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Provocative Things: A Profile & Interview with Jo Ann Callis

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In the early 1970s, Jo Ann Callis left Cincinnati, where she had grown up, for California. Some forty years later, FotoFocus brought her back. On February 24, 2016, she gave a lecture—really an annotated slide show of her work—at the Cincinnati Art Museum as part of its Lecture and Visiting Artist Series, and the following morning she spoke informally at some length to Aeqai, both conversations generously arranged through FotoFocus. After her evening presentation, as an unofficial part of the celebration of her homecoming, a group of Cincinnatians who had gone to Walnut Hills High School with her crowded around to swap stories and memories. (One was Louis Sirkin, the First Amendment lawyer who, some two decades after Callis left town came to prominence by defending the Contemporary Arts Center in the Mapplethorpe trial. Callis remembered him fondly: “We were in the same Chemistry class. But we never went out.”) Callis, a pioneer of color photography and a leader in the Fabricated Photograph movement of the 1970s and 80s, has some deep professional roots in Cincinnati, where one of her first solo shows was mounted by the Contemporary Arts Center in 1983. Looking over Cincinnati’s downtown revival the following morning, Callis was only moderately interested in how the city had changed in the intervening decades. She was eager to walk from her hotel to the Taft Museum and to renew her acquaintance with one thing you can get in the Midwest that she can’t see in California. “Oh good!” she said: “it’s snowing!”

Jo Ann Callis, “Woman Twirling” (1985)

Jo Ann Callis, “Woman Twirling” (1985)

Callis has been in the news for the 2014 publication of Other Rooms, an anthology of what she had originally called her fetish photographs from the mid-1970s, now sumptuously printed by Aperture with an introductory essay by Francine Prose. The work garnered much praise and raised some eyebrows. Callis’s sensibility might be described as a heady blend of the mischievous and the prim. At the Museum, she said of one of her photographs that “it looks like a bordello to me. Or what I imagine a bordello to be like.” Up till now, most people had thought of Callis’s oeuvre as being both elegant and mysterious, characterized by sparse, finely-staged photographs of rooms subject to questionable degrees of order and human control. In the title picture to her 1999 exhibition at the Getty “Woman Twirling” (1985), a woman spins close to the corner of a nearly empty room. She is little more than a skirt and a blur. In the foreground, a lamp sits on a small round table, its base made of carved wood, depicting a couple melting into each other in an embrace.  While the twirling woman might be celebrating, she seems in a frenzy. In her Museum talk, Callis calls attention to her “repetitive action”: this, she says, is a sort of “madness.” What exactly are we witnessing? Like a lot of Callis’s images, it borders on the political, raising questions about women’s roles in our culture and their responses to those roles. And like a lot of her images, it shares some of the wild logic of a dream. But if so, whose?

Jo Ann Callis, “Woman with Black Line” (1976-77)

Francine Prose, in her excellent introductory essay to Other Rooms, observes that Callis’s photographs are “rich in erotic possibilities,” though it is worth noting that this is not quite the same as saying that they are richly erotic. The pictures are smart and telling, but they are certainly not depictions of—or incitements to—pleasure. In speaking of her work, Callis begins by asserting her formalist credentials: “I wanted my pictures to be constructed formally, and to be kind of tight.” Francine Prose wonders “what is so erotic” about these photographs? What “about a dark line, like the seam of an old-fashioned stocking, drawn from the top of a woman’s head straight down the length of her spine?” Prose’s answer begins with imagining the sort of scenario of sexual play that produces such a mark: “it’s something the woman is unlikely to be able to do on her own….We wonder: at what point does a lover feel comfortable enough to say, Want to know what I really like?…At what point in the discovery of desire does a woman realize that is what she wants?” Callis explains a different sort of origin for the picture: “It started with the feeling of a bowling bowl on a pillow.” In describing “Hands on Ankles,” Prose asks “How many of us could have predicted that a pair of hands, grasping a woman’s ankles, could be as charged with emotion as hands joined in prayer, in this case before the altar of the woman’s shoes?” Callis explained that she was drawn to “the way the heels dug into the chair.” She values “that moment of a little tension” because “the hands make it precarious,” and then noted “I felt the shadows were good.” She is perhaps the opposite of another photographic formalist of the 1970s, Robert Mapplethorpe, who sought prurience everywhere but actually captured it only fitfully; Callis was uninterested in prurience and found signs of it all over.

Jo Ann Callis, “Hands on Ankles” (1976-77)

Jo Ann Callis, “Hands on Ankles” (1976-77)

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Jo Ann Callis Featured on The Great Leap Sideways

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Sex is such a secretive and untranslatable activity – at once universal and private, delicate and unruly. Moreover, sex is inextricably wedded to touch and to sight, yet another unruly instinct which opens up avenues too risky to explore, but too irresistible not to contemplate. In her essay for Jo Ann Callis’s Other Rooms, Francine Prose describes sex as “the ultimate earworm, that song or musical phrase that we, our species, can’t get out of our minds.” The unwavering specificity of sexual drives and private attractions run like bedrock through the photographs in the book. They thrill in the incontrovertible force of physical attraction, which is embodied with great frankness, wry wit and artful invention.

Photography’s engagement with the depiction and sexualisation of the body emerged from painterly and sculptural traditions. In the turn of the century photographs of Bellocq, Stieglitz and Weston, the nude body revealed was always an implicitly feminine subject. The space within which the body was studied conformed to the order of a cloistered boudoir, or to scenic milieu of earthly and sculptural abstraction. The identity of the photographed subject was similarly shaped by diametric extremes, in which the subject was either an anonymous vessel of sensual form, or a facet of the autobiography of the artist.

Callis’s photographs depart from these conventions, both in the plurality of their subjects, the anonymity of their relationships, and the insistently theatrical setting of the work. In Stieglitz’s portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe we are given the outlines of a partnership replete with affection, doubt and strife, while in the nudes of Edward Weston we see the body rendered as a pretext for the triangulation of light, shadow and form. In Callis’s photographs we are thrust into the anti-autobiographical gesture of unbridled imaginative attractions, which are performed collaboratively in bizarrely non-descript interior spaces.

The sensual strangeness of Callis’s work flows from its microscopic theatre of bodily gesture, and from the emanating pulse of her pictures’ vivid and visceral colour. This colour tends toward a register of fleshly skin tones and warm golden light, and is counterpointed by an emphatically sexual use of shadow. While the setting of these pictures is definitively interior, the warmth of the lighting and the patterning of textures depart from conventions of domesticity. In Callis’s photographs we are placed within a private space that is loosely quotidian, and recognisably private, but utterly unconnected to any plausible intimation of domestic life.

Callis’s photographs neither have a basis in painterly conventions of the artistic nude, nor pretend to or reveal a diaristic relationship to the autobiography of an artist’s life. As Johanna Burton argued of the late work of Cindy Sherman, Callis’s photographs do not evoke an “illusion of familiarity … based on conventions” and do not “refer to any kind of stable codes.” Rather, their telescopic abstraction, and their frequent omission of outward indices of individual identity place us in an uncertain relationship to the body of an unknown subject. Her pictures are energised by an unwavering specificity, which mimics the fantasy of individual desire in the way that a romantic poet would rhapsodise the contours of the suprasternal notch.

The other rooms in which Callis’s pictures transpire seem sparse but credible spaces for an experimentation with desire, and her collaborations with each individual subject mirror the tender revelation of sexual fantasy. These spaces are energised by specific gestures that invoke the heated interplay of sexual attraction, and each object or element in the frame seems responsive to all others intersecting with it. Thus the thrusting brightness of a white-sheeted bed, which protrudes diagonally into a shadowy yellow room seems to mirror the unveiling of an unbridled and off-kilter assertion of desire. The ballooning shadow of the pillow and mattress emanates like an undercurrent along the base of the frame, as though the bed were dispersing some unconscious drive into the vignetted brightness of the room.

In Sand and Glove, or Woman with Black Line, the constriction or the languor of the prostrate nude body seems a direct response to the allegorical stimuli that trace the sweeping curves of naked flesh. A pile of grey dust may intimate gunpowder, as a thin black line draws our eye toward the slope of the spine, but these markings and residues recall to us the intimate sexual dance between subjection and mastery. The contrition of the gamine body in Woman with Black Line is echoed in the military propriety of the male back in Man with Lines, but subverted by the impish gathering of fabric in the cleft of his arse.

Thus Callis conveys a sense of the explosive dynamics of fetish, while lightly intimating the pleasures of the viscera that accompany the expiation of sexual desire. While her pictures are typically diminutive in their scale and framing, they express a tender fascination with the complexities of human touch, and show an obsessive attentiveness to the pliability of body and the malleability of the imagination. Fantasy is here indivisible from attraction, just as coercion is shown to be tied up with the generative thrill of vulnerability, in a series of pictures that Prose accurately describes as “either the prelude or the aftermath of an imagined act.”

The sense of sight conveyed in these images is that of an involuntary, creative and appetitive instinct, whose vicissitudes can be strange even to those who are authors of its own creations. Sight is unbridled and directed as in Woman with Open Shirt, or delectably performative as in Woman on Sofa, or seductive and playful in pictures like Hand in Honeyand and Figure under Bedspread. The frankness of each title mirrors the directness of each image, and they place us in proximity to the intimate obsessions of desire’s creative freedoms. These freedoms are indulged in an interior but adaptable and theatrical space, where great beauty emerges from some point between fevered dreams and the vestiges of remembered experience.