T O N Y    C A L Z E T T A
Essays about the artist


© Kate Regan 2001

To make art, Tony Calzetta has to draw the line. His paintings and sculptures begin with sketches, and he says he thinks of himself as a "drawer" more than a painter. "That's when I get the most enjoyment, putting the line down. I'm attracted to graphics, and graphics meaning line, as opposed to painterly graphics." And whereas most English idioms involving the word line refer to defining limits or boundaries - toeing the line, staying in line, behind the lines - Calzetta allows his drawings to wander freely, finding their own curious directions.

It was Paul Klee, also enamoured of the power of graphics, who wrote of "taking a line for a walk," to see where it would go. In the same spirit, Calzetta invites his lines to dance, zoom, fly, gesticulate, spin and toddle. Colour and texture are vital to his paintings, but it's the idiosyncratic drawing that gives them punch. In the sculptures, lines jump into a third dimension and wriggle to life.

And what of Calzetta's images, these strangely capering biomorphic creatures, half animalistic and half machine? His figures maintain their cartoon edginess while encountering a variety of threats, uncertainties and jests. Amusingly wilful, they inhabit a world where pathos and playfulness meet, yet, his paintings have unexpected depths. They are light-hearted but not lightweight.

How does Calzetta arrive at these scenes of sinister wit? Why are some shapes amusing and are their effects universal? Are certain lines funny? "I think it's the application, not necessarily the shape or form," he says. "It's part of the emotion with which you put it down. It's an elusive thing, the play of seriousness and not-seriousness. Robert Motherwell, for example, the gravity of his work may come from the sparseness and darkness and lack of clutter in his forms; clutter seems to take away from seriousness."

If not actually cluttered, Calzetta's work does seem busy and full of movement. Phallic clouds whoosh across the canvas, lamp-like figures wiggle and spout, boat-shaped contraptions float or founder in rocky seas, and a hirsute vehicle on mismatched wheels wobbles along an azure incline. He aims for a sense of the precarious. Simultaneously, his colours, bright and clear with acidy yellows clashing with pinks or brilliant blues, compound the comedy.

An element of surprise - first for the artist and then for the viewer - is essential to these works. "I wanted to make something that was my own, that didn't depend on someone else's theory," Calzetta says. "The preliminary sketches are not premeditated, but they have a direction where they're going. Developing something from these doodles is an intuitive process, opening myself up to the possibilities of line and form and colour. The imagery comes out of the subconscious and builds on itself. Making something that surprises me is the excitement."

Calzetta's titles, always enigmatic and often hilarious, add to the intrigue. They have grown wilder over the years, just as his earlier, somewhat calmer, work has morphed into the antic vivacity of his most recent series. Jive Ass Atomic Art Queen is fairly self-explanatory, perhaps, for the depiction of a vehicular gizmo with attitude tootling under a lemony sky. However, what is one to make of Mother Hubbard Arriving at the Cupboard Knocks Two Times Because Marcel Duchamp Lives There or Lester's Love Wagon Leaves Late?

Originally, there was no connection between titles and the content of a painting or sculpture. They were deliberately whimsical and obscure because Calzetta didn't want to force interpretations about the work. Now, composing a title, he says, "has become a side art form." Sometimes they conjure up little-known art "factoids", as in Marcel Seemed Quite Content in His New Suit With Two Pairs of Pants, a tall, spiky sculpture crowned in steel. It's a reference to Marcel Duchamp's happy discovery, upon buying a suit in New York City, that it came with spare pants.

The titles still don't offer a clue about what's going on inside Calzetta's scenes and constructions. They may imply a mood, perhaps, or add a sardonic level to the complications of a painting such as Bob's Life was Quite Exciting With the New Art and All. This particularly lively panel has two humanoid beings under imminent assault by fist-like clouds, while a fallen form on the left foreground is gushing a splotch of something white.

We don't know what it all means, but what's remarkable in the paintings is their implication of drama, depth and animation. Each is "framed" in painted borders. There is a clear impression of top and bottom, foreground and background, wherein certain events are at play. Cloud shapes that appear both menacing and funny often loom over the central figures.

What may not be so immediately obvious is how beautiful and stimulating Calzetta's pieces are. You can be captivated by their humour and then stay to savour their intensity.

Although he emphasizes that his work is "not really to do with paint," since he draws first in graphite or charcoal and then colours in with oil sticks and/or acrylics, Calzetta in fact has developed a distinctive and subtle use of colour and texture. If he is not "painterly" in the sense of piling on the pigment, he is a master of tone and mood. The brightness of his primary palette is enriched by contrasting blacks and greys. Frequently he creates a delicate shimmering effect by scratching, cross-hatching or overpainting his background fields. The radiant play of light on these canvases deepens their drama.

The current exhibition includes three of Calzetta's large sculptures, constructed of tightly corrugated cardboard, steel, charcoal and shellac. He began working in three dimensions at a time when he felt stalled in his painting and needed a new challenge. "Turning to sculpture turned me around because of the unfamiliarity of materials; it was a new problem to solve."

There's a clear relationship between the postures and gestures of Calzetta's constructions and those in his pictures. While monochromatic rather than vividly tinted, they have the same jaunty defiance of his graphics and indeed, originate from drawings. Miss Spike, with its demure little back legs, funky front wheels and a crown of wavy steel, looks like something Miro would have played with, while Good Morning Trotsky has the quirky dignity of an alien observing its observers. Marcel Seemed Quite Content in His New Suit With Two Pairs of Pants, less zoomorphic than its cousins, confronts us with a spirited, prickly presence.

"Making the work yours" is what an artist has to do, Calzetta says. "You have to extract it out of yourself. There is so much that's written, recorded, catalogued, filmed, photographed, that you can spend all your life researching and looking at stuff and not doing anything of your own. At what point do you stop, draw the line?"


Kate Regan is an independent writer and curator based in Toronto.

Copyright © 2020 Tony Calzetta. All rights reserved.