Aside from the easy targets of Arizona’s political world — most notably the ever-bumbling “Joe and Jan Show,” which incidentally rated its own titular exhibition at R. Pela Contemporary Art two years ago — the quotidian splendors of Phoenix are grossly underutilized as a narrative device by talented contemporary artists, especially those who work in any capacity beyond the confines of the Grand Canyon State. However, the desert-inflected abstract realist paintings of Colin Chillag — as featured in his new show “Anti-Realism,” at the West Hollywood gallery 101/Exhibit — are nothing short of refreshing.
Chillag, 43, originally moved to Phoenix at the age of five, trained as a painter at the San Francisco Art Institute, and returned to the city about a decade after his Bay Area sojourn. What he calls his “pluralistic, genre mixing” work — some of which he did on the road, literally strapping watercolors to his console during a stint as a long-haul trucker — rated some critical attention, but the practice took on a new focus after Chillag took up meditation and began pursuing hyper-realism about eight years ago.
“For a variety of reasons, realism seemed like a pure way of observing things and depicting them and that’s all I wanted to do. I didn’t want to inject any opinion or personal expression,” Chillag said. “But in doing that I was confronted with some of the fundamental contradictions of representational painting, mainly that’s it’s all illusionistic, so you’re creating this wholly false expression that’s supposed to represent some version of the truth. It just seemed ridiculous to be doing this. When you finish the process, there’s what, another realist painting out there? But there were certain things about it as a tool for contemplation, focus and observation that I thought were really very beautiful.”
His plan to remedy those contradictions, he said, “was to be as honest as possible and expose the process.” The resulting works, which rated a recent solo show at Phoenix Art Museum and have earned spots at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, are more what you’d call process-based realism. Based on photos he sources or takes himself, his paintings now foreground the act of creation. The buildup of the paint in thick impasto accumulations, daily and monthly journal and calendar entries, receding fields of Pantone-like squares, notes about the work, paint-by-numbers grids, art world in-jokes, and pencil sketches all serve as layers of visually stimulating signifiers.
As such, the paintings offer multiple entry points — whether via the aforementioned devices, or simply crude digital and spray paint abstractions — that allow his multi-sensory tableaux to develop and redevelop in the eye much the same way events unfold across the screens of our increasingly digitized worlds. Think the mind of David Foster Wallace unspooling the 48th State across an iPad.
“It’s all marking time,” said Chillag, whose process owes something to the work of Chuck Close, Robert Bechtel, and Richard Estes with echoes of Julie Mehretu, Deb Sokolow, and Cy Twombly. Only in Chillag’s case, he’s deconstructing paintings of banal desert landscapes; his wife Jenna wandering the Arizona State Fair or snapping an iPhone selfie above the Grand Canyon; a photo by his friend Dave of a man in an assisted living home in the former Westward Ho hotel in downtown Phoenix (famous for marking the opening sequence of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”); or sometimes menacing captures of Circle K parking lots, one of his favored subjects. “Whatever the painting becomes or evolves into, it starts in a basis of pure observation, so I wanted to choose subjects from my daily life, and I see Circle K’s and the desert everyday,” Chillag said.
Though he says he doesn’t court loaded or controversial images, elements of his works sometimes take on the current debates of the art world, like his paint-splattered desert vista “Mojave Mid-Day” (above), which features, among other things, a calendar and the phrase “There is no: Oscar Murillo” hovering beside “FISH TACOS” in pink bubble letters. The latter references one of the Colombian artist’s paintings, an oil stick abstraction upon which the street food staple is scrawled. “I actually like some of his paintings, even though they’re highly derivative. But it’s sort of ridiculous someone that age is getting that much attention,” Chillag explained. “I truly have some sympathy for his situation, and I’d sort of hate to be in his shoes and be that young.” Lucky for Chillag, his practice seems destined for a long, steady cruise from the Arizona highways into great wide world beyond.
— Michael Slenske
(Photos: Colin Chillag at 101/Exhibit; Colin Chillag’s “Tourist at the Grand Canyon,” 2014; “Circle K Dusk,” 2014; “Mojave Mid-Day,” 2014–15; “Jenna Drinking,” 2013–14; “Circle K Dawn,” 2014; “Aversion and the Insubstantiality of Self (Ken Looking at Dave),” 2014–15; “Being Towards Others (Poolside Therese),” 2013–14; “Grand Canyon in Dappled Sunlight,” 2014–15; “Jenna Night with Decorative Border,” 2014–15; “Old Man with Blue Hat,” 2011–14; “Poolside Hoffburger,” 2013; “View of Red Mountain,” 2013–14; “Two Yellow Shapes with a Green Shape and a Blue Grid (Oleander),” 2014–15)