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June | 2015 | The Birdsell Project

Interview with Artist-in-Residence: Liam Cawley

By Leah Gallant

Liam Cawley is an emerging artist working primarily in oil on panel with sculptural and multimedia elements. His work explores the relationship between the religious and the secular in contemporary society, and between fine art and liturgical art. He graduated from Notre Dame University  in 2015, and currently lives and works in South Bend, Indiana.

For WordPress

Liam poses in his installation space at the Commerce Center.

Much of your work draws on Catholic imagery and references. How does your faith drive your work? How do you see your work in relationship to canonical Western Christian art?

I first started dealing with spiritual and religious themes—and therefore also Christian themes—a couple of years ago. I had a realization that I think a lot of artists—Albert Herbert comes to mind—who deal with those sorts of themes had at some point in their lives, which is that I am a religious person. It’s part of my identity, it’s just a certain quality that I have, and I wanted to make art that was true to that quality. That’s when I made the self-portrait piece, ‘Night Call to Samuel,’ which is about that realization, and also about vocation in general. However, just because I’m making work that draws on this long history of Christian art doesn’t mean that I want to just engage with the West. Especially since I am a Catholic, which is the universal church that’s spread across the globe, I think that element of my religion will lend itself to making work that could be appreciated by a number of different cultures. One role model that I could look to is the Estonian Orthodox composer Arvo Pärt. The New York Times recently praised his music’s quality of an almost universal spiritualism that still did not deny his own specific religion.

Liam art--Night Call to Samuel

Liam Cawley, Night Call to Samuel


A lot of art in the canon was produced under a very specific relationship between artists and the church. What are your thoughts on being an artist, and a Catholic, and a Catholic artist in 2015, when there’s a very different relationship between the Church and the state, as well as between artists and benefactors of contemporary art?

It certainly makes the art world more diverse, which I think is a good thing. However, I think there’s a perceived rift between art and the church. The late St. John Paul II wrote about this in his 1999 letter to artists, in which he emphasizes his desire for the church and the arts to have a relationship again where the church valued contemporary artists and contemporary artists considered the church in a more serious way than how a lot of people today do. This is also similar to a sentiment that Neo-Marxist sociologist Jürgen Habermas has put forth in his theory on a post-secular society, which is that the project of secularism, which is a mainly European project, and is based in Enlightenment values that believes that reason will overtake religion, has not succeeded, and this can be seen in the Eurocentric nature of that claim, where in global society religion still plays a very important role for most people across the globe. So Jürgen Habermas and Pope John Paul II would have both wanted to see a society where religion has no institutionalized place perhaps in the secular square but is not silenced in the secular square. I think Jürgen Habermas said something along the lines of ‘to disclude religious voices in the public square is distinctly illiberal.’ And I think that extends to the art world in a sense. I don’t feel as though I’m being particularly excluded—I was given a place at this residency; I haven’t had a heck of a lot of opposition at Notre Dame (which probably isn’t very surprising). But I know that there is a trend, which I encountered first in James Elkins’ book, ‘On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art,’ against religious ideas in contemporary art. But there’s also a sociological trend and in some ways an artistic trend towards their consideration.

When I think of most of the contemporary artists or artworks that deal with Christian themes, I think of pieces like Chris Ofili’s ‘Black Madonna’—pieces that have a much more complicated and often critical perspective on Christianity.

The Black Madonna is a really complicated one. But I think a lot of the opposition to that piece was against the elephant dung present, which Ofili explained is a sort of sacred object in I think several African cultures, so in that regard would not be critical. However, what I always thought was more suspect about that piece were the collaged angels out of pornographic images, so it is definitely very complex. And I hope to be complex too. But I believe that complexity does not have to be a wholesale criticism of faith.

Who or what are some of your major influences?

In addition to the ones I’ve mentioned, I’d also say that with my thesis, which dealt with ideas of apophatic theology, I was very influenced by the work of Bill Viola and his work with the writings of St. John of the Cross. I have also been influenced by philosopher Jean-Luc Marion, and I’ve drawn inspiration from the sparse yet continued lineage of artists who have dealt with spiritual and religious topics and themes to this day—anyone from Van Gogh, Rouault, and Chagall to Stephen de Staebler, Jeni Spota, and Makoto Fujimura.

Liam art--Opus for Apocalyptic Choir

Liam Cawley, Opus for an Apocalyptic Choir



One of the things I find most appealing about your work is its playfulness. ‘Night call to Samuel,’ for example, shows you startled, black coffee in hand, and your thesis, ‘Opus for an Apocalyptic Choir,’ is a triptych with twenty four noisemakers that randomly turn on. What role does humor play in your work?

I think it’s good to have some levity. I’ve never considered myself to really be dealing with humor in the same way that some artists do, as a primary theme. But the theme depicted in ‘Night Call to Samuel’ does reference a scene that I experienced many times in undergrad— staying up until 3am in the morning with a cup of black coffee and seeing things out of the corner of your eye in a state of sleep deprivation.

Liam art--Memento mori

Liam Cawley, Memento Mori


‘Memento Mori,’ on the other hand, a 7.5 ft tall sculpture that viewers can walk inside to be reminded of the fleeting nature of life, has a much more solemn air. What were your intentions with that piece?

I wanted to experiment with ways that the viewer can associate themselves and interact with a three dimensional object that they couldn’t with a panting on a wall. So I think the idea that it would be placed relatively close to the wall so you could go between it and the wall and then sort of be engulfed or inside or forced to interact with it very closely came first, and then I made decisions on materials that I wanted to use, the interior side is covered in tar, which has an interesting texture, absorbs light in a very interesting way, and also has a very strong smell that would be emphasized by the forced proximity of the viewer. And once I had decided on the materials that I wanted to use and the idea of being enclosed in the space, that was when I started to think about themes of funerary embalment. In ancient Egypt they would cover the mummy in tar, and the piece is very coffin-shaped. I was also thinking about what tar is–it’s dead matter from pre-historic times.

What are you planning for your grotto-like installation space in the basement of the Commerce Center?

I would describe it as more catacomb-like—it’s very stony and subterranean but still clearly man-made, and has a number of Roman arches. I hope to convert this space into a sort of twenty-first century Roman catacomb to memorialize the twenty-first century martyrs, of which there are many, although I’m focusing on the Egyptian Copts who were killed by ISIS/ISOL in Syria last February.

Of the resident artists this summer, you’re one of two who grew up in South Bend. How has the growing local art scene shaped your own practice?

It’s made me really happy!  It’s really edifying to see South Bend grow—not only in the art scene, but our music scene has been blossoming as well. Downtown is vibrant in a way it never was when I was a child. It was really great as a developing artist to have this dynamic environment that was between being a post-industrial rust belt town—I think it made it to some lists of the most dying cities in the nation – and being a more cultural location. I’ve heard stories about what South Bend was in the eighties, and I’m really glad to see the town that I grew up in moving towards a new vitality and a new cultural importance.


Photo Credit: Liam Cawley and Leah Gallant

by Leah Gallant

Margaret Halquist is a Milwaukee-based artist who earned her BFA in sculpture at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design in 2015. Her work employs drawing, installation, and video to question the presumed truthfulness of text. Her thesis, “IMPRESSED YET,” involved a 30′ x 40′ banner that read ‘are you so impressed with authority’ displayed backwards on the MIAD design building.


Margaret in her studio at the Birdsell Mansion


How did you start working with text?

Text has this reputation of being the easy way out—of being too literal for certain ideas or ways of thinking. There’s this weird hierarchy in art, where if there’s both abstraction and text, the words are always the real answer even if it’s mixed in with something else. It’s like, “Oh, I’m going to look at this text because it’s going to tell me what’s really happening.” Whereas most people expect language to provide an answer rather than a question, I use text to confuse and complicate the subject.


Who are some of your major influences, both artistically and philosophically?

As I started working with text, people would often associate me with these artists who are much more literal with their texts, but I shied away from that.  I like Sharon Hayes’ work, which employs text in a way that’s much more ambiguous—Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, a lot of people in that era. I also really like Sarah Sze for her abstraction and her ways of working with material. And I’ve always been a big fan of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who is a philosopher, and his discussions of the failure of language and how language isn’t an absolute communication. I consider John Cage a philosopher—I really enjoy a lot of what he does, whether it’s his music or his art.


Although language is a major part in most of your work, you use it to push your art in pretty different directions- for example, collaborative social practice with the Washington Park project, where you employed six homeless men to apply words cut out of carpet tape to sidewalks of the neighborhood. What interests you about using text specifically to raise questions of place and community?

I think text is associated with the everyday—we’re confronted with it as being absolute. We think—this is a fact because it’s written down, or on a sign. We’re constantly being fed information. I get a lot of inspiration from advertisements, or things you see on the street and mindlessly take in, and so I’m interested in obscuring that or redefining certain words or objects. With the Washington Park exercise, where I was able to talk with the people who were helping me, they had their own definitions of the words, associations, but they never isolated the words in that way, and that was interesting to me. They told me that throughout that week the text would change. And so meaning and material and language can all shift. It’s in constant flux, and I’m interested in that.

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Magaret Halquist, Washington Park 


What reactions did you get from community members for the banner piece?

I talked to everyone from the industrial design faculty to random people on the street about their reactions. Overall people on the streets were curious more than anything. I was there during the five hours of installation, so I was watching—it was very windy, it was this really epic installation, the whole piece was flying one way. People would stop by and take pictures or make comments, and since I was the only one standing there, they would ask me questions—like, ask if it’s on right because the text was backwards. On Facebook, there were a few posts of people being like “I don’t know who did this but this is really cool” and other people being like “why would the school put this up” – some people thought it was the school – and other people were offended by it.

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Magaret Halquist, IMPRESSED YET


How do you go about selecting a text and matching it to a particular space or community?

It depends on the project. With the Washington Park project, that was associated with when I spent time in Washington Park and talked to the people there, community members, people on the streets. I took casual surveys and asked them what they associated with home and Washington Park and what was important to them, and I filtered through and found these words that were most prevalent and used those. For other pieces, I appropriate language—sometimes I’ll just be reading, and there will be a random line that sticks out to me, and I’ll change a couple things about it so it makes sense. That displacement of language – and it’s not necessarily present to anyone else that observes it – is important to me. I read a lot, and I like this idea of translation.


What do you mean by translation? How does that factor into how you make work?

I use the word translation a lot, not because it’s literal translation—my work is in English—but because there’s a shift or a new perception of the way you look at something based off its physical surrounding—what it’s made out of, how big it is, all these factors that go into it can completely change what it means, even though it may say the same thing. There’s a lot that can go into it—even spacing, or a lack of a question mark. For example in “IMPRESSED YET”, there was a very specific decision that went into that. It makes it more of a statement than a question.


Speaking of the absent question mark — I’ve also noticed that text is conspicuously absent in some of your other work, such as “To Scale.” How do you see the absence of clear text in that series communicating about the subject matter?

I use photography in a similar way to text. I like using blown up images, or distorted things, not because I manipulated them, but because you can’t see it, but putting them in these settings where they’re abstracted, they don’t mean anything. That’s what the “To Scale” project is, there would randomly be a section of black pages or text and that would be it. Or maybe there would be a part of a railing or an ‘N’ next to a section of a tree, so there would be interesting moments but it takes a lot of patience to get to them. It’s not instantly gratifying. I want to continue that series in different locations—I’m going to take some photos here. The books are all named after their latitude and longitude, so it’s nice to have it spread out.

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Margaret Halquist, To Scale


For that piece and some others, your work is installed in a gallery space. How are you planning on translating the ideas you’ve been working around into your installation this Summer, in a space that you have more control over (or access to)?

A lot of the gallery work on my website is from last Summer, when I was in New York and had a studio space. At the School of Visual Arts I mostly stayed in my studio space and made work there. But early last year, I started to understand that what was important to me was making this guerrilla art—art in public space that isn’t necessarily easily understandable. I decided that I didn’t want to make precious objects. That is definitely something I want to push while I’m here, ways to work where you can distribute things, or take them apart, or ways to leave something behind, rather than make “art objects.” I’m still figuring it out, balancing my values and place and very challenging space I have to work with.

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Magaret’s Installation space in the Commerce Center


Is there a favorite piece you’ve worked on?

I think I’m able to communicate my carpet tape pieces conceptually, even just by explaining it to people. Non-artists are able to grasp what I’m saying, and that’s really gratifying. I plan to continue with the series, and because it’s a place piece—it changes depending on where I’m installing it—I think it will always be interesting to me.


Margaret Halquist, tape


For more of Margaret’s work, go to www.margarethalquist.com.


Photo Credits: Leah Gallant, Margaret Halquist, Andrew Strong