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Growing up just one generation removed from the 60s, I’ve always had an odd relationship to that era—a connection to something that isn’t there, like sensations in a phantom limb. The period was a formative influence in the lives of my parents and therefore had a transitive effect on the shape of my own. I grew up listening to my parents’ music, watching their films, absorbing pieces of politics and culture forged in the crucible of a very different time. That time is a part of me—an important part, one that went a long way in determining the person I am today. But I can’t reach back and touch it. My only connection to the 60s is to people who were alive then. My entire understanding of the time comes through them.
When I walked into Firecat Projects to meet Cal Schenkel, I knew I was meeting someone special, someone important, someone who had very much been a part of the storied 60s as they exist in the psychedelic swirls of my imagination. Schenkel worked with some of the most central figures in the musical avant-garde—Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits—and created some of the most iconic images to come out of the time. It was Schenkel who assembled the odd assortment of images on the album covers of Zappa’s Uncle Meat and Burnt Weeny Sandwich. It was Schenkel’s idea to move an old piano into his living room and position a pensive Tom Waits in the perfect state of collapse for Closing Time. And it was Schenkel who ran to the market and returned with a carp, hollowing out the head and affixing it to the face of Captain Beefheart for the cover of Trout Mask Replica.
I know all this because it’s been told to me. I have a sense of the meaning, a grasp on the import—like someone watching the shadows of objects projected on walls. It’s that odd part of history to which I’m neither completely connected nor entirely removed. And so I looked to Stan Klein, the director at Firecat and a fan of Schenkel’s work since adolescence.
“A splash in the water creates the ripples. Cal Schenkel, he’s the splash, man.”
Schenkel’s work was at the forefront of album cover art, which became a celebrated genre unto itself, and the work brought him into contact with some of the most famous names of the day. One of the myriad anecdotes he told me ended with, “So I opened the door and it was Grace Slick.”
Schenkel himself is unassuming and quiet. He doesn’t drop names, he just describes his landscape—one that happens to be more fantastic and surreal than anything I’ve ever encountered in life.
His newer work, mostly acrylic and watercolor, reflects a certain ease of being. Schenkel works in a style that feels natural and intuitive; not a single brushstroke seems affected or contrived. He makes no attempt to trade on the past. He simply is who he is, and the work is a natural outgrowth of that. Only his second public showing in 20 years, Schenkel’s show at Firecat displays the newer work alongside prints of past album covers, and although the context is valuable, I found that I didn’t really need it. I was able to form a connection to both the artist and his work that was real, visceral, and entirely my own.