Exclusive Preview: Caleb Neelon Installation, Exhibition, and Lecture
Artist Caleb Neelon, co-author of The History of American Graffiti and many other books on graffiti and art, has a solo show called Victory Garden up now outside of Boston. In the nineties, he went by the tag Sonik and wrote the text for the later influential issues of 12ozProphet when it was a magazine.
His solo show, Victory Garden, is on display in the Center for the Arts at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts from January 20 through March 16th. It was hung and the doors opened mid-January, but they decided to save the festivities for Tuesday, March 6th, which would coincide with the unveiling of his installation and a lecture he will be giving. The installation is being painted and built on site during his residency at the college from February 27th through March 6th. If you are near the Boston area in the next two weeks, definitely drop by and be immersed in the unique world of Caleb Neelon. If not, check out the works from the show and more on his website and Facebook page.
The installation is called Internal Peanut Gallery. Caleb said that this title refers to the fact that the piece is in the Endicott arts center, which houses all sorts of events that bring out the critics and educators to comment and evaluate. But also it refers to a deeper critic, that internal voice we all have inside us that constantly judges us, sometimes heckling and other times applauding. Painted in Caleb’s signature Kilroy-was-here style, the two characters central to the piece are based on the two characters, Statler and Waldorf, from The Muppet Show, who are always snickering and heckling the skits from the balcony. This gives the work a childhood reference point and voice that is always present in Caleb’s paintings.
The installation consists of a collage of 250+ painted wood panels assembled into one huge mural. They are “sewn” together like a huge quilt, as indicated by the stitching painted along the edges of the shapes. This reference to a hand-crafted Folk Art tradition correlates to other formal aesthetic aspects of Caleb’s style that refers to elements of Outsider Art, Naive Art, and Art Brut. The fact that this installation is a collage of wooden panels also relates to his extensive street sign project that ran from 1996-2002 when he installed seven hundred signs made of metal or wood on streets around the world. See the third page of this post for examples of that project.
In a semiotic interpretation, this installation is a patchwork of “signs,” in both meanings of the word. Each element is literally a sign made of wood, but also contains symbols that bring meaning to the work, whether it’s the spray painted circles, the brushed on stitching, or the painted characters. The use of stitching to create a quilt of wood signs refers back to his installations “Mother Buddha of Infinite Involvement” and “Signs and Symbols,” which can be seen on the third page of this post. Both of those installations are also quilts of wooden signs containing symbols. In Mother, the two-story female figure wears tons of wooden buttons, which are basically mini-signage designed and positioned purely to convey a message through personal display. In Signs and Symbols, Caleb and 125 kids made 250+ signs with words, symbols and imagery on them, much like the buttons on Mother’s dress and the signage in his street work. Then they collaged them together into a massive installation reminiscent of a quilt. Beautiful, quirky and personal, all three of these installations create quilts of meaning that are broadcast to viewers through the individual signs and also in the totality of their patchwork surfaces.
On this page are exclusive preview shots of his current installation Internal Peanut Gallery. On the second page of this post are photos of paintings from the gallery exhibition, and then on the third page are photos of past street and gallery pieces that contextualize this current work.
On the second page of this post are photos of paintings from the gallery exhibition, and then on the third page are photos of past street and gallery pieces that contextualize his current work.
On the third page of this post are photos of Caleb’s past street and gallery installations that contextualize his current work.
This kind of personal installation is reminiscent of the outsider artists Howard Finster and Prophet Royal Robertson. They also covered their homes and yards with hand-made signage, sculptures and other repurposed detritus to create very personal landscapes answering to an idiosyncratic internal vision. Their desire to communicate a message, much like that of graffiti writers and street artists, finds its outlet in the public canvases that are their houses and their private property. Although they don’t risk being arrested by breaking any laws governing public property, they do risk breaking societal laws and being branded as anti-social outcasts in other ways.
Other examples of similar installations are the Watts Towers in Los Angeles and the Toy Tower which was in a community garden on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Although these towers do not include a profusion of signage, all four fall into a category of outsider art that is public but very personal and on private property, hand-crafted and self-made, and do not utilize refined, trained or commercial styles. If you visit the link to the Toy Tower and you scroll down, you’ll see a pair of wooden converse by Skewville dangling from the tower. Arguably, Skewville could be classified as outsider art, at least in style. Definitely there is an affinity between Caleb Neelon’s work and Skewville’s in their choice of wood as a material, their raw unpolished styles, and their love of communication through the streets.
Text: Daniel Feral
Photo: Caleb Neelon