High Contrast: The Charcoal Works of Gordon D. Chase
September 15 – December 31, 2020
Interview with artist Gordon D. Chase on the occasion of his virtual exhibition at Lamont Gallery — a preview of his in-person exhibition upcoming in the Fall of 2021:
We asked a series of questions of the artist regarding his work in the virtual exhibition High Contrast. It should be noted that this exhibition and its ‘umbrella’ title will cover a total of three segments of Chase’s work: the first will feature several of his highly finished charcoal drawings in a tightly focused exhibition. The second installment, in October, will feature more charcoal work, including a triptych dealing with the atomic bombing of Japan during World War II on the occasion of its 75th anniversary, and will also introduce related works in other mediums. The third segment, in November, will delve into the artist’s personal journey featuring a variety of different works, mediums, and time periods.
As the artist elaborates, “The ‘high contrast’ of the title is both literal and figurative. The subjects and moments captured are psychological. They are meant to alarm, provoke, and to arrest the eye. Each poses a question and asks the viewer to answer that question.”
The second stage (October 2020) presents drawings and sculptural installations that center on the nature of violent human behavior. These pieces ask, ‘Why do we do the destructive things that we do?’ These examples of art with a social conscience dare the viewer to see her or his role as both witness and potential messenger. To see injustice or injury at any scale is to challenge the viewer to do something.
The third stage (November 2020) presents art experiments done in the early years of my life. They represent how my artistic conscience grew and developed in response to growing up and in response to the volatile social issues of the late 1960’s. This is a personal creation story about emerging from a metaphoric shell and starting to recognize what it means to be different in our society.
– Wes LaFountain, Guest Curator
Q: What have been the influences on your work?
A: In my childhood years living in small town New England meant playing in places that were called “Paradise, Bushyfield, and the Bog.” I was free to play outdoors with friends, to climb through barbed wire fences, jump from haylofts in old barns, and to play hockey outdoors on the frozen ice of Spruce Swamp. There was no supervision, no schedule, no achievement goals to be met other than to jump a brook and to not fall in. Although there were Army helicopters chopping through the air training in the early years of the Vietnam War, our self-organized football games on the town common were the focus. As far as cultural exposure goes movies like “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” with a great sea monster or “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” with a W.W. II steam train crashing off a burning bridge made an early impression.
Parents’ influence can be invisible. My mother showed me the view out of every window in our house when I was maybe 1 years old before a daily childhood nap My geometric paintings and graphic sense probably comes from seeing this “grid.” This was reinforced by my love of doing “paint-by-numbers” paintings that were more interesting than coloring books with their designated areas.
Very specific moments influenced me. My father took me at age 4 to a giant dam holding back the Wachuset Reservoir. We went into a stone building at the base of the dam where a man opened up a massive trap door to reveal a torrent of dark terrible water rushing down. This has stayed with me.
When I went away at 13 to live at Phillips Exeter, I fully intended to concentrate in science, not Art. My love for science perished as stern, male professors terrified me, too young and too sheltered to take what felt like emotional boot camp to me. I thought that I was smart but I failed early and often and this influenced me. It felt traumatic, certainly nothing like being a refugee of war or poverty, but the shell of my sheltered childhood was exploded. I escaped to Art where I found that I could make my own rules. Conformity did not suit me at all. In making art I learned from my own experiments. Early influences were the cubists – artists like Picasso, Leger, Klee, and Chagall. I was not born to be a photo-realist and have never tried very hard to be one. I taught myself photography. I have come to believe that in art that what really sticks is what takes you by surprise and what you go out of your own way to learn to do.
My life experiences have been the influences on my art – especially the tough time I had surviving an amazingly competitive, all-male, seemingly amoral experience of boarding school. To this day it amazes me even as someone who taught for 40 years how much “school” ignores the “real world” in terms of exposure to the issues that still define us – racism, sexism, social inequity, and so many variations on being the “Other.” I woke up listening to the songs of Bob Dylan about racism. I woke up in encounters with stern male teachers who disapproved of my rebellious long hair and creative clothes. I was a stubborn adolescent who would not conform to the mold. In making art I made myself. My college years were radically influenced by the major cultural upheavals of the 1960’s in America. These included the Civil Right movement, the Women’s and Gay Rights Movement, and the growing nationwide protests against the Vietnam War as unjust and immoral. The social mores of a generation shifted dramatically away from organized religion, segregated schools, conservative politics, and oppressive gender roles. I realized how much my brilliant philosopher mother had been forced into the role of a stay at home 1950’s housewife. So, a generation was shaped by colorful protests in the streets, images of racialized violence against people of color, and increasingly terrifying stories of villages being napalmed in Vietnam. So, it was many moments like these that shaped my art more than any art that I may have seen or studied. I did have college teachers at Yale who inspired me, and one who just got in the way even as I was admitted with rare advanced placement.
Q: How would you characterize your creative process?
A: As a teacher I have often asked “Where do artists get their creative ideas?” I have come to believe that each of us may be born with our ideas. Perhaps each of us succeeds or fails at expressing these over a lifetime. As a parent over time this is analogous to realizing that parents do not raise their children, that they are who they are and come into life with their personalities. They can be helped or screwed up but on their own will grow into who they are meant to be, becoming as my mother put it “more so” over time. So creative ideas may be like children that get carried into a lifetime rather than composed on a tabula rasa. (Sorry teachers!) I am not very religious but think that an artist may channel the spirit or vision of others that may have its origin not just in the immediate experiences of this world but from a collective unconscious stream, carried aloft in a Jungian sense into our conscious existence. With this said the barrage of experiences of any one person’s life can wreak havoc or power the wings of a young spirit.
For me Art is about Identity. It is a process that starts with “Who am I?” proceeds to “Who are you?” then moves to “Who are we?” So, for my students as for myself I think that the creative process can be deliberate and not just accidental. It requires looking in the mirror, a metaphoric mirror, and expressing what one sees there. Ultimately it requires what the psychologist Carl Jung meant in coining the term “persona” as showing the fusion of how you see yourself with how others see you. So, for any young artist as it was for me and still is, Art comes to life when it reflects my life experience, a fusion of what lives within and what lives without.
Some artists fall in love with just one way of making art. They paint or sculpt or photograph. Is this like rolling down a hill when you can’t stop or being caught up in a wind? I have tried everything and can’t imagine making art in only one way. As I have said one’s ideas come through no matter what the medium. There are two strong “through lines” or visual themes in my work over a lifetime – one organic and psychological, the other graphic and conceptual. Wherever I go I see or sense potential “ideas” – in broken trees I see in the woods, in Black Lives Matter protests on TV, in a stormy raging surf on the sea. Ideas are everywhere. As a teacher I have preached that “Creative thinking is one of the basics. Without it nothing can be done well.” I believe that this is a process that may be taught and learned, that anyone can learn how to come up with creative ideas, by using the ability to visualize, to imagine, to think laterally, to engage in “disruptive innovation” and not just in art but anywhere.
When it comes to my own artistic practice in drawing, using charcoal for example as I did for the pieces in this High Contrast show, one of my preferred techniques is what I call “intentional surrealism” – the way in which one thing turns into another. Yes, I can make a mark on paper that can do many things. A line can be a violent cut or a caressing stroke. It can be a defining edge or a blur of motion. For me what is most powerful and wonderful in making a given mark is to shift from something very rough to something concise, even surgical in its precision. This “marriage of gesture and design” is what enchants but also challenges me the most. I want the electricity that comes with the high contrast of black and white. I want it in two forms, fixed, precise, and immutable, but also moving, raging, chaotic. Order and chaos define a spectrum. Drawing in charcoal lets me range across this spectrum.
To answer the question of “How do you keep things so neat?” I use tracing paper to protect what I have done, often work on a drawing upside down, and wash my hands frequently (and not just to fend off COVID-19). I blend areas with my fingers or an eraser. I practice gestural sweeps “off-stage.” I try to balance chance and control. I always have a light pencil outline to guide my permanent charcoal lines. I usually have a plan for the whole drawing but this can change halfway through. Most artists know that a drawing begins to tell you what to do which is akin to what I said about how children grow up and reveal themselves.
Q: What inspires your choice of titles for your Art?
A: Coming up with titles for art pieces is so much fun! It is too bad that each piece usually has just one. For me a title is best invented or conjured after a piece is done when the critics have it easy while the artist may have been wondering all along what the piece was about, perhaps sensing but not really knowing in advance. The rational analysis comes after the emotional, physical, and visual process. I know right from the start that the thunderous crash of a great, ancient tree is meant to express the trauma of a life lost or a society torn asunder by violence, age, or unseen forces. No matter how the drawing goes, the challenge remains how this one element works in context, one that I also create as a stage-set for my protagonist or other characters. When I am done it is a metaphoric truth I hope to capture and reinforce with a title. This may require a conceptual leap or connection. So, in my nuclear triptych I created an image of white forms soaring upwards from a scene of destruction. It could just be smoke but by using a title like “Escaping Souls” the title reinforces the point without being just literal or descriptive. As with any artist talking about her or his work, please tell us something we don’t know. Titles can do this.
Again using “intentional surrealism” is useful in creating titles. One version is what Lewis Carroll called creating a “porte-manteau” combination of two words as in the nonsense poem Jabberwocky. In the line “Twas brillig in the slithy toves…” two words get fused into one. A title can do that too by linking two seemingly unrelated thoughts or words making a lateral connection as in “an engine of despair” or “a storm of negativity.” Most surrealistic works of art fuse two things that do not normally go together. The roots of a tree become the claws of eagles. Someone’s hair turns into cloudy weather, etc. In brief a title can do what most new ideas do which is to connect two things for the first time.
Q: What role does “place” have in creating my art?
A:I have explained how my creative process is a direct reflection of my life experiences. So much of what I have done and still love to do comes directly from the places in which I have lived, played, endured, or thrived. In the year 2020, one in which so many are reckoning not only with the COVID-19 Pandemic but with the pressing social issues of race and gender and difference, I feel obligated to state that I have lived a life with a lot of privilege. I am white, male, older, educated, financially secure, and healthy. I have never experienced war, poverty, food insecurity, or religious persecution. I had a so-called “sheltered childhood” and did not grow up thinking that I had a “race.” I was taught to work hard, to try hard, and to be a good person but my assumptions were never really tested until I went away to Exeter and then to college at Yale. Even then I was not confronted with the extremes of discrimination and deprivation. So “place “can be a physical environment but it is also society itself and where any one of us gets to begin to do anything.
With that said there are places that I truly love and that inspire me every day. These include the ocean and the woods. I do not belong in a city although I am glad that these largest of marketplaces allow for civilization to be achieved and shared. As a child I got to spend time at a beach in Maine. I did not swim in that freezing water but the life of the sea made me feel alive. Later I created installations on the beach and to this day love to help kids create seaweed mazes or drip castles. Halfway through my adult life my family built a cottage in ancestral Nova Scotia where the sea rages on one day and then becomes “flat cam” the next. This place inspires me. I create trails in the woods. We stand on top of the cliffs. The stars are amazing at night. We kayak at sunset.
Almost every day in my retirement I get to hike in a great tract of New England land set aside by my family for permanent conservation. I maintain these trails and fields that were once farmed by my great grandparents. I have come to think of trees as “people” who grow and then die enduring the forces of seasons and climate change. Being in the woods makes it easier to feel and to think. This is another place that inspires and sustains me.
What was Exeter like as a place for me? I once described this as being hit by a ton of bricks! In the 1960’s Exeter was very large, very male, impersonal, fast-moving, incredibly competitive, and unforgiving. Winning was everything. This made you a “superior being.” Nothing less would do. If you were not a winner than you were a loser. There was nothing in between. Looking back, I never had the sense that Exeter cared about whether you were kind or good or generous. The line in the school song about “Exeter fair, oh mother stern yet tender” did not ring true at all. It might have been “Exeter unfair, oh father stern and unrelenting.” Students were hazed. One of the few students who I assume was gay but “in the closet” went home and hanged himself. There is no way he could have been openly gay. As a “prep” or first year student I had fist fights with my roommate off and on all year. This just seemed to be the natural order of things. There was nary a counselor to be found. The school had so few students of color although one of the few was appreciated for his talent and wins as a wrestler. It was supposedly true that girls and women existed but not at Exeter – only in the coeducational “real world.” As I rebelled in what seem now to be such inconsequential ways like having long hair I am amazed to recall one teacher telling me “you look like a girl” as he handed me money to get a haircut and later another teacher who would not let me play varsity hockey with my longish hair telling me that “no college would admit me looking as I did.” Thus, I began to appreciate what it means to feel or to be different. Even as America was exploding with the Civil Rights movement, cultural shifts, and disturbing protests in the streets, Exeter kept the controlling lid on for a long time.
Q: What subjects do you address as an artist and why?
A:If there is a strong central theme in all of my art it is what I choose to call “art with a social conscience.” This also informed my high school teaching first at Groton School and then at Milton Academy where I served as Visual Arts Chair for over 25 years. I have always been attracted to crises, sudden events, and moments of interaction where the outcome is unknown and who knows what may happen next! These often involve “bystander mentality” –a term used by Facing History and Ourselves (with whom I have worked) that is about what any witness to an event does or does not do when you see something happen or go wrong. Someone you know says something racist. Your school refuses to allow a protest of some kind. Someone starts a war, etc. What if anything do you do in response? This is where my art with a social conscience begins. For me content starts with an issue of some kind. Something unfair has occurred or it is still happening. Is there a way to capture the truth of this moment in metaphoric terms? If someone is being treated badly then a physical image of something actually breaking can be used. This is more “intentional surrealism” in transcending the most literal view of what has happened. About ten years ago I decided to return to the issue of the threat of nuclear war, alarmed by new signs of danger in certain parts of the world. I created a nuclear triptych of three images in the 1980’s as millions lobbied to end the Arms Race between the US. and the Soviet Union. Then as now various groups fought hard to limit nuclear weapons. About five years ago I met Dr. Ira Helfand, Exeter Class of 1967, who with IPPNW and PSR (two groups of physicians) has won the Nobel Peace Prize twice. I signed up as an art volunteer to help promote these groups’ continued concerns with climate change and nuclear war. I created a body of work that I titled “The Insanity of Violence” that I have installed at several schools to call attention to our dangerous actions and choices. This is more art with a social conscience.
Q: Choose a piece and describe it in depth.
A: One of my more recent drawings is titled “Kill the Messenger.” It is intended as a cautionary tale about real versus fake news, about the assumptions that we make, and about how willing are any of us to face difficult truths. This is both an ancient as well as a modern phenomenon. The difference today is how quickly an actual event gets reported or how quickly a conspiracy theory goes viral given social media. So in this piece a group of primitive, armed figures confront one of their own with spears drawn and intense hostility. Don’t come any closer or you may die! It does not matter who the figures are. They could be green or blue, ancient or futuristic, basic citizens or leaders of society. It is clear after a little study what the message is – that something overwhelming and dangerous is coming like a tidal wave. The messenger is desperate for his people to respond and to accept his message. But they will not accept it and their denial may prove fatal. This is Dr. Fauci reporting on COVID-19.
Q: What do you mean by “art with a social conscience”? A: Art has power. Students who make art have power. It may be a lot more than they may realize. Communicating with images can be as compelling and persuasive as a writer does with words, if not more so especially in a troubled world in which people are so impatient for answers. To show it is to shout it out! The messaging goes both ways as a work of art invites the viewer in and also reaches out to say “Feel or think about this! Or have you thought about this?” Art serves many purposes that are valuable and that do not need to agree. Celebrating beauty is a worthy goal as is capturing a personality. The act of making art is therapeutic and cathartic for many whether anything results in the end. A higher goal may be to create art that challenges the viewer to think about an issue that affects us all. How do we feel about racism that never seems to end? How do we feel about patriarchy that plays out in many ways every day favoring men? How do we feel about the “other”? These might be immigrants, transgender people, victims of domestic violence? Art is a powerful tool to ask and sometimes to answer these questions!
Q: What are your art ideas and aspirations for the future?
A: As of Fall 2020 we are in the midst of a global pandemic. If ever there was something that was unfair to everyone then it is the Pandemic. In this instance we have all become the “other.” This does not count the many advantages and situations that some possess that may assure their survival while others are so much more at risk due to poverty, lack of access to healthcare, even the basics of life – food and shelter. That something like one in six children in America don’t have enough to eat is shameful. But responding to the pandemic with art even as galleries and theaters are closed down is still worth doing. We share virtual space and can protest in the actual “street.” How can anyone not see the many underlying social inequities – structural racism and even overt acts of police brutality, income inequality and people dying who can’t afford health care, climate change and head-in-the sand policy decisions that will only make matters worse? Issues are real. Trouble is real. It is personal and shared Someone needs to talk about it. Art is a great way to do just that!
My art objectives for the future are to make more images that call attention to the dangers of both climate change and nuclear weapons. I want to continue to call attention to our own behavior and to call on everyone to be brave open-eyed witnesses and truthful messengers. I figure that if you need help then you ought to get help. If you can help someone else then you should offer to do so. Art has the power to send messages and to tell the stories that we need to hear. This is a way to help.
For students who are looking for ways to get more involved in issues of social change there are many groups that are active and will become more so as the Pandemic eases. The 2020 Presidential election looms large, one that will make a dramatic difference in how we move forward in addressing just about every issue. For climate change activism two groups have become quite active – the Sunrise Movement and XR or “Extinction Rebellion.” The latter stages very creative and theatrical protests in streets around the world, especially in the UK and the US.
While so many ways of living and working are now on hold due to the Pandemic, I would like to encourage students to think ahead. What do you want to do with your life? Do you want to “make meaning” or do you want to “make money”? Sometimes the two can go together. I like to say to students that they can be good at more than one thing in life. You can commit to making art or design. This does not preclude becoming a Crispr scientist or entrepreneur. I firmly believe that creative thinking takes practice. It is no different than getting in shape to play a sport. Making art is a great way to practice using your imagination. The ability to see and to make connections between disparate realities, to think laterally, is the key to new ideas and to innovation. Look to the right. Look to the left, and not just straight ahead!
— Special thanks to Jennifer Benn for shaping the questions for this interview.