VAP2021-Q1 Words and Pictures

Keep it dumb and casual: about Cal Robb’s art

Written by Charlie J Meyers and Sarah Rose Jansen.

Gazing at Cal’s work, mulling over our email discussion of it, a memory of one of the best art moments of my life surfaced. I went to an art show and saw three abstract paintings of women eyeballing me from their perch around the gallery’s internal doorway. A powerful emotional gut-punch from this visual hit me was followed closely by my own internal dialogue and irritations: “it’s dumb to place them up there,” “it’s too casual to treat the work that way,” “but it feels like it means fucking everything to me,” and “who am I now after feeling that?”  While exploring the rest of the show, I acted casual while hoping to feel that way again.  

I look for that multisensory encounter in all art – painting, sculpture, film, music. I look for the somatic experience. 

German composer Max Richter has this effect on me. There is a moment in his piece “Cumulonimbus Part 2” where, as a moody, reverberating piano fades, a single violin takes over. It’s a powerful moment that lifts me up for a welcome glimpse of light and flight. That clarity slowly sinks again, disorderly but determined, to be consumed whole by the dark. Every time, it leaves my soul keening with envy and yearning to follow. It’s a full body experience.

Cal Robb’s paintings have a similarly all-encompassing effect on me. After a decade of knowing him and studying his art, I still can’t articulate exactly what he is doing with it. His work is thunder clapping black meadows that always draw me in. 

While many artists pay homage to the past, exploring memories in an attempt to define them, Cal is a hunter.

It seems that his art is both the lens through which he seeks glimpses of internal renewal and presence and the medium he chooses to present it to the world. 

Stalking the formless truths of his own unconscious, he acts as a huntsman for the ultimate, intimate, unknowable knowledge within himself, seeking the shadow to knit it with the bright. 

When Cal and I discuss our work, we wear out our voices interrupting and overlapping our thoughts in frenetic four-hour stretches. The conversation expands further and further until we strain the edges of possibility. Later, online, the conversation folds into itself once again. 

One of his phrases from our conversations about this collaboration has stuck with me: “keep it dumb and casual.” It precisely captures what I’m convinced is a dual state of mind he carries into his work. While nothing about his pursuit of what he calls “subconscious knowledge” is dumb, nor is his evocation of such a raw internal place casual. Writing to me he says:

It is decidedly rendered when I can look at the canvas and feel the drawing of ideas from my mind. In other words, illuminating for my physical eye a translated illustration of the mind’s eye. In this way, I understand them as visions that can provide (or draw out) revelations.

Cal’s work is a catalogue of his psychological confrontations, each piece mapping his unconscious showing overlapping realities and dark centers of the unknown. Self-knowledge and its undefinable boundaries are etched into every painting. In experiencing his art, we bear witness to the limitations of his exploration through these marks. 

His immersion in the indefinable appears casual. His materials are happenstance discoveries in hardware stores, chunks of paint are heaped inside his studio where the walls are smeared with ghostly remnants of his mark-making. Stacks of raw canvas, books, glue, tools, wood, cardboard, acidic paint buckets reflecting the architectural surroundings of Montreal. 

 Cal Robb’s work is both a primal and impermanent pursuit of visual truths. It’s a relentless endeavor, but one he is naturally inclined to chase in his studio. To conclude, I will leave you with an excerpt from “Absinthia Taetra” by Ernest Dowson. In this poem he speaks of the discoveries made within the night of the soul and the caress of darkness that washes over him, like a guide through time. 

 “But he drank opaline.

And that obscure night of the soul,

and the valley of humiliation,through

which he stumbled, were forgotten.

He saw blue vistas of undiscovered countries,

high prospects and a quiet, carressing sea.

The past shed its perfume over him,

today held his hand as if it were a little child,

and tomorrow shone like a white star;

nothing was changed.”

 Excerpt from “Absinthia Taetra” 

 Ernest Dowson

About the writers: Charlie is a full-time artist in Philadelphia and his work has been presented in solo and group exhibitions in the USA and internationally. Grants and awards include the Vermont Studio Residency Grant, Helene Couture Award for Excellence in Painting, and the Concordia University Faculty of Fine Arts Fellowship. In 2017, he was a visiting artist lecturer at the Sherwin B. Nuland Institute in Bioethics at Yale University. In 2020, he was awarded an Artist Relief Grant, an initiative organized by the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, United States Artists, and Creative Capital. Charlie is also @mooncheesecurator. Charlie’s work can be seen on his website: and Instagram @charliejmeyers and and you can follow him on TikTok: @charliejmeyers.

Sarah Jansen is an Australian fiction and nonfiction writer. Her work is informed by her fascination with the seemingly limitless ways humans can find to live, and an endless curiosity about how small banalities and macro social and economic structures interact to create our experiences of everyday life.

She has been published in Gravel, Lip, We Matter Media, Writers Bloc,, in Vignette Press’s Mini Shots series and Sex Mook anthology, Filter magazine, the Zahmoo blog, The Edge, and Musings of an Inappropriate Woman. In 2013, Sarah received a Vermont Studio Center Fellowship to support a four-week residency in Johnson, VT, USA.

She is from Logan City, Australia, spent 10 years in Brisbane, and has lived in Melbourne since 2011.

About the artist: Cal Robb is a painter based in Tiohtiá:ke/Montreal. His chronic practice is concerned with the exploration of life force communication and effects within the visual field. Cal’s work can been seen on Instagram @cal_robb and his website is