Interview: Caleb Cole
Conducted April 2014
Issue No. 4 – June 2014
Born in Indianapolis, Caleb Cole is a former altar server, scout, and 4-H Grand Champion in Gift Wrapping. His mother instilled in him a love of garage sales and thrift stores, where he developed a fascination with the junk that people leave behind. Cole has exhibited at a variety of national venues, including the deCordova Museum of Art (Lincoln, MA), David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University (Providence, RI), and Jenkins Johnson Gallery (NYC), among others. Cole was also featured in Boston Magazine (HOME) as an emerging photographer who is “shaking up New England’s visual arts scene.” View his portfolio at www.calebcolephoto.com.
BUFFALO ALMANACK: There is an uncanny thread of loneliness and isolation running through your photography. The staging for “Other People’s Clothes” is meticulous, objects carefully posed in knowing representation of their owners. Yet outside of yourself, no living persons appear. It is as though you are the last man on earth, seeking connection with the past through its debris. To what extent do you believe material possessions can “speak” for a person? Do you mean to explore an indexical relationship between body, mind and thing, or are you more interested in the multiplicity of possible identities that these artifacts might suggest?
CALEB COLE: It’s a conscious choice to show the people in Other People’s Clothes by themselves, both for functional reasons and emotional ones. I’m really interested in teasing out the differences between solitariness and loneliness, and how aloneness highlights one’s relationship with others, one’s environment , and with oneself.
The narrative as well as how the character is read come from the combination of clothing, context, and gesture. I have my own ideas about what’s going on but it’s not important to me that the work only function in that one way. It’s fascinating to me how differently some images can be read by different people depending on their own particular experiences. The same image can be read as purely funny or purely sad, as showing a man or a woman, someone young or someone old. I’ve been told by one person that my face always looks exactly the same and then not 5 minutes later hear from someone how my face contains multitudes of complex and varied emotions. It’s fascinating to me. And that, besides whatever my initial intentions were, is part of the work.
BA: So much of your portfolio is constructed around the prosaic, the visual language of everyday life – found objects and found photography, antique store purchases and, most notably, other people’s clothing. Do you believe these items possess a possibility for some kind of transcendence within the context of art, or do you mean simply to portray them at face value?
CC: I think objects themselves say so much about what human beings value and desire. I’m fascinated by the products that human beings have created and how they serve to fill a perceived need. Then there’s the way that humans surround themselves with objects and clothing— how they craft identities through the things they buy and wear, and how they discard items when they no longer fit their identities or bodies, or when their priorities shift. The clothes we wear and the spaces we decorate project to ourselves and others who we think we are, who we want to be, and how we want to be seen. The fact that those areas don’t always line up perfectly is really interesting to me. I also love the ways that humans alter objects to more closely suit their needs; I collect ephemera with handwriting or drawings (books with inscriptions, photographs with writing on the back, other items altered or written on to express something) and treasure them for what they reflect about the human experience.
BA: The stagecraft and framing in this project really is remarkable, full of clean lines, hard light and environments that either appear to retract away from or cave into the subject. You’ve got a near-Kubrickian eye for visual storytelling. What draws you to this degree of compositional control? Do you see yourself ever wandering into more anarchic forms?
CC: As much of a control freak as I think I am, my approach to making the work is far more intuitive and less calculating than you might think. My approach is to create a set of rules or a process, then allow myself to play inside those boundaries. I don’t really know exactly what images from Other People’s Clothes will look like until I make them; even though I have a vague idea of what I’m going for ahead of time I’m always open to where the act of embodying the person I’d imagined will take me in the moment. I like the comfort of a repetitive process but the excitement of being surprised by the final work.
BA: Your undergraduate scholarship at Indiana University was in the fields of sociology and gender studies, both of which seem to underpin your projects. Your use of baby dolls in the series “Dolls” is particularly relevant. As you note in your artist’s statement, dolls are tools of socialization, meant to help children play-act various roles within the spheres of domesticity and sexual normativity. Yet here you reshape the dolls in your own androgynous image, with a great diversity of results. What message are you meaning to convey in regards to the nature of gender and childhood sexual discovery? What discoveries might you have made about your own body in the act of replicating it?
CC: Dolls are fascinating objects with strange and complicated functions, both intended and unintended. Yes, they are tools of socialization but they have the unintended effect of teaching children about anatomy—dolls do a terrible job of teaching children what most people’s bodies look like, and yet they somehow communicate something about what my particular body looks like; I find myself identifying with them. I love that attempting to make something in our own human image is always a little off; dolls play with the idea of the uncanny valley, sometimes drawing people near with preciousness and sometimes pushing people away in discomfort/disgust.
Collecting and transforming dolls offers me a lot of time to think about my self and my body, who I am and how I am seen by others. I ponder the minutia of my body, like my hairline, hair color, and body shape, how those things have changed over time. I think about the ways that my body is similar or different to other people’s. I think about whether it’s possible to distill my features down to the point where applying those few changes to a doll that initially looked nothing like me still yields a spark of recognition in the end result. I try to use making the dolls as a way to come to terms with my body as it is and with my own mortality. The dolls I create make people laugh and make them uncomfortable and make them ask a lot of questions about representation and identity and gender and also why they feel so uncomfortable in the first place. I also like that viewers don’t always know what to make of them, that they sometimes don’t recognize them as iterations of me or even as altered dolls (how? I have no idea). It’s all fascinating to me.
BA: What does the process of doll making look like? Could you walk us through the average doll’s surgical procedure? What do you enjoy about dealing in a physical, hands-on medium, and what challenges does it present?
CC: I collect dolls from garage sales, thrift stores, antique malls, and on the internet. It’s a near daily process of searching for more to work on. Once I decide to begin work on a doll, I strip it of any clothes or identifying characteristics it may have. If I need to sand off any hair, I’ll do that next. I’ve also taken some of them apart and put them back together or altered their bodies to make them look more like mine. I’ll then use thread, paint, modeling clay, or synthetic hair to give the doll my hair and sideburns.
I’m most interested in work where one can see the artist’s hand – less from the standpoint of craftsmanship or being impressed with some level of skill and more about the idea of seeing the action of making, of the object reflecting the type of person who would do that action over and over, of being able to see the mark of human desire and emotion in the work. The slowness of the work is part of the end result— I like that you see the time and effort when the dolls are exhibited. Nearly everything I’m working on now is hand-based work and labor intensive. I enjoy that it is both meditate and a test of endurance. It’s relaxing and exhausting at the same time. I like its physicality.
Since my background is in photography I seem to be unable to finish any given work without photographing it (and usually presenting those photographs in some way). I love the way the object is transformed, the control I can have over the final product that can be difficult with messier processes, and I love the level of control I can have over how people view things as photographs. How one views a sculpture is so much more variable (on the people/space doing the exhibiting as well as the viewers of the show themselves) and I always want to present my work in the way that I think it looks best. I should learn to give up control and let it be what it is but I haven’t fully gotten to that point yet.
BA: In addition to photography and doll making, you’ve also been involved with a number of performance art exhibitions, portraying both men and women on stage, as well as, strangely enough, Lord Voldemort in a burlesque show tribute to Beyoncé. How does your performance-based work inform your photography and vice versa?
CC: My performance work deals with a lot of the same themes as my visual artwork: suppressed desires, failure, and subverting traditionally masculine archetypes. And it’s usually funny. I like a lot of my work, whether performance or visual art, to play with humor as a method of conveying ideas. Though the performances are often photographed or videoed, they are so much more ephemeral and therefore can be more spontaneous and experimental than my visual art. I approach the character work in both my performances and photographs in the same way, trying to shrink into myself and get lost in that person’s emotional space, letting that guide my movements and expressions. I also appreciate that I am able to be a lot less serious with my performances and to have immediate gratification through the responses of the audience.
BA: How do you handle scene scouting for “Other People’s Clothes?” Does the clothing typically originate with the backdrop, or do you seek these elements out apart from one another and pair them for maximum effect? Have any of the other people’s clothes since become your clothes?
CC: Locations come about a few ways— ideally I find clothes, create a character, and then search for a place where that character fits. I pay attention to the world when I am out driving or taking public transportation and note when a location excites me. Other times someone will offer their home or business for me to shoot in and I have no idea what I’m getting into ahead of time. I’ll bring clothing or borrow their clothing and see what I can make on the fly in the spaces they’ve let me use. It doesn’t always work, but I always try. Clothing always is returned back to where it was found— if I bought it at the thrift store it is donated back; if borrowed it is put back in the closet; and if found on the street I put it back in that very spot.
BA: Who are some of your artistic inspirations? Your favorite visual artists working today?
CC: I’m so bad at favorites! Locally (Boston), some artists who never fail to inspire me are Raul Gonzalez, Steve Locke, and Pat Falco. Other artists (not all living) I enjoy are Jason Lazarus, David Shrigley, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and David Wojnarowicz. There are more, for sure; these are just some that come to mind. As far as influences, I’d say Kids in the Hall shaped my views of character and comedy when I was young and Patti Smith has had a profound impact on me as well.
BA: What drew you to the great city of Boston? What does the Boston art community have to offer that other American cities may lack?
CC: I ended up in Boston for the reason that many other people do: school. Upon graduation from photo school I had already begun to make connections with the local art community and as time passed it became harder and harder to leave. I’ve met some incredible people here and it’s honestly the people that make me stay. The artists I’ve met are far more supportive than competitive, and I have a gallerist that encourages me to make the work I want to make, whether or not it sells. I’ve lived here over 7 years and I still don’t know how exactly to describe the character of the art scene. It seems small and yet there’s so much incredible work being made. It’s close in physical proximity to New York and sometimes is sensitive about that, but the Boston art scene has its own unique flavor. I also want to say that the cabaret performance community I’m a part of here is doing such innovative and genre-breaking work that I feel is really different from other parts of the country. There’s an overlap between burlesque, drag, circus, short film, comedy and sketch, dance, music, and performance art work being done here and the results are really inspiring.
BA: We really shouldn’t be asking this, but since we’re both proud Purdue graduates…do you have any favorite memories of losing the Old Oaken Bucket to Drew Brees and/or Kyle Orton? Our apologies if you’re not a sports person. We couldn’t let those Bloomington credentials slip by unchecked.
CC: I’m sorry I don’t have anything good to report here – I’m one of those rare Hoosiers who never went to a basketball or football game OR a Little 500 while I was in school there. I know, I should be ashamed!