On a damp night in early February, fans of all ages packed cheek-by-jowl into FISK gallery to view a selection of acrylic paintings and screen printed collages created by Chaz Bear (AKA Toro y Moi). In many respects, Bear’s show, titled Corporate Solutions, exceeded the confines of FISK (a small, non-traditional gallery in NE Portland run by a graphic design firm of the same name). The paintings and screen printed images comprised one feature of a multimedia project, which also included merchandise and marketing content disseminated by a fictional company (also called Corporate Solutions) through Bear’s and FISK Gallery’s Instagram profiles: @chaz.wick and @fiskgallery. The marketing content––which consisted of “stock-photos” of Bear and his “coworkers” sporting polo shirts and hard hats bearing the Corporate Solutions logo––amounted to a kind of performance piece. They are shown striking stilted poses, consulting with clients and producing, shipping and installing Bear’s artwork in nondescript office settings. The fictional company’s mission statement reads: “Production – Transportation – Sales.”
It’s difficult to know whether or not one should make a distinction between the persona of Toro y Moi, the music artist, and the persona of Chaz Bear, the painter and performance artist. Critics have identified aesthetic similarities between the childlike shapes and vivid colors of Bear’s paintings and the “psychedelic, vibrant textures of [Toro y Moi’s]” melody-driven, synth-pop music. Bear’s personas don’t share the same Instagram, but they occasionally endorse one another’s content on their respective platforms: @chaz.wick and @toroymoi. In any case, it’s worth prefacing this article by citing a lyric from Toro y Moi’s most recent mixtape, Soul Trash (‘19). On the track “zeiss_hifi_v2,” Bear confidently asserts that he’s “Got the fans, I don’t need reviews/Got the bands, get my mama food.” I’m not operating under the assumption that what I write here will have any bearing on his popularity as an artist, but my interest was piqued by Bear’s self-satirizing multimedia project.
Bear received a BFA in graphic design from the University of South Carolina in 2009. He has maintained his studio and design practice since then, even as he’s established an international reputation as the music artist, Toro y Moi. In 2014, he founded a graphic design studio (Company Studios) and a record label (Company Record Label) of his own, in Oakland, California. His artwork has previously been shown at New Image Art Gallery in Los Angeles, California, and Commune Gallery in Tokyo, Japan.
The crowd’s mood during the opening night of Corporate Solutions was palpably aspirational. Everyone seemed to be trying to catch a glimpse of or a private moment with the elusive artist. From what I could glean, they almost universally settled for the artist’s merchandise: a flurry of gold dust from the higher echelons of social prestige, which included mugs, graphic shirts, pencils and calendars. By merchandising products and producing social media content under the same, enigmatic brand name (Corporate Solutions), Bear managed to collapse the distance between a physical gallery show in Portland and his multi-national audience. What’s more, he did so back in February, just before the age of social distancing, when having a platform to share one’s art virtually suddenly became imperative, and brick-and-mortar cultural institutions were forced to reevaluate their business model.
Corporate Solutions’ opening night was not the ideal context for viewing art. Like concerts, a gallery thronged with visitors inspires a pleasing sense of collective euphoria, but the difficulty of navigating the space can detract from any one viewer’s ability to focus on the artwork. When one is surrounded by other people, it’s much easier to feel overly self-conscious about the unexpected pathways of introspection our minds may take in response to a work of art.
Perhaps two-hundred people visited FISK gallery during Corporate Solutions’ opening night, but tens of thousands of fans have viewed and interacted with images of these paintings on Bear’s Instagram. On the @chaz.wick Instagram page, responses to Bear’s paintings were mixed. In the comment section of an image depicting an untitled canvas from the Corporate Solutions show, R&B and neo soul star, Erykah Badu, remarked, “Great Shit [*heart-eyes-emoji*].” Other users free-associated (as one might expect): @360mctwist commented, “who’s your favorite author[?]” Whereas @jose._.morales took the opportunity to self-promote, commenting: “CHECK YOUR DMS I DREW A PICTURE OF YOU PLEASE.” That said, those unable to view Bear’s paintings in person (most everyone, presumably) will miss out. His canvases are rich with evidence of overpainting. Earlier compositions protrude beneath their surfaces, adding texture and a subcutaneous record of the artist’s process to his paintings.
Most of the paintings in the Corporate Solutions show were untitled abstractions rendered in monochromatic pastel colors: pleasing, straightforward arrangements of ovals and rectangles, with a spattering of recurrent, relatively amorphous motifs including wave patterns, checkerboards, and flowers. One series, titled “Against the Grain,” encompassed eight silkscreened collages on paper composed of various iterations of Bear’s signature forms. Amid the recognizable repertoire of abstract squiggles and flowers, one could easily discern a silhouette of a very flexible human figure (reminiscent of the superhero, Elongated Man); a four-legged animal; printed text of the word “HISTORY” in all capital letters; and a donald-duck-style illustration of a crow accompanied by the subtext, “NO JAZZ!” (Possibly a decontextualized reference to the intersecting histories of jazz and Jim Crow laws).
Tip-toeing my way through the teeming crowd at Corporate Solutions’ opening night, I was reminded of Andy Warhol’s Flowers (1964 and 1967), a series of silkscreen prints depicting four ebullient yet ghostly hibiscus flowers suspended against a ground of newsprint-photo quality grass blades. It was not Bear’s screen printed series, but a recurrent motif in his paintings – an elastic, petaloid shape – which reminded me of Warhol (who is credited with establishing screen printing as a fine art medium). Bear’s colors are less neon and more pastel than Warhol’s, but both artists’ flowers are opaque and flat, making them float above their almost monochrome backgrounds.
Comparisons have already been made between Bear and Keith Haring and Henri Matisse. Bear’s obsession with the flower motif signals a tendency shared by pop artists to plaster over the alienation, narcissism, elitism and violence of consumer culture with gaudy hues, pleasing melodies, and spurius affirmations that one is thriving, even when surrounded by a tempest. Or, as Bear puts it on the album Outer Peace (‘19): “Maximize all the pleasure/Even with all this weather/Nothing can make it better/Maximize all the pleasure” (“Ordinary Pleasure,” Toro y Moi).
Bear doesn’t produce many finished paintings; he thrives on iteration. The works displayed in Corporate Solutions were tries, attempts, or essays in the French sense of the word. A large part of the pleasure one takes in looking at them comes from discerning the pentimenti – the feints and improvisations, the fits and starts – which underlie their surfaces. There is one image-making technique which Bear used to produce the Untitled canvases 3, 5, 6, 8, 9 and 18 which I find endlessly absorbing. He first lays down a gradated wash that transitions from ochre and burnt orange to turquoise, lilac and cobalt, then paints an opaque stencil of a wave pattern or an amoeba-like figure over the wash, allowing the negative space of the stencil to frame the wash underneath. This compositional strategy has the effect of blurring the distinction between figure and ground, and it lends these paintings unanticipated depth.
Paintings don’t really “do” anything. People’s minds and bodies do things in response to paintings (hopefully). As the art critic Peter Schjeldahl pointed out in April, physical works of art are basically “inoperative without the physical presence of attentive viewers.” Many of the audience members at Corporate Solutions were buying things, satisfying an acquisitive impulse. Were they doing so in response to the paintings or in response to Bear’s celebrity status? I suspect the latter, especially after speaking with Bijan Berahimi, the gallery’s owner. Berahimi acknowledged that “FISK [Gallery] doesn’t sell that much art, really. Corporate Solutions is selling well because Chaz is Chaz.” Bear is by no means the first music celebrity to try their hand at painting. Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, David Bowie and many others painted with varying degrees of intensity and attained different levels of success as visual artists.
I’m not trying to suggest that every painter should boost their career by moonlighting as a pop musician or a graphic designer. However, Bear’s example suggests that diversifying one’s creative portfolio, curating one’s social media identity, and merchandising can work in an artist’s favor. A Marxist critic like Walter Benjamin might deplore the fact that Bear sells highly reproducible, “entry-level” merchandise like mugs and T-shirts alongside his paintings. Most consumers, however, have been desensitized to that sort of thing by the omnipresent museum gift shop, where museum-goers in every major city can buy umbrellas, fridge magnets and playing cards adorned by reproductions of masterpieces. Bear has at least reclaimed the surplus value generated by his own brand, if not the means of production. Hip consumers, for their part, seem to be shopping for more exclusive merchandise: the fine art world equivalent of a band tour T-shirt. Bear and FISK are merely capitalizing on consumer demand.
Like many contemporary musicians, Bear is keenly attentive to his relationship to the market. On the track, “New House” (Outer Peace), he expresses frustration with his own limitations as a consumer: “I want a brand-new house/Something I cannot buy/Something I can’t afford.” The Corporate Solutions logo is composed of two abstract forms: a turquoise squiggle shaped like an italicized letter N and a crimson dot which sits in the valley formed by the shoulder and arm of the N-shape. The logo recalls the graphic print which decorated those wax-treated “Jazz” cups, popular in the ‘90s. It could be pure abstraction with no figurative value whatsoever, but it bears a striking resemblance to a silhouette of a human torso. The figure’s head and shoulders appear to hunch forward, as one arm extends towards some alluring object as yet unprocured. Read figuratively, the logo suggests the very act of consumption. It could also represent a landscape, a lambent celestial body suspended over an undulating mountain range.
We often use beauty and entertainment as means of escapism. The durability of beautiful objects can be a comfort in a world in which any one source of happiness is fleeting. Entertainment absorbs one’s attention and stimulates one’s sensory palate. Hence the popularity of streaming platforms like Netflix and social media platforms like Instagram. Bear excels at using different media and technologies to create beauty and provide entertainment.
If you’re bored at home, check out the landing page for Company Studios’ Record Label. The page allows visitors to create their own art, Chaz Bear-style. Your cursor becomes a wide, house-painter’s brush. The page itself becomes your “canvas.” Two symmetrical vertical rectangles of opaque complementary colors occupy your browser window. When painting on one canvas, your “pigment” is the color of the other canvas and visa versa. The best part? Whenever you press your cursor down to “paint,” an ambient musical composition begins to play through your computer speakers. It’s magic. I don’t know when this was developed, but it seems like a timely antidote to the moratorium placed on public gatherings. It’s accessible from the privacy of a home computer, and it communicates the same spirit of delighted naīveté that Bear’s paintings do.
Toro y Moi’s ability to anticipate the caprices of his listening audience and tailor his sound accordingly is one aspect of his music which I deeply admire. (Bear even created an alter-ego, “Les Sins,” so that he could release experimental electronic dance music without “alienating” fans of Toro y Moi.) Over the course of his career, he has transitioned from chillwave to disco to pop to indie rock, and more recently, to house music, rap, R&B and “sad-trap,” where his technical facility as a producer shines. With Samantha (‘15), Outer Peace (‘19), and Soul Trash (‘19) Toro y Moi tapped into the sublimity inherent in the human voice’s endless malleability, inserting ad-libs and liberally applying autotune and other sensationally freakish vocal distortions to bewitching effect. His dexterity and willingness to experiment as a vocalist is all the more refreshing because of the tendency among popular musicians to codify their voices according to genre, rather than subjecting them to constant changes.
There are moments in Toro y Moi’s last two albums which are overwhelmingly beautiful. Bear hasn’t quite gotten there with his painting. But his efforts show that his creativity is not in decline. Far from it, he won’t allow his success in music to winnow out his enterprises in other media. The myriad components of the Corporate Solutions project are by turn amusing, sincere, ironic, and utterly Delphic. If you’re the sort of person who enjoys these kinds of postmodern stunts, you’ll find it endlessly entertaining.
This article was made possible with support from the Ford Family Foundation’s Visual Arts Program.