I first encountered your work in its abstract phase, that is post-2008, and now the abstraction is the work that you are known for, at least in Los Angeles. Do you embrace having two distinctly different periods in your work, or is there part of you that wants to put the first phase behind you completely?
Fritz Chestnut: I think the work I did before coming to L.A. around 2008 is behind me, but yeah, I embrace it. I am not sure if it was the move to the West Coast, or that I lost interest or outgrew my past work, but I definitely needed a change.
“For me, the process of making paintings feels vulnerable no matter what I am painting.”
Fritz Chestnut, Doppelgängers, 2010. Acrylic on canvas, 120 x 34 in. Photo Credit: Heather Rassmussen. Courtesy of the artist.
In Conversation: Michael Shaw Interviews Fritz Chestnut
Michael Shaw: I first encountered your work in its abstract phase, that is post-2008, and now the abstraction is the work that you are known for, at least in Los Angeles. What are your thoughts on your identity as an artist, and the two distinct phases of your work — the realist phase and the abstract/post-realist? Do you embrace having two distinctly different periods in your work, or is there part of you that wants to put the first phase behind you completely?
Fritz Chestnut: I think the work I did before coming to L.A. around 2008 is behind me, but yeah, I embrace it. I am not sure if it was the move to the West Coast, or that I lost interest or outgrew my past work, but I definitely needed a change. I think the move allowed me to change. I was not attached to a gallery at that time and I took about six months off from making art and then sort of reemerged with new interests I think. I am glad that happened.
MS: What sort of internal process did you go through while you were on hiatus? Did it make you more hungry to work again, give you time to let ideas surface, or was it more a much-needed break from that cycle?
FC: When I moved from New York to L.A. I did not have a studio for about 6 months. And surprisingly I did not really miss painting. I was burnt out on painting from photographs mainly. This was around the summer of 2008. It was one of those periods I think all artists go through at some point, where you are uprooted. I needed to focus on the basics like figuring out housing, and getting my kids into school. Stuff like that.
MS: When you came out to L.A., as you put it to me before, you felt a certain freedom and independence to take a new direction, without any pressure or expectations. Was this because you felt like no one was watching, as if anticipating a whole new audience? You had told me in the past that you envisioned these California-influenced landscapes, which then went into this far more non-objective place, with the only noticeable referent being water. Did you surprise yourself at any point how far you went from your initial vision?
FC: I think I did surprise myself. That is a good point. But I think that is natural in art making, or at least it is for me. I remember having a studio visit with a friend in NYC and mentioning that I wanted to make landscapes. And he said “Yeah! Do it. No one is doing landscapes!” So the landscape idea turned into complete abstraction as I was working. I had seen a lot of amazing abstract painting in the last ten years and I think it rubbed off on me. It seems like there’s been a huge resurgence in abstract painting and I am not sure I would have made that leap if I had not moved to LA. I think not being attached to a gallery at the time or feeling the pressure of upcoming shows at that point enabled me to change direction. And that is actually the most exciting time for me, when that happens. And, you do not consciously set off to turn into an abstract painter but it happens sort of subconsciously.
MS: I am interested in the concept that making abstract paintings, rather than being this formal, refined, and/or academic inquiry, can be, somewhat antithetically, a fairly naked pursuit. Have there been points, either when you first set off on this direction, or after you were already on your path, that you felt vulnerable in what you were doing? Has it felt risky at various points along the way?
FC: Risky, yes, and vulnerable too. I hope to make something vulnerable in that I am accountable for it, putting it out there and backing it up. Painting for me is a super risky thing and sometimes it comes easily. Other times I have a hard time turning off my mind and am prone to some challenging moments in the studio where I am completely blocked creatively. If I am not in the zone and have too much chatter going on in my mind it is hard to get to that place where I am ok making mistakes. In my experience you need to make tons and tons of mistakes before making anything successful. It is enlightening to have people in my studio and watching them respond to what I think of as my mistakes, or unsuccessful work.
MS: The other element of ‘vulnerability’ I was getting at is that with abstraction, the way you are practicing it is only limited by the guidelines of your own aesthetic decisions, and, as you said, by your own internal chatter. That working without any hint of a narrative, especially after working in portraits in the past, seems to be a risky place in that “what you are saying” is now boiled down to the properties of paint, or something along those lines?
FC: I do not see the vulnerable part of my painting being the abstract part. For me, the process of making paintings feels vulnerable no matter what I am painting. I did have a discussion with an artist friend about what kind of narratives are found in my work and she responded to one piece as having a strong narrative, which is strange for me since I like to think of abstract painting more as an associative experience and not a narrative one in the traditional sense of storytelling. I really don’t think about the ‘properties of paint’ in most abstract paintings I like. I always respond to the associative elements or the presence of a work that I like. I guess in the end the technical aspects are always the least interesting to me.
MS: We have talked about surfing in relation to your work, and you have explained that you want the influence of surfing in the work to be holistic, rather than representational. Meanwhile, the painting, Doppelgängers, from 2010, does literally look like a wave, though you may not think of it that way unless you’re aware of this particular history of yours. Would you talk more specifically about how you think surfing fits into your work, and how you would like it to be perceived, or not, as part of a viewers’ readings.
FC: I think the surfing part of my art exists on a subconscious level as an influence. Other than that I do not really have any interest in having surfing become the subject of my work. That painting Doppelgangers can be thought of as representational in the archetypal image of a wave, or a mountain. Or complete abstraction. I am hesitant to put too much emphasis on surfing in my art but it is there in the background. I like to think that my imagery comes from a subconscious thing — my interest in waves. It is something I am constantly seeking out. The ocean is my muse!
Fritz Chestnut, Born On A Time Machine, 2010. Acrylic on canvas, 42 x 54 in. Photo Credit: Heather Rassmussen. Courtesy of the artist.
Michael Shaw is the creator of The Conversation Art Podcast to read more follow the link here: theconversationartistpodcast.podomatic.com