Navigating the Chaos: A Conversation with Brian Allen McCall

Posted by on July 28th, 2010 at 12:02 AM



Sobel: How do you explore these types of things in your art, because I don’t necessarily get a sense of ultra-violence or graphic sexuality in at least the stuff that I’ve seen on your website?

McCall: Well, let’s see. On the website, you’ll see a drawing that’s called “The Collapse of the Free Market System and the Misuse of Our Handguns.”

Sobel: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that one; I’m glad you brought that up.

McCall: His brains are being blown out, that one character on the left. He’s the one that took the gunshot. Right in front of the girl on the left, the guy, with the different mouths and everything, he just had his brains blown out. Now, the thing is, though, I’m not making it so violent. It’s almost humorous.

Further down [on the site] there’s a drawing I like a lot called “It’s a Jungle Out There” and it’s got a girl, sort of naked and laying spread eagle and the animals and the bird is right between her legs. I guess I don’t have much interest in doing outright sexuality, or outright violence.

I’m very interested in the technique something is framed in. How the drawing is [composed], you know what I mean? Anybody can have an idea. Anybody can say, ‘oh I’m going to draw about sexuality,’ but so what? What’s it look like? I want to see what it looks like.

Sobel: In “The Collapse of the Free Market Systems” there’s almost a Cubist style to it.

McCall: Yeah, I like that comparison. I don’t think I’m doing anything near the Cubists in the sense that they were… they created a theory, an almost mathematical take on art. Maybe that’s just Klee, but…

Sobel: One other thing that struck me is your use of colors. Can you talk about your approach to colors in that painting and some of your other works?

McCall: The color is just part of the texture to me. And when I like it, it’s how it’s working with the texture of the drawing in a sense. I don’t really look at it as ‘I want this to be blue’ and trying to make color work together. I want the texture to work together and the color to me is more textural. It’s more of a feel thing, than any treatise on how to use color, if that makes any sense at all.

Sobel: There’s definitely a very bright palette in a lot of your work that almost gives it a comic book feel, although I know that’s probably not the intention…

McCall: Oh no, I love comic books. Hey, I grew up on those. But the difference is that I have great problem just drawing within the line, or coloring within the line. I don’t have any interest in owning up to most of the techniques that people use in comic books. Part of it is just the limitations of printing. But even when I draw in pen and ink — which is quite a bit, I like sketching in pen and ink a lot – it’s a very loose, fine line type of pen, which I’ve seen, only in maybe Raw Magazine and some other pretty avant-garde stuff, where you actually see different techniques.

Sobel: Was Spiegelman an inspiration for you?

McCall: Hmmm.

Sobel: Or some of the other artists from Raw?

McCall: I tried to send some stuff to Spiegelman and I talked to him and his wife, which was quite a thrill. I really loved his Maus, and I really liked what they were trying to do in Raw. They’re stories were just great, I loved them. But I don’t know if Spiegelman himself was…I mean I admire the guy for just being who he is, and what he’s done is great, but an inspiration? No. Probably I took greater inspiration from… God, I’m terrible with names.

Sobel: I’ll tell you two names that popped into my head when I was looking through your site and you tell me if either of these guys were an inspiration at all? One was Ralph Steadman.

McCall: OK, Steadman was the one name I was searching for. Oh yeah, Steadman definitely. Anybody else?

Sobel: The other was Steve Brodner, the New Yorker artist.

McCall: No, I don’t know his stuff. I’ve seen maybe one or two in New Yorker, but I don’t know if I’ve ever identified with him. Maybe I should look again.

Sobel: But talk about Steadman a little bit, or some of your other influences.

McCall: Well, the greatest influence, when I was going to college, was Mauricio… he’s a printmaker from Iowa and… what’s his name, Mauricio… he’s dead now. He did “The Nazi Drawings.” It was a famous series of drawings… Mauricio…

Sobel: Lasansky.

McCall: Lasansky. Right. And he was the head of printmaking at Iowa. And I remember I had a studio at the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, Virginia. Have you ever heard of that?

Sobel: No.

McCall: Well, it was this place right on the water, a big, big place, and 200 artists got in there and made Alexandria, Virginia famous. But anyway, this young couple came in one day and both of them had studied under Lasansky at Iowa and they were printmakers and I had this big studio there and I was so excited just meeting somebody who had worked with him. You know, he was just a book to me, I didn’t even know he taught at Iowa… so I offered them space and we are still great friends even today. They’re wonderful printmakers… but Lasansky, for somebody who I only know for that one series of drawings, that affected me more than anything, and if you ever look at it, you’ll probably see why.

I love it when an artist interprets very climactic events, and they don’t just record it but make you feel the emotion in it. I think that’s why I scribble so much because I’m just trying to find something out of this chaos. The idea of drawing out of chaos I like a lot. I like trying to find something in chaos, and so I try to create the chaos, instead of just saying, ‘oh I’m going to draw chaos’ and then try to find the answer out of it, climb out of it a little. Most of the drawings I really enjoy have emerged out of that chaos I try to create on the paper. Instead of just saying, ‘I want to do Odysseus fighting monsters, ok, so I’m going to put him in there with a monster next to him, etc. I never liked doing it that way. I never like having to lay it out in my mind beforehand. I’ll find Odysseus if he comes out of the drawing. So, in other words, Odysseus comes later…

Sobel: So it’s very much an exploration…

McCall: Totally. Yeah. None of these drawings did I know what they were going to be as I started. Right now I’m doing a drawing and it’s starting out… what’s coming out is these unicyclists carrying rocks. [Laughter] Maybe it’s supposed to be them carrying their burdens, I don’t know… it’s gonna be interesting. It’ll be on the site soon, in a couple days.


Captain Beefheart illustration from Heavy Metal by Brian Allen McCall.


Sobel: So how did you come to publish that story in Heavy Metal?

McCall: I just sent the story to them and they actually accepted it. Somebody actually looked at it, which blew my mind.

Sobel: Were you doing a lot of cartooning back then?

McCall: No, I was working as an illustrator, basically, but then I started being a printmaker. For ten years I just did prints, and if you go to my website, you’ll see there’s a section on printmaking… most of my clients were really disappointed when I quit doing prints, [laughter] but I was just falling asleep. It just was boring me to death. It’s such a tedium. I liked it a lot, but I just figured, ‘why am I doing this when these copy machines are getting so good? I’m just being ridiculous.’ I’m trying to do, an edition of a hundred, let’s say, and so most of my time is going to be printing those 100 prints because when you’re working with big prints, it’s fairly tedious doing the printing. What comes out of it is really wonderful, but I looked at some of the new copiers that were coming out in the ’70s and ’80s and, God, they were wonderful and I just thought, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ There’s no reason to be making prints anymore. It just didn’t make sense to me anymore. And also I found myself falling asleep as I was scratching the zinc plate and I thought, ‘God, I’m losing interest in this. I’d better find something else.’

Sobel: So was that when you got into sculpting?

McCall: No, that’s when I got into animation.

Sobel: Ah, ok.

McCall: Animation fits in with a lot of what I was trying to do because of the chaos I see as movement. I’m moving shadow around, moving black lines around, color, and I’m searching for something, and I thought, ‘well, maybe animation. Maybe actually working with movement would be a pretty exciting thing.’ And I do like it, but again, the tedium of doing it… I didn’t like having to do 500 drawings to get a few seconds of film. To me, each drawing is precious and I didn’t… that type of tedium I didn’t care for.

So I went to clay next and I liked doing clay, and moving clay around, but what clay did was it led me to sculpting. And then I realized that clay is really heavy and filming it becomes a real problem because of the weight, and you have to find out how to hold things up and build structures so that the character doesn’t just melt or fall down as you’re filming it. The lights make things hot, you know? So I started using polystyrene, and that’s where, really, the sculpting started to develop. I could get bigger and not have to worry about weight. So now, most of these sculptures are all polystyrene, with paper put on top. So it’s sort of a technique that came out of animation.

Sobel: That’s amazing. So you’ve moved through a lot of different disciplines.

McCall: Yeah, yeah. I can fail in anything. [Laughter.]

Although, failure is a very interesting concept really. See, when I start drawing, obviously I’m failing all the time. I’m looking, trying to find something, I’m drawing and I’m drawing, then I’m getting rid of something, and I’m constantly failing until I start to like something and then I can start to grow that. But I’ve always thought failure was a very under-appreciated aspect of art. That destructiveness is really very important. See, when I would teach people drawing… I think that’s why most people don’t like art and don’t do it well, you know, like drawing or painting, is because they can’t deal with failure. I think an artist is dealing with failure every single second they’re doing it.

Now some people really can say, ‘I’m going to paint.’ I think it’s why some people like still lives, because they’re a way to learn a technique and you basically build from simple color and line and you build that drawing up and you’re not really dealing with destroying anything. They’re building from the first brick up. And obviously many artists like that very much and do quite well with it. I just never really liked that way of looking at it. I like the negative space. There’s the additive and subtractive approach to drawing. I tend to like the subtractive a lot, where you’re taking something away to get somewhere, and then you add, subtract, add, subtract, you know…

Sobel: That’s interesting. I’m coming at it from a writer’s perspective, but I always feel like, to succeed as a writer, you have to get it all out, the good, the bad, the incoherent… everything has to just come out as it does, and then the real work is picking out the diamonds from the soot, and sweeping off all the rest. The hard part is not being afraid to fail on paper.

McCall: Well, haven’t you found that it’s really a painful thing at times? I mean almost a physically painful experience?

Sobel: Oh sure, sure.

McCall: That’s… you know, when you’re searching for something and you’re not really sure what it is even. It hurts because you’re dealing with your own failure, and you’re having to accept that failure and to go through it. It’s like finding yourself over and over again and, god, it becomes brutal at times. If only we were rewarded with more money it would be worth it… [Laughter.] But no one rewards us.

Sobel: Well, that leads me into one of the practical questions I was going ask you which is how do you make a living? Is it through the sculpting or is it a combination of things?

McCall: Well, it’s more from the sculpting, but it’s a combination of everything. I’ll do outdoor signs with the sculpture. I’ve done a lot of restaurants down in the Virginia area… I have a big sign, in Johnstown there’s a 40 foot sign at one of the motels there for their restaurant. I tend to get more of that than the other stuff. I’ll do murals, too. I’ve done, oh about 20 or 30 murals in bars and sports bars. I try to mix things, but it’s more the three-dimensional stuff that takes off economically for me more than anything. I have one or two clients who will go for the murals, but not quite as much.

Sobel: Let me wrap up here. This is a little bit of a vague question, and I know it can be hard to put into words, but how would you describe your overall artistic vision? What do you hope to convey, particularly through your illustration work, but also your sculpture, and watercolors and so forth?

McCall: God, you know I sort of want to fight that idea because what I think I’ve done is I’ve gotten to do what I like to do in my life and somehow managed to make a living out of it. I mean, this is all I’ve done, this art, since the ’60s. I haven’t had to take any other jobs. So, the overall vision is that of survival. I can look at all these drawings and stuff and they all sort of sum up who I am in a sense, and yet, they don’t at all. But, in a way they do. God…that’s a tough question… [Laughter.]

Sobel: That’s why I left it until the end.

McCall: I mean, I don’t have any… I hate artists who are so glib about what they’re trying to do. I hate artists who talk too well, and yet I actually can talk quite well. Sort of, anyway. I mean, I like articulate people, but sometimes I don’t like it when its being articulate about art very much because, there’s sort of a mixing of arts. When a person writes about art, they’re creating something totally different and totally new that has nothing to do with the art whatsoever. They’re just making up things about what this and that says and does, and it’s meaningless. So, to say I have a philosophy it’s just… Yeah, I have a philosophy: to keep surviving.

It’s sort of like Ernie Becker said. He’s a writer who wrote The Denial of Death, and his whole thing was that all you can do is create this body of work, or one piece, or whatever it is and all you can do is throw it into the abyss and hope it makes a difference. And I like that. I just hope it makes a difference for someone out there, you know? I jumped at the chance to be able to talk to you and that you actually had some interest in what I’m doing. I’m amazed, you know? [Laughter.]

I look at it as if I’m just a lone person in the world beating off, in a sense. And there’s a part of me that really does feel that, you know, it’s all just masturbation. It doesn’t really matter. A bomb could land on my studio and blow it all to pieces, so… In a sense, I think the only thing that matters is the act itself. And you throw it into the abyss and just hope it makes some difference, but realize it probably doesn’t. My life is just a piece of action. A movement in the shadow, that’s all.


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