San Francisco, June 2011 - I first saw James Chronister’s work at Eleanor Harwood’s booth at artMRKT San Francisco. Defiantly visceral and elevated, Chronister’s paintings stood out in the acute environment of persevering gallerists and the onslaught of visual engagement. A week later, I stopped by the opening of his current exhibition, Now We Lustre where I innately conjured associations with his work such as Roy Lichtenstein’s appropriation and Robert Ryman’s surfaces. To breakdown these bygone associations of mine, James agreed to meet me at his studio, a used-to-be-office on the second floor of a building shared with non-profits, attorneys and physical therapists.
James Chronister, Now We Lustre (Brian Jones), 2011, oil on canvas, 40 x 40; Courtesy of the artist and Eleanor Harwood Gallery
Kara Q. Smith: A lot of your recent work depicts forests and unassuming portraits of rock stars, could you talk a little bit about your approach behind selecting the images for your paintings?
James Chronister: It is hard to convince people that it is not really about what they overtly depict. It just happens that all I have been doing lately is painting rock stars. Part of it is that I have to use a certain type of source image with an offset print, with Ben-Day dots, like the way a newspaper creates an image. So it works because that is how stuff was printed back then.
The different images point to different things. The forest scenes may seem different than the rock stars, but the real subject is a new term I came up with: micro-managed detachment. I have these really crazy paintings that take forever, but I did not take the photo or was not at the event. Yet I take a month and a half of sitting in the dark painting the images; I throw everything I have at it, but the images aren’t that grandiose. They’re not super crazy, but I make them in this crazy fashion; it’s kind of like an attitude. Similar to Luc Tuymans' philosophy; I don’t know if I believe this, but he purports that he has this very disenchanted outlook on painting: it’s all a failure and what can you really do and we are all going to die… I kind of like that perspective.
KQS: The idea of disenchantment?
JC: I guess so.
KQS: Would you say that your idea of disenchantment is counter to the idea of nostalgia, which could be an alternative reading to your work?
JC: Yeah, that’s the tricky thing with these paintings. I get that a lot: “I must really like the Rolling Stones,” but what I am interested in is the opposite of that. I am interested in how it doesn’t work, how the Summer of Love didn’t work out and people became casualties of drug culture. It’s the opposite of nostalgia.
But I wouldn’t say it is a disenchanted approach – I am not really that negative in real life – it’s more like an attitude, sort of a fable about how life really is. Everyone who has ever been alive knows life is not a Disney film. So there is the surface and there is the reality. Despite what is on the surface, I am trying to get at the reality of the subject, and things in general.
James Chronister, Now We Lustre (Greece), 2011, oil on canvas, 40 x 40; Courtesy of the artist and Eleanor Harwood Gallery
KQS: Even using the term “Lustre” in the titles of each painting is an interesting contrast to how you like to paint the dirt and grit of life -- conflating the two creates the reality. You’re keeping a critical distance from the subject matter, yet with your methodical approach you have a very physical intimacy with materials you use to create them.
JC: This approach, it gets really old; it gets really tedious. But the thing is, you can’t fake it. You have to sit there and put all these little marks [on the canvas] because otherwise it’s not going to look the same. You have to really feel the space between the washes of color; you can’t phone it in. It wouldn’t be the same work if you didn’t sit there all damn day putting dab after dab of paint on the surface. I never really thought I would be a realist painter; I was always more into Rothko and AbEx guys. Maybe it will change, but for the time being I am a very realist painter. I don’t even like the idea of it in a weird way. A lot of realist painters just don’t speak to me.
KQS: I was reading that Agnes Martin, whom we’ve discussed as an influence of yours, considered herself an Abstract Expressionist, and so I was thinking that in a way you could consider yourself the same.
JC: Sure, her paintings were nothing but expression. And in a way my paintings are abstract; it’s not like they are photos.
KQS: Well, there are so many layers or removal, in a Baudrillardian sense, from the actual subject that they become abstractions. Even your choice of titles removes the names of the figures or the locations of the trees.
JC: I think that is a nice way to think about it and that is how I do think about it. That is the difficulty of painting subjects that are so specific and realistic. To try and tip the balance towards Abstract Expressionism seems polar opposite but it is actually quite similar – which is what I am looking for.
James Chronister, Now We Lustre (River), 2011, oil on canvas, 40 x 40; Courtesy of the artist and Eleanor Harwood Gallery
KQS: Your artist statement tells a story about you in the forests of Montana with your Walkman and I am wondering if your forest paintings still take you back to that place? And do you still find yourself wandering around the woods a lot?
JC: Haha, well not as much as my wife would like. To me it’s almost like the woods are a reminder of my childhood and of my family who all still live in my hometown in Montana. It’s what they symbolize. It’s like I had to come to California to remember Montana in a sort of way
My parents live right on the base of Mt. Helena, so when you walk out our back door you are in the woods. When I wrote that statement about being out in the woods with my Walkman – which was all true – I think it had more to do with what I was trying to achieve by being myself in the woods when I was ten or eleven. My relationship to that presently is what I try to achieve now by being in the studio.
KQS: Sure, I get it. In the past you were in that space on the side of Mt. Helena with a Walkman and if you were to have a Walkman in the woods today, it wouldn’t be the same. To me your paintings are sort of translations of past and present, kind of liminal representations of this abstract space. In this sense, how does Now We Lustre connect with your previous bodies of work?
JC: Well, I think in a lot of ways it is a continuation. I feel like in a way, I only really have one idea. And that can be taken either positively or negatively depending on who you are talking to. It sounds trite, but my idea is just depicting the dirt of life in a sort of way. They are almost like totems. The trouble with painting is you have to paint something. So once you’ve made that something, to try to wrestle into what you really want to get across is the difficulty. It is hard to convince people that it is not really about what they overtly depict. The more I go on, the more paintings I make, I think I can make a case for that.
(James goes and grabs some books off his bookshelf to show me.)
I want to start these table settings from old neo-classical interior design books. Someone told me recently, “You can’t do those because Tuymans did that place-setting series.” And I said, “Listen, I have something say about these and it has nothing to do with Tuymans.” so that is what I am going to do next. I have this other great book with these palatial interiors that are great and a book on medieval tapestries that I would like to use. I want to stir things up a bit.
James Chronister’s solo show Now We Lustre is on view at Eleanor Harwood gallery from May 28 - July 6th, 2011
ArtSlant would like to thank James Chronister for his assistance in making this interview possible.
--Kara Q. Smith