Jean Marc Calvet: Resurrection
By Jonathan Jackson Photography By Glow Ruiz
“In chaos there is everything,” says Jean Marc Calvet as he stands in the studio with vaulted ceilings of his colonial home in Granada, Nicaragua. The room itself is filled with chaos, but it is contained. Organized confusion. Paints and brushes lay haphazardly about, but only on one table. CD’s, from U2 to Calle 13, bootlegs and originals, seemingly thrown around, are stacked and spread about only on a designated desk.
Then there is Calvet himself, wearing a button-up shirt covered with splashes of paint, and arms covered with splashes of tattoos, or is it paint as well? Perhaps both, as it’s hard to tell where the paint ends and the ink begins. Whatever the case, his appearance is contained by his persona, so to seem, just like the rest of his studio, that everything is exactly where it should be.
His paintings are the same. If you focus on a small part of one you may see madness, randomness, but if you step back, a bigger picture becomes apparent, revealing how the chaos inside gives it life. In that chaos there is everything. And in this room there is also Kaos.
Calvet’s most ambitious work in terms of sheer magnitude, Kaos, the four-meter by four-meter behemoth towers over the room, its red eyes seemingly following my every move. The work took close to two months and a custom-constructed wooden staircase to complete. It features a giant skull surrounded by intricate layers of bones, people, creatures, hearts, names, eyes, flowers and God knows what else. When I first saw the painting, several weeks before, I remembered it being somewhat threatening in nature, yet today as I gaze into Kaos, the skull’s expression seems almost friendly. According to Calvet it is more likely me than the painting.
“In the painting there is love, death, life, everything. One day you can see the painting while you are sad and you’ll find sadness, one day you’ll see it happy and you’ll find happiness. You see the painting according to your feelings,” he says.
Over the years Calvet’s own feelings have changed drastically. Nine years ago he had never even picked up a paintbrush and when he finally did start painting it was with his hands. Born in Nice, a port city in the south of France, Calvet, a former street kid and agent with the French Special Forces, had become frustrated with the life he had lived and in the 90’s began traveling as a last resort to find a greater purpose. Instead, he found a house in Costa Rica where he decided to isolate himself and give in to the demons from his past and present. The plan was to go out in a haze of rum and drugs until his body could take no more and would put itself mercifully out of its misery.
But it was an uninspired suicide attempt one particular night during the nine months he spent in exile that would turn out to be just the inspiration he needed. The story goes that on this night he binged even more than usual, wanting to finally die. High on drugs, his brain flooded with crazy, with voices surrounding him, taunting him, Calvet encountered some cans of paint behind a staircase. He opened them up and began splattering the contents all over the house in a frenzy of drug and life-induced emotional rage. Once the cans were empty he used his hands to move the paint around, in essence turning this would be tomb into his first studio.
Back in the present, the tormented Jean Marc Calvet of art world lore is seen only in paintings. These days at his home, in his studio, the man himself appears at peace, perhaps even happy, living with his fiance Victoria and her 11-year-old daughter whom he has adopted. Things have changed drastically during the past nine years. Soon after freeing himself from self-imposed purgatory he moved his life to Nicaragua, and at the suggestion of a friend, to Granada. It was here that he truly taught himself to paint and here that he finally found a place to make a life, reborn as a Granadino.
“I put everything in a truck and came to Nicaragua, straight to Granada. I feel good here. I don’t feel like a foreigner, but as if I was born here. The Latin culture runs through my veins. I feel like a Nicaraguan painter not a French painter,” says Calvet.
Over the years his style evolved naturally. His early works involved more dripping of paint, but as his style has been refined and sophisticated, his paintings have become filled with intricate images inside of larger ones that seem to have been meticulously planned. However, he insists that is not the case. Calvet, who refers to himself as a sponge and a witness, says he takes what he has experienced and what he sees and simply paints without thinking.
“I am very frenetic when I paint, I don’t know if the yellow matches the white or the black, I don’t make any calculation, I don’t have the patience,” he says. “I’m like an antenna, I take things, transform them in my mind and make a ratatouille until something comes out. I don’t plan what it’s going to be. It’s an organized mess. Unconsciously measured.”
Music also plays a big role in Calvet’s process, evident by the hundreds of CDs in his studio. It is no surprise that a majority of the over 100 paintings he has completed are named after lyrics from songs.
“I use music as a river. I put it on according to my mood. If I’m sad I play sad music, happy, happy music, etcetera. I listen to everything from salsa, to Pink Floyd, Perro Zompopo, to French music,” Calvet says. “Different music for each part of the painting. For example I tell myself this part of the painting needs Pink Floyd, this part needs Italian music and so on. I can spend two days painting with the same song.”
According to Calvet it is this spontaneous process that keeps him evolving as an artist and keeps his paintings honest.
“If it‘s not honest then for what? For money? Ooohlaa…” he says shaking his head. “You’re better off to sell pizza.”
His point is clear, and although you would have to sell a lot of pizza to come up with the $50,000 some of his paintings have reportedly sold for, the honesty and evolution of his work cannot be denied. Instead of running from his tortured past or trying to pretend it never happened, Calvet uses his art to take control of it and move forward.
“(For a long time) I did not want to see what I had done, I did not want to take responsibility for it. Now I open the door and I feel a little fear in the beginning and I grab things that are pieces of my life, pieces of things I have around me and at first they are black but I transform them to color. From negative they become positive. It’s a constructive evolution.”
His personal evolution as an artist has also put him on an international stage. His work can currently be seen at galleries in Paris and Costa Azul in France, Granada, and New York, where 24 of his paintings are part of an exhibition entitled ‘Redemption’ at Monkdogz Urban Art Gallery. And despite living nine years in Nicaragua, it was only this April that he had his first solo in-country exposition at Managua’s Galleria Codice, where he unveiled the aforementioned Kaos as well as two new self-portraits. There is also a film project in the works with English filmmaker, Dominic Allen, who has completed close to 30 documentaries, most notably one on Nelson Mandela. The documentary, entitled Calvet was shot in 2008 and will be released later this year, first on the BBC and then on the festival circuit. There are plans for a feature film as well.
For Calvet, the recognition and acclaim come second to the connection painting has given him to himself and that he is thus able to share with those who view his art. He says that inside each artist is the search for immortality and through this exchange with the audience it can be achieved. He insists that as a person he is not afraid of death and everything that has happened in his life, up to painting and beyond, has been a gift. Therefore, if he were to die tomorrow he would die happy. This is what he tells himself, yet in the next breath he admits that his subconscious does fear death. Perhaps what it truly fears is becoming irrelevant.
“Subconsciously I’m afraid of death. I’m afraid that it ends. Thus to not die, we must leave something, so that we are not dead. And so we are not afraid of death, because we can’t die. We die, but we don’t die. And so, I am immortal,” he exclaims, stomping his foot on the ground. “Death does not touch me. You see, I stick my tongue out at death…but with respect.”
Knowing that his paintings, his expressions will live on after he is gone seems to put Calvet at peace with the thought of dying. Painting has already given him his life back once and he feels resurrection will be possible again.
“You’ve left your balls, you’ve left your guts, you’ve left your penis, you’ve left your knowledge, you’ve left everything there inside (the painting). Therefore, someone arrives in front of it and if you’re lucky it will call to them, and you have a painting that makes them respond somewhere inside and there will be an exchange. And at that moment, at that very moment, I am sure that I will be alive.”
As far as looking ahead to his death, Calvet says with a laugh, “I want to be buried in Granada. I already picked a spot in the cemetery close to the pulperia, just in case I get thirsty or need to buy a cigarette.”