(Secret) world of men

Chip McCall: A Profile | By Kelly McCafferty

There is a (secret) world of men.  And to say I don’t interact with that world would be an understatement.  I can’t even really fathom it.  But sometimes, I see glimpses into it.  

For three years I had a studio in a giant building in Long Island City.  There was a passenger elevator at the front entrance of the building, but if I really needed to move something I would have to use the freight elevator at the loading dock.  There were two creaky giant freight elevators at the back of the building staffed during business hours by elevator operators; their strange system of operational levers deemed too complex for me, the passenger, to operate.  

The elevator operators were older men—spending much of their lives inside these mechanical boxes; waiting.  And these elevators were their realm.  I was only a visitor for the duration of my ride.  Spending most of their day inside a small space with no windows had prompted them over the years to decorate.  The walls of the elevators were covered with taped up images of women (in various stages of undress) and cars.  The elevator wall was both a physical marking of time (the layering of images and eras) and territory (claiming space.)  

The worn pin-up images served both as fantasy images to lead to imaginative daydreams and places to rest the eye from the realities of physical labor and being in a confined space.

And riding in that elevator will remain one my strangest experiences, feeling aware of my body in a space that was not meant for it and making small talk about the weather as I hungrily consumed the images that were not meant for my eyes.

The internet has changed how we consume and collect images, of course.  Now we do it privately.  These images aren’t physical for us anymore.  There is less of a need to save physical magazines cut-outs when there is a never ending stream of content available to us at any time.  So stumbling into the world of men via a freight elevator, an auto body shop break room or somebody’s dad’s man cave might be unfathomable to future generations as these images begin to be hidden in secret folders on laptops and no longer presented for display.

Chip McCall makes work about the world of men—specifically Southern men.  I came across an installation of Chip’s titled, After us the savage God, that is currently up in the Wassaic summer show, Change of State, in Wassaic, New York.  I felt the same way about Chip’s installation as I did about my freight elevator experience; conflicted and intrigued.  The installation is putting out a lot of energy and it is intense to be physically near it.  It recalls auto body shops, basements, garages—the spaces men might go to be alone or with one another.  The central object is a non-functioning auto engine—manufactured failure—made up of foam, cardboard, pipes, plastic, etc.

The central engine serves as an altarpiece, surrounded by scattered objects—a taped-together beer can totem pole, an Arnold Schwarzenegger Predator movie poster, auto magazines, dirty work gloves, etc.  

The installation brings to mind—childhood science fair projects, CPR dummies, and model railroads.  It reads to me as a trying out of masculinity—a practicing of the world of men.  The installation is adolescent—half-formed—mimicking.  

I couldn’t shake the energy of the installation and my fascination led me to look at Chip’s website and then reach out to him for a studio visit.  I met Chip at his Ridgewood studio and we spent an hour and a half discussing Americana, the South, Chip’s upbringing, humor, irony, masculinity and anger.

I met Chip on a Saturday at his studio building in Ridgewood—the directions he gave me included that it is “across the street from the Western Beef” supermarket and that I “could base my proximity upon the relative sketch-factor of my surroundings.”  The area around his studio is very busy and industrial with lots of wholesalers and truck traffic.  As he led me upstairs to the large studio he shares, we made small talk about the Wassaic show we are both currently in.  His studio was divided into two rooms and split between five people with a little lounge area.  It is a very nice studio share and Chip splits the interior space with another painter.  He had the area cleaned up and nicely arranged with two chairs set up for us.  I took my time to poke about the space and take in the work and layout of everything.  Chip has one large working wall that he had displayed with at least ten moderately sized paintings, small notes and collected objects.  The wall itself felt like both a working space and an installation (which was exactly how the installation in Wassaic felt to me.)  Chip is primarily a painter.  I would classify the paintings as collage based abstractions and they are in a creamsicle color palate of orange, strawberry and vanilla.  The work is bright and light and brings to mind the work of Michel Majerus and Wendy White—artists who consciously blurred the distinction between abstraction and product advertising.

Chip’s work is spattered with text.  The text is sometimes scratched into the paint surface in handwriting that feels aggressive and deliberate and other times it is printed in stickers or cut-outs.  The works feel both fast and slow at the same time—like they manifested quickly after a long period of waiting.  

Some of the paintings are shaped objects—trucker hats or an ear—and these hold the space between the paintings and the collected objects.  Everything fits together cozily on the wall.  

I take a seat and I begin to throw questions at Chip while I scribble notes in my notebook.  Chip is a natural storyteller and he is warm and funny in the way he describes himself, his past and his work.  He tells me he grew up in the suburbs of Winston-Salem, North Carolina and describes it as an old farming and mill town under the shadow of RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company.  As a kid, Chip drew all the time and spent summers at art camps.  He said he had a vision of leaving home, but that vision only carried him one state over—to college at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina.  He initially studied architecture, but he told me a story about why he switched to art after one semester.  He had an assignment to make a map through campus.  He decided on a “lazy man’s route” which included landmarks such as vending machines and avoided direct sunlight and hills.  He “sketchbooked” the assignment and used art materials like spray paint and painting supplies and showed up to class where everyone else had made serious maps with computer mapping programs.  His interpretation of the assignment, coupled with his poor grades in calculus and physics prompted him to “roll the dice” and join the art department.  

Chip described Clemson University to me as a southern football school where the whole town is the college and where he had a good time, but wasn’t focused.  I ask him about the art department at Clemson and he says that it was a lot of “Etsy accounts.”  He sheepishly confessed that he was in a fraternity, which after my initial “whoa” opened up tons of questions from me.  When I asked him why, he said maybe he wanted to be a part of a group, make friends easily, go to big parties and he said the whole thing, in hindsight, was field research into the deplorable aspects of southern men.

He described the process of presenting himself in khakis and a blazer with his headshot to a field of tents in order to be chosen.  A friend from high school was already a brother in a fraternity and Chip credits that with his acceptance and inclusion.  Chip described himself at that time as having “his ears pierced, wearing skater shit like an anklet and not well-adjusted with a bowl cut.”  Ultimately Chip’s chosen fraternity was kicked off campus and had their charter taken away.  I ask Chip about his undergrad work and he tells me that he was in the sculpture department and he made biomorphic sculptures of found objects referencing ideas of human sprawl.

After Clemson, he moved to Savannah where he began painting out of necessity.  He wanted to see if he still wanted to make art outside of school.  He worked jobs in bars and as a bellhop and then decided he wanted to go back to school and applied to grad school as the next step.  He wanted to leave the South and NYC was appealing to him.

As it turns out, Chip and I both went to grad school at Pratt Institute, but we graduated five years apart, so we never crossed paths.  Interestingly enough, we both served as Pratt Artist League presidents—which meant we organized programming, shows and open studios for our fellow MFA students.  Chip started making work about the South and masculinity while he was at Pratt.  His thesis show was titled, “Let the Boy Watch,” from a Danny McBride line from the HBO show, Eastbound and Down.   He describes his thesis show, in retrospect, as too orderly.  

He wants his work to be seen as it is in the studio.  We talk about the cut outs and objects scattered around the wall of his studio.  He saves things and then figures out how to incorporate them; cutting out pieces of paper and then when the time is right, adhering them to a piece.  When asked about the source of his color palate, Chip tells me that he is drawn to Day-Glo, and he doesn’t know why.  He used to collect and save detergent bottles because he liked the colors.  He sees the bright colors as gaudy, gross and attention-grabbing and he likes the attraction and repulsion they instill in him.  The duality of repulsion and attraction is what he is looking for in his work, like “rotten.com or videos of beheadings.”

I ask him about the text in his work and if it represents his voice.  Chip says yes.  I am surprised.  I had noticed on one of the paintings that Sean Connery was spelled Sean Conerry and he says that he can’t spell and is dyslexic.  The text is stream of consciousness pulled from his sketchbooks.  He says he edits it—he doesn’t want to give away too much.  The text is “randomly pulled from a bucket” and he writes a lot more that what I can see now, but paints over it.  He mentions graffiti tagging and airbrushed t-shirt culture as references for his usage of text.

I ask him if he sees the paintings as pure abstractions and he says, yes and no.  There is recognizable content/readable information and imagery in his work.  But the formal aspects of painting are the most important.  He tells me they need to remain as compositions to be successful and complete for him.  

He seems to stride the fence in multiple ways.  I also ask him if he thinks his paintings are critical or sincere and he tells me they are both.  We talk about the anger in the work and he tells me that he was a very angry young person and the work that he made in college was a reflection of that, and it wasn’t sincere.  Maybe the emotional content of his work is better described as sarcastic or ironic, I’m not sure?  

The work that he is making now is directly about the South—specifically “white rural problematic Americana.”  Chip tells me a story about how he went to a Monster Truck Rally in Connecticut (lol, seriously) with the idea being that it was research for his work, but he couldn’t help but enjoy it—sitting in the bleachers with his roommate, drinking beer.  I bring up the idea of self-loathing and Chip tells me that what he is probably actually making fun of, is himself.  He constantly finds a home in the content that he is degrading—in this case, Monster Trucks.  I wonder if Chip could make this work in the South?  And I wonder who the audience for this work is—is it people from the South, like Chip and me, who have fled—or is it for people who have never lived in the South?  Also—rural culture in America is very similar, whether in Nebraska or Kentucky—so is this work more about rural vs. urban?  All good questions, that I don’t necessarily have answers for at this time.  Chip tells me that he has a curious attraction to his own culture.  The irony that he makes work about the South when all he wanted to do was leave the South, isn’t lost on him.  This whole idea of being a part of something, whether you want to or not—it is the essence of Chip’s work.  

My eyes keep being drawn over the course of our conversation to a book on the floor of Vietnam War images.  I mention it to Chip and we talk about somebody else’s or inherited cultural nostalgia.  He describes the process of adolescence to adulthood and how boys look to the men before them to figure out what defines them as a man.  In the past it was the Vietnam War, sports and cars.  

Chip tells me that men in the past could walk up to any other man and start a conversation about sports, cars, how an engine works and what wars they served in—and they were guaranteed to connect.  Those things are largely irrelevant now.  And I would further that by saying that the importance of being able to walk up to a stranger and connect though small talk, is culturally a big part of growing up in the South.  Anyways, no one puts together their first car anymore as a right of passage.  That’s what Chip was doing in a lot of ways in his engine installation at Wassaic—completing an anachronistic rite of passage for American men from the South.  Chip tells me his attempt at making an engine was flawed from the start, he was making it with absurd materials.  He was denied this culturally expected graduation into manhood because of its current irrelevancy, so he performed the action of that rite of passage on his own terms.

I ask Chip about the mugshot image of a man on one of his paintings and he tells me that it is the Centennial Olympic Park bomber, Eric Rudolph.  Rudolph set off a 40 lb bomb in 1996 during the Atlanta Olympics, which killed two people.  Chip tells me that he has a memory of being at the Olympics with his mom and at the Planet Hollywood when the bomb went off.  He also tells me that Rudloph was hiding and captured in rural North Carolina, not far from where Chip grew up. 

Backwoods criminals, click bait, labor, nostalgia—these are a few of the things Chip is exploring in his work.  

In the center of the floor is a sculpture in process and I ask Chip what it is—and he says he is building his own dumbbells/weight set.  That he wants to get in shape and is broke and so he decided to make his own.  These DIY objects made from concrete, rebar and coffee cans are placed around his paintings—the centers wrapped in electrical tape.  Is this art or real life? Or both? Does it matter?

I’m reminded of a time before I was born, when every guy had a weight set in their basement or garage.  Now Chip is joining the ranks of men with his studio weight set and the inherited weight of the South, masculinity and the world of men.

For additional information about Chip visit his website or instagram