fact Young does have daytime and dusk/dawn paintings).
“Airports are an amazing place. You are getting into a dangerous machine whether it is gonna crash or a terrorist yet we are totally disarmed. We don’t even talk to anyone.” says Young.”…I mean an airplane is one of the most beautiful things ever built and the fact that it flies on top of that is like ‘wow’. And I am naturally drawn to paint airplanes. I don’t know why more artists don’t want to paint airplanes they are these gorgeous, illuminated feminine and masculine moments…I struggle painting airplanes because of the complexity. I am drawn to paint them. They are gorgeous.”
And it isn’t just McDonalds, gas stations and airports that inspire Young. What is the apex of organization and use of space in the modern world? It is the parking lot. You don’t question the safety of your vehicle. You just pay the guy in the booth and leave the car there. Why?
“It has to feel secure. We take for granted our sec. We wouldn’t leave our car in some places but we put it in a parking lot. We would take money out of a certain bank machine because it is over illuminated. You don’t take money out of the dark bank machine.” says Young.
Young says there have likely been a lot of painters who used parking lots as their subjects He has always been attracted to the little kiosk with a guy in it. In Young’s painting, The Man In The Box, the man is gone. He isn’t relevant to the experience.
“We pump gas we don’t interact. We go to McDonalds and hardly interact. We function on a level w all these luxuries and we do not have to authenticate it with another person,” says Young. “So when I think of these experiences, of going and experiencing the world, I think of us alone. I think it is really beautiful I like being alone. I think it is really great we don’t have to interact with people we can just do it.”
These experiences, and hence the paintings, have a cinematic feel. A feel that Young maintains many modern photographers—Eggleston, Friedlander, Stephen Shore—capture well.
“I enjoy the works of certain artists-especially American photographers—that capture this kind of ambient feeling. You can just feel that there is something else happening in these places. They are not formalized, constructed shapes. You can feel the character of the place. I love that.”
American photography between 1953 and 1982 is a large influence in Young’s work.
Yet despite how all the places Young paints are manmade there are no people in the paintings. There is loneliness to them beyond this to be sure. But there are no humans in Young’s non-places.
“It’s funny I am a very social person I like to chat and talk and everything…but I really like to be left alone. ..We can function for months and not really truly authentically interact with anybody,” he says. “Non places allow that to happen. When we go into an airport often we are wearing our headphones. We kind of have a cinematic feeling, the window showing planes taking off, it is really intense…you own the space.”
The people in these paintings are the audience. We are the people interacting with the spaces in Young’s work.
“When I make these paintings I think of them as us in the space; as us approaching this. We are entering into this. I don’t think my paintings are ever dangerous looking,” he says. “I feel like they are always like this is a beautiful moment and you are witnessing it. This is a moment you might have taken for granted. It’s inviting you.”
How does Young get the varied blacks he uses in his nights? They change from painting to painting. In some the light seems to be winning and in others the darkness.
“When I am making a painting I use a very specific black, it is my own recipe of this one black. I like to use. I often glaze in and glaze in and glaze in but I glaze in like a painter. I don’t just glaze it in I paint it in. then I will mix another color in there. And essential it becomes more and more transparent and pushes up more to the light.” he says.
And the work doesn’t always stay the same after young begins. His painting, Work Heat Cool, started out more illuminated and then became darker.
“I wanted it to become a very isolating moment.” he says.
The painting, Prostrating Steel, also changed in a similar way. But Young is conscious that adding is not always the way to make a painting work.
“You can make a painting and keep adding stuff. But I am very aware things are lost with details. Sometimes just a few touches reward us in that the vacantness of the space is actually really powerful.” he says.
To him, Work Heat Cool is a painting with a lot of details.
“I was aware of how much the dark kept coming in and in and in and so I just kept pushing it smaller and smaller and smaller. The painting got more intense for me and because it got more intense it got harder to look at for me,” he says. “Because the painting affects you and affects me even in the way that I am really making the moment smaller and smaller. It’s hard to verbalize because it is a sensation as much as it is a rational experience.”
His childhood memories inform his work as well. He has always been attracted to small buildings in the middle of parking lots—those buildings that invite us to get a slushie, park our car or pick up photos.
My mother worked at a photo mat when she was much younger and she always had the hookup there for years later—I wasn’t born when she worked there—but I remember her pulling up to the photo mat when I was a kid. And this little yellow photo mate—it was blue and yellow—and I can remember being so stimulated by it.” says Young.
By Patrick Ogle
For more on Young head to his website, trevoryoung.net or to dkgallery.com.