By PAUL MAZIAR
One of my favorite things about art-making, in any medium, is that the initial subject matter can be totally incidental—without prescribed meaning whatsoever—and yet deeper implications are invariably discovered, by both the artist and whomever is there to experience the thing they’ve made. I love the indeterminacy that creativity can entertain, and the comfort to be found in not knowing—for both artist and viewer.
Taking a couple of separate walks through Plastic Flowers, the new exhibition of Kellen Chasuk’s paintings at Stephanie Chefas Projects through January 27, I find an unmistakable joy in Chasuk’s paintings, an inventiveness. Taken as a whole, the show exemplifies the protean aspects of meaning and experience in contemporary life—related to joy, sorrow, boredom, and anxiety for anyone alive today in these confounding times—and it entertains the concerns and tropes of artists and art history. The readily accessible, familiar passions seen in her tableaus—living, growing things—the bright hues and lighthearted forms, the playful modelling of Kellen’s paint, all of these belie a story of gloom. That’s not quite it—a kind of story opens up, shown in its variation, like life. Here, it’s a relatable gloom, for sure, and given the year we just had, such a lively exhibition is also a triumph.
Chasuk’s work is palatable in its simplicity and strangeness. You have, on the one hand, all these vivid, humorous interior (i.e., indoors) scenes that show the simplicity of playing around with paint and the rendering of space and form; and on the other, these personal or metaphysical (i.e. the person’s inner life) aspects that are gently implied by the very same means. It’s interesting to me the way that these things become interchangeable, with the possibility of even more depth of meaning through the familiar, simplified forms devoid of pretension, and in many cases even verity.
Looking at Plastic Flowers at a distance, one strangely sees the paintings better than when very close up. This is due to the fact that each contributes to the indoor scene that they comprise, like pieces of furniture and things on the wall in any dining room. But here we find much more interesting things, flowers that triple as fruit, stars, and plastic, for example. I also want to say painting, in the singular. The show includes 20 works in acrylic and flashe, many of whose subjects are flowers, soda cans, and the artist’s tools, their coherence is enriched by the fact that they’re all so unique.
One striking thing about the show is the energy of its formal adventures. Chasuk’s application of paint is exciting (and looks like it was made out of excitement, or in any case, moxie), and a few of these works’ panels were augmented by being painted around (often with “frames”) during the install. There’s such a sense of play in this show, how it creates a site-specific installation by simply extending the duration of the work, right into the show’s preparation as well as their novel exhibition. Chasuk’s work reveals the richness and complexity found yet in the simplest things, moments.
During the show’s opening reception, the art seemed to to swallow up the gallery, making me very aware of space and the intervening forms throughout, including our bodies. This might be due to the fact that Kellen used every inch of the surface of her panels. The 20 paintings on the wall appear as one picture, and they make the whole room over in the service of the show, including the intermittence of living house plants throughout the gallery, and an acrylic pothos (unlisted as a “work” in the show) painted on the wall above the gallery office window.
Through such playful rendering, images don’t really work the way that we expect them to—reliably, representationally. That’s what I like about them; Chasuk’s manner of application is disarming in this way. The simplicity and clarity of the still life scene as, maybe, a constraint in this work gives it so much more possibility. By simply upending what’s expected in arrangements, they appear unlike those we ordinarily encounter, and so how one expects to feel when looking at them is also transformed. When I liken this to poetry, in the way that choices of familiar words and their strange arrangements can cause new understandings, and different ones for each reader.
To me, the curvilinear forms in these paintings look stylized, not like art but more like memories or dreams, a reaction that arrives from their surprising juxtapositions and distorted spaces. In Care to Take Care (2017), a full-fingered hand with “flesh” that looks rather cracked and in some state of necrosis or other, pours cola into the soil of a potted trio of flowers that wilted, like just now. As the cola bubbles up in soil, the stems curve down the length of the pot but the petals on each flower stand up, still alive. (This description isn’t ignorant of the symbolism I’m reading into the scene.)
Speaking of standing, there’s also what looks to be a white plate in this still life, whose formal aspect has abandoned illusionism so that it appears standing up, or else pressed flat up against the window that is the surface of the picture. There’s also this illogical shadow hanging about, seeming to seep from beneath the pot’s base, beneath the plate like smoldering black smoke adding drama, a reality-like inconsistency. The hint of memento mori or mellow vanitas in this series is totally apt, comforting, especially without a single skull, and in its place the most familiar and troublesome device of our time, the smartphone.
I know that Chasuk knows how to render “lifelike” hands, but throughout Plastic Flowers, they show up cartoonishly, six-fingered, blown out of proportion, mittenlike, looking dead-blue or -gray. Because of the unaccountability, the reimagined mutability of these settings, all the painter’s choices of modeling, hue, and paint type, meaning is never a guarantee—and I wonder, is it ever anyway? About her painting Funny Face, Chasuk adds the caption, “Hecka ugly but still livin’!” which seems to me to be a sendup of the vanity entertained by social media, the selfie, and reminds me of the ugly/beautiful nature that we all share.
Reading these paintings, I get the play and joy mentioned above, but also fear, death and decay, pain and loneliness. In Telephone, a kind of volcano of light pours up and out of a lampshade toward the ceiling, also bathing a brown table in its yellow. The table, the lamp and its light were all added to the show at install. Although part of me wants to say each thing here bears no intended or obvious meaning, this light looks to be symbolic of the antidote to what you might call room gloom, isolation, or the attendant dark we all endure residing in the Pacific Northwest. Thinking about all this serious stuff about light and dark, it’s also worth mentioning that two of the three individual panels that occasioned the table and lamp painted later, are soda cans with the words YOURS and MINE as their labels. It’s just a little living-room scene; there’s your soda and there’s mine, and someone had the great idea of putting a pink and red flower into a highball glass, for the vibe. Something happens in the morning that’s somehow the container for all serious things, and by noon it’s funny, an afterthought.
The way that communication works through images is really inexplicable when you think about it. Sometimes, strangely, the lack of some expected thing presents itself not as a lack, but as a disappearance. In Green Room in Another Green World, the flower vases are outlines of themselves. And the table on which they sit, seems to disappear too, like something out of Van Gogh’s bedroom at Arles, and we start to lose its logical sense of being there in the room, of being dimensional at all. The brown of the wood disappears into the green of the floor, and a night-sky blue is showing through to replace it—what looks to be underpainting in this one adds so much drama and mystery to an otherwise simple thing.
Significances are glimpsed or suggested, and then taken away only to return in some other humorous form in the series—again, a lot like life.