'Poetry of the natural world' moves Ross Caliendo from abstracts to landscapes

Joel Oliphint
"The Six Trees," oil and acrylic on canvas with artist frame (30.50 x 23 inches), by Ross Caliendo

For most of his life, Los Angeles artist Ross Caliendo painted abstractly. Before and after graduating from CCAD in 2011, he wasn’t interested in making a painting of an objective thing. But in the last few years, Caliendo realized certain aspects of his pieces weren’t coming across.

“When viewers would see the work, there was something missing. It wasn’t connecting,” said Caliendo, who, around the same time, began incorporating nature into his paintings. “I really wanted to have a narrative, rather than it just being about the painting itself. The poetry of the natural world — giving the viewer a story to hold on to, to make an entry point for them — is what drew me to start doing that. … I think being in Los Angeles and being around so much nature all the time is [also] what drew me subconsciously to painting landscapes. It wasn't until a year or so ago that I realized that's what I was even doing.”

That emphasis on nature is the thrust of Caliendo’s current exhibition at No Place Gallery, “In the Morning the Night Kisses the Day Goodbye,” which opened last weekend. “This body of work is [about] taking hold of that narrative, realizing that the landscape and the natural world is something that's important to me and my work and allowing it to shine through,” he said.

These pieces, which will remain on view at No Place through Jan. 9, are by no means a repudiation of abstraction, though. In many ways, Caliendo’s creative process hasn’t changed. He never knows where a painting will go when he begins.

“All the paintings are completely intuitive, and most of them aren't even from specific places. … I know that the natural world is where I want the piece to end up, but I won't know where that is or what that's going to be,” he said. “Normally, I start the pieces with just one color, like a brown base or a pink base. From there, I start the piece with gestures, feeling out the painting and figuring it out and continuing to make certain restraints for myself. With every mark, it makes restraints, and from those restraints it gets to where I'm like, ‘Oh, maybe this could be a pathway,’ or, ‘Maybe this is a cliff.’”

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

The downside of such an open-ended process is that Caliendo never knows how long a piece is going to take. “Sometimes it'll take me just a day or two to make a painting if it becomes really clear and I can figure it out and see the piece for what it is,” he said. “But other times, it'll take a month or two for me to figure out the piece because I won't know exactly what it is.”

While the natural elements in Caliendo’s paintings provide the viewer an entry point, the narrative and meaning remain open-ended. “The great thing about painting is that it's like a movie, but it's on infinite play at one moment. You have the beginning, middle and end of a movie playing at all times within a painting, and that allows you to bring the viewer to a place where you don't need to have a specific story. It’s more of a poetic place for the viewer to come and bring their own narrative into the piece,” he said. “

Seeing this body of work outside of his own studio — spread out in a new space, in a different city — has also enabled Caliendo to view his paintings in a different light, drawing out echoes of color palettes and other connective aesthetic tissue he may have previously overlooked. “It allows you to really synthesize and take in what you did so you can take the things that you like with you to the next body of work,” he said.

Regardless of the piece, Caliendo wants all of his paintings to be infused with one thing: risk. “You have to make decisions that you know are risky. If you don't make those risky decisions … the piece will never arrive at that ‘a-ha’ moment that surprises myself. And without that surprise, the piece is dead,” Caliendo said. “It’s trying to find the soul of the piece and allowing those surprises and those risks to make something that ends up having a life of its own. And that's what people respond to. That's what makes any good painting, throughout history, a good painting.”

"The Wise Thatch Tells No Lies," oil and acrylic on canvas with artist frame (33 x 27.25 inches), by Ross Caliendo