This post was updated Oct. 11 at 6:26 p.m.
Jo Ann Callis doesn’t produce images of everyday life.
Instead, she said her photographs depict a state of mind, creating a metaphor for feelings.
The UCLA alumna’s latest exhibition, “Now and Then,” is on display at ROSEGALLERY in Santa Monica until Nov. 24. It includes never-before-seen photographs Callis took in the late 1970s, as well as her more recent sculptures. She said she enjoys creating work that focuses on two broad themes – playful sensuality, or anxiety and tension – usually in a domestic setting. Callis, an art professor from the California Institute of the Arts, wants viewers to walk away contemplating the meaning and position of the subjects in her photographs, and she uses light and color to achieve these effects.
“I think there’s a thread that goes through everything, (no matter) the medium I’m using,” she said. “Some of it is about tension and anxiety, some of it is about pleasure and beauty, and those two ideas are in my head all the time when I’m making art.”
Colors have emotional and psychological effects on a person, Callis said. For instance, two rooms may share the same interior, but one with dark gray walls creates a different mood than one with bright yellow walls. Callis said she is drawn toward using pastel colors, such as shades of pink and purple, that tend to subtly clash with accents of red.
One of Callis’ photographs, “Milk Bath,” depicts a girl in a bathtub filled with clouded liquid with only her face and hands showing. The red on her fingernails and the rosy color of her lips are the main focuses of color in the piece, accenting the girl’s feminine features.
Zoe Lemelson, a gallery associate at ROSEGALLERY, said Callis’ use of color and lighting is always deliberate and helps to accent the emotive ideas Callis has, while allowing the audience to interpret it using their own experiences.
“She provides just enough of a narrative where she’s not telling you a story, but she gives you the space to imagine what’s going on, so still give that platform for your own imagination,” Lemelson said.
Callis said her art is meant to depict the underbelly of people’s inner thoughts. She wanted to show the juxtaposition between the internal and external composure of a person in any given moment. She said people experience the world in two ways: what they see and how they act on the outside, and their thoughts. For instance, while a person is going on a walk, they may enjoy a sunny day but also be worried about the heat, discomfort, pain or some unrelated concern. Thus, many of the inner feelings of tension and pleasure can be constantly working in tandem, Callis said.
“These opposites exist in life, and I’m just trying to extend situations that call that to mind,” Callis said.
Photographer Gay Block met Callis when the two taught at CalArts together in 1987. Block said Callis has never been one to walk around with her camera and photograph her everyday environment. Instead of shooting spontaneously, she tends to construct images that resonate with the audience. Block said Callis’ work is able to construct people’s private thoughts into art.
“(It) suggests what many of us think but could never translate into an image the way (Callis) can and has,” Block said. “People relate to the work because it relates to the sort of secret thoughts many of us have. I think much of (Callis’) work is about secrets.”
Lemelson said Callis puts anxiety into her images with what she allows the viewers to see and what she keeps hidden. In another of her photos, Callis depicts a man in a partially unbuttoned and untucked shirt lying on a bed. His arm is covering his forehead and his eyes are closed, while cracker crumbs lay beside and under him.
More recently, Callis has instead been working on the small clay sculptures – about 8 inches in height – that are showcased in “Now and Then.” She said she was looking to make something a little more humorous but also finds the pieces sensuous. Callis said the pieces are round with straight edges but look fleshy – nearly all of them are off-white, some with pink undertones. The sculptures are not recognizable body parts and are purposely meant to remain abstract. She said the pieces are intended to reference the human body and bring attention to form, accentuating ideas of sensuality in a more comedic form than her photos do. Block said Callis’ art is often told through insinuation and suggestion rather than literal imagery.
“She manages to make things that feel so physical and accessible, and yet it is not identifiable (as) being a body part,” Block said. “It is her genius of suggesting something without saying it, without rendering it exactly.”
Callis said her work’s themes of anxiety and sensuality are part of who she is. She said those ideas are the way she experiences her life – she never decided to photograph pleasure and tension. Rather, it was all she knew how to do and has always been the way she experienced life.
“It could maybe look like something we do all the time – natural in a way, although staged,” Callis said. “On the other hand, the circumstances are not quite natural. There’s something off, there’s something amiss. There’s a feeling of something else going on, an undercurrent.”