Caitlin McCollom, A Cloud Window: 2015, 11”x14”, Ink and Acrylic on Synthetic paper.
Caitlin McCollom is a visual artist currently based in Austin, TX. Her most recent body of work, The Cloud of Unknowing will be on view at San Antonio’s Southwest School of Art Feb. 11 – Apr. 24. A+C Associate Editor Jennifer Smart exchanged emails with McCollom concerning her inspirations, her relationship with performance art, and the visual and conceptual nature of her recent work.
What are some things that visually inspire your work? Or to put the question another way, what have you been looking at lately?
The visual inspiration for my recent work has come in many forms— I am very interested in the aesthetics of Robert Irwin. I’m reading Seeing is Forgetting The Name of The Thing One Sees for the third time recently, and it has really influenced my concepts in a new way. This series, however, has been more intuitive, and I’ve actually been looking more and more at representational work for a window to sublime experiences. Before I started this series I went out deep into the Hill Country and took hundreds of pictures of clouds. I even painted some clouds in order to prepare myself aesthetically for this work. I became focused on work I previously would have dismissed as “too accessible” or “pretty”… I studied romantic painters; pictures of landscapes, clouds, glaciers and religious paintings. This work became heavily influenced by work that conveyed something clear about what is barely out of touch and yet affecting. Less visually but more directly influential was Jungian psychology and the concept of archetypical symbols and shapes. In addition to incorporating an entirely new color symbol for this body of work I have created a shape symbology.
Your work is visually minimal; you’ve used the word solipsistic, or the idea that only one’s own mind can be known, to describe various bodies of your work, which seems to imply the need for quiet, purposeful interpretations. How would you like viewers to experience your work in a space?
While I’m not too interested in telling viewers what to see, or how to see it, my work certainly has a framework that I’m working from. Color is the largest part of my personal symbology. This series utilizes red, blue and white. The white space that invariably enters into every piece is about my grappling with surrender to the absolute unknowable aspects of existence.
This particular work started with a question: what is totally invisible, absolutely real, and can only be known to exist through experience? It began with a contemplation of garuas and weather phenomena and culminated in my spiritual experiences. Garuas are very low-hanging, transparent clouds. One would not be able to see a garua, but if one encountered one they would get soaking wet. I am absolutely enthralled with this; the idea of becoming totally wet with water you cannot see. At the same time I was reading a book called The Cloud of Unknowing. Mysticism is a particular kind of spirituality in which one seeks to experience God. The experience of God can be achieved by entering “The Cloud of Unknowing” a metaphysical place between man and God in which one can totally surrender to absolute mystery in order to have a mystical experience. These two “clouds” which I am contemplating in my work came to be represented by blue, the symbolic color of water. Similarly, I use red to represent the physical body. When they mix in the way they do in the paintings, I am speaking to those experiences of what is totally invisible. I think what I like about this particular series is that it lends itself to two camps of viewer consumption: It has that deep conceptual gravity which can be contemplated in a quiet purposeful way— but it also has an aesthetic quality that easily can be appreciated on its own with knowing anything of garuas, ancient mysticism practices, or the interior of my own mind. Both camps are valid and appreciated.
At various points in your art career, you have engaged more heavily with performance art. Do you see your focus on painting in recent bodies of work as an evolution, a moving away from performance, or do you intend on perhaps incorporating performance into your practice again in the future?
Performance was once interesting to me as a student of art because it felt like the most real kind of medium there could ever be. My devotion to Marina Abramovic and her writings deeply inspired me. But the work of performance is tricky and seldom truly understood. Ultimately, I do not need a physical presence to demonstrate what sacred pieces of my mind I wish to unlock and display, and really my body serves as an enormous detractor from my vision. My performance work was intended to use my body as a stand-in for my ideas. I thought if people looked deeply into my eyes in a performance they would see the swirling galaxies of my real ideas, which couldn’t be spoken or expressed in a universal language. However, my great mentor told me in art school that the best tool in an artist’s studio is the trash can. When I came to realize that my performance was not serving the vision as fully as I was hoping and striving for, my vision ultimately required a new tool to use. Being formally trained in painting I returned to the craft that seemed so tired before and found more success. For me, painting has become a steadfast agent of my ideas that really works.
The body of work you will be showing at the Southwest School of Art you’re calling “The Cloud of Unknowing.” Tell us about the inspiration for the name, where it comes from and its meaning in relation to your work. And explain how your work either departs, or is an extension from previous work.
This series is absolutely an extension from my previous work. I am continuing with similar materials: fluid acrylic paints, inks, and the synthetic paper. My work has been red for so long that it felt that it needed expansion, so I’ve added blue. Now it’s about blood and water. The Cloud of Unknowing is a series about a personal surrender. Water and Blood: Two endlessly deep symbols that call an undeniable connection to the spirit world. In the series The Cloud of Unknowing is an anonymous medieval work written in Middle English about early Christian mysticism. It’s a kind of instruction manual for contemplative prayer. The text suggests that the only way to experience God is by abandoning all precepts of God and “enter the cloud of unknowing” wherein the courageous surrender to complete mystery one might transcend. The book uses the metaphor of the cloud as place between Earth and Heaven again and again to demonstrate the only chance at a mystical experience. Blood: Blood within us is invisible, but it serves as a life force… People do believe that something can exist only if you cannot see it. Blood has too many spiritual ties to list but I am particularly interested in how blood is both deeply physical and yet it has this profound history as possessing supernatural power…In this work I am taking the burden of the weight of these colors, shapes and physical elements and weaving them into a conveniently packaged aesthetic experience.