A lot can be said about the work of Phoenix-based contemporary artist Colin Chillag. One might be quick to label his art as hyperrealism, but his pluralist approach to painting blends techniques from across the art spectrum. While his almost-photo like portraits and depictions of the mundane qualities of everyday life are so beautifully authentic, Colin is much more fascinated with pushing the limits of his paintings as far as he possibly can.
Rather than being satisfied with a fully fleshed out painting, Colin would rather take his art to the brink of destruction, exposing the idea of realism with his half-finished work, child-like scribbles and hand-written notes all featured within his work.
I spoke with Colin as he gets ready for It Is Important To Be Nobody—his upcoming exhibit set to open May 11 at the Mesa Arts Center— where we talked about finding order in chaos, being fascinated by everyday life and knowing when to call it quits.
The way you incorporate all these different styles within a single painting is very unique. You work a lot with realism, but often mix that with graffiti elements. How did you come across this specific style in which you paint today?
Well, it’s always nice to hear that your work is unique in some way. Early on—even before I really understood why this was happening—I adopted this very pluralistic approach to painting. At one point, you might’ve found me painting an abstraction and then I could’ve been doing some early attempts at realism or cartoons and often found myself combining these different styles in a single painting. That more or less became my reason for being as a painter. I was just sort of mashing things together and then seeing what comes out of these different combinations. You start to discover these things in your work that really surprise you.
You seem to have this kind of tenuous relationship with hyperrealism, in that you almost go out of your way to show the falsehoods of it all—showing notes of your process on your work or leaving these beautiful paintings half finished. Why do you choose to kind of expose the realistic aspects of your work?
There was a time where I decided to dedicate myself to what I saw as this very pure form of realism. I’m usually not even that enamored with realism, but I do like this chore form of realism, that’s this very detailed way of viewing the world and depicting it. There’s this neutrality and purely objective aspect of that that really appeals to me. Today, it feels like I’m kind of back to a more pluralistic way of approaching painting, but in a way that’s a lot more pared down to just a couple of very contrasting ways of working. Now there are a lot of child-like scribbles on top of my portraits, which I like to think is almost the polar opposite to the hyperrealism style.
You’ve spoken about your love of artists like Alice Neel and Van Gogh, artists whose work you can kind of see a certain struggle and process in the work they make. What about the “struggle” of painting is so fascinating to you?
Well, that process and struggle just felt unavoidable to me. By nature, I’m not really satisfied with my own work until it goes through some sort of struggle that’s been resolved. When I look at my work, that’s what I see and that determines whether I like the work or not, ‘cause I have a sense of the process and it’s almost like the struggle I went through to get a certain result in my work. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about order and chaos. I can do a good painting any time I want, really. But, I’m constantly inserting some sort of chaotic element into my work to give it this challenging aspect that creates a problem, which I then have to find a way to resolve. I don’t want to make art sound like a war story, but it could be quite painful when I bear over these paintings from time to time. But when I look back and I realize I didn’t give up and tried to work through it, those are the paintings that I tend to like the most. And I see that in a lot of other artists’ work. You see when artists have that work and then they enter into periods after they arrive at some success and they just want things to be easier and there’s a demand for their work. That element of getting your way through a painting seems to vanish from the work and it starts to become a bit safer, I guess.
One of the things that’s drawn me to your work is the way you have these beautiful paintings that—in a way—almost look unfinished or as if you came *this close* to purposefully ruining, but it all somehow works. Have you ever taken the destructive part of your process to far and accidentally ruined a painting?
Yeah, I’ve taken it a little too far a number of times and ended up with something I put a couple weeks’ worth of work into and it becomes unsellable. Generally, I push those boundaries and usually know when to stop. It’s not completely reckless. It’s chaotic and risky in a way, but it’s also very controlled. But, I like a certain back and forth with my work. That process works best when it’s at the beginning of a painting, so it’s not just like you have this rendering that you throw some spray paint over and call it done. There has to be a kind of back and forth between those different ways of working and a layering in that regard.
How do you know when to hold back and understand when a painting is finished?
That’s the notoriously difficult thing a lot of artists will talk about—when to call a painting done—and, really, who knows? It’s a little simplistic, but I sometimes think there’s a graph where the painting starts off getting better and better. Then you hit a certain point—and this is usually psychological or subjective—where it starts to get worse and worse. One approach is to stop at that apex, where it’s as good as it can possibly get, however difficult that might be to realize. Another approach is to get it up there and let it get worse and worse and maybe get so bad that you could only make it better again. So, you might have multiple spikes on this graph, which might be more like my approach.
I’ve been really interested lately in a lot of these artists like yourself and Jake Longstreth who choose of paint these pretty mundane, everyday images and somehow find beauty in them. What it is it about a gas station or scrap book photo that piques your interest?
It’s a really good question, and a hard one to answer in many ways. But, that’s just what’s real to me. The conceptual basis for the realism I like is that everyday life—even for an ordinary person, if you’ve paid attention to it—is absolutely fascinating. An ordinary person’s life is absolutely meaningful if you look closely at it. So, I always looked at these paintings and that subject matter as a process of doing that. I don’t need to make things fantastic or overly dramatic in order for them to be interesting. For a lot of people, that’s what they want, and that’s something I’ve had to accept. These aren’t going to be these surreal, fantastic images. It’s kind of like the difference between meditation and psychedelic drugs. You can have similar realizations through both of those processes—this kind of interconnectedness with the world and this breakdown of the autonomous nature of the self. But, one is way more dramatic, while life, in actuality, is filled with these mundane things. And, for me, that’s what I prefer. There’s something that makes me uneasy about always pursuing these peak, dramatic types of experiences, whether it’s in art or life. Life is already dramatic enough on its own and it’s certainly tragic enough that I don’t really need to embellish it all that much.
It seems like while most people would visit the Grand Canyon, they’d think about trying to capture the majesty of that. But you, on the other hand, would rather paint an image of a frumpy tourist
Maybe it’s just ‘cause I’m not a great photographer that I tend to focus more on these everyday shots. Like, with the Grand Canyon stuff, every time I try to take a picture of something that’s that dramatic and beautiful, it just pales in comparison to the actual thing. You do get a bit of that with the type of photos I draw inspiration from. Certainly, people are a fascinating subject matter in all sorts of ways. But, then again, you do also get that contextual thing as well. You have people who are contrasted against this dramatic backdrop, and then you have people you pass in a Walmart and not even notice them. I guess that sort of a contrast was appealing to me in a way. That’s the thing—you get the contrast between the mundane, everyday people against this magnificent backdrop. I guess it was that kind of contrast that attracted me and that’s why I focus as much on the people as I do the landscapes.
While your work does have elements of very traditional painting styles, your use of sort of lowbrow humor might be a deterrent for the more high-brow sections of the art world. What are your views of the more traditional white wall galleries?
I always felt a little bit outside of the so-called proper art world. As traditional as it is, I always want to work with a good gallery, ‘cause that’s still what fits best for my work. I never really had a good alternative to the traditional artist gallery or those kinds of relationships. I’m not good at selling my work and also, it takes so long, that you need people to help cultivate a base of clients who can afford things. However, the art world is a big, complex place where I find myself regularly disgusted by what I see. A lot of it has a lot to do with the combination of politics and the commercial aspect of it all. You have these leftist politics combined with this super elite kind of luxury industry and that combination is just rife with contradictions. So, that’s the part of it that’s really off-putting about all of it. And, again, I don’t really have much of a choice ‘cause the paintings are so much work. What do you do when you’ve spent two months working on a painting other than working with a gallery and that sort of thing?
Well, I found your work through Instagram, like I’m sure many others have. If the gallery world is that way, how do you think the use of Instagram has helped broaden your commercial appeal?
For me, it’s been a really good thing in terms of exposure. People can find the work on their own and get introduced to it in their own ways. It’s always great when you don’t have to rely on galleries and publications to get your work out there. You can do a great bit of promoting by yourself and reach a pretty big audience. But, it doesn’t lead to as many benefits as people might think. You might make a sale here or there, but in the art world, people generally like working with people they already have relationships with. I’m not exactly “in” in the eyes of the art world. We keep talking about the art world like it’s a monolith, but I suppose there are many different art worlds. So, that’s what’s good about Instagram—it gives you this new outlet that gives you access to more eyeballs.
Before we finish, There were just a couple specific pieces I’d like to ask about—the first being the series of Dale Irby paintings based on the teacher who wore the same clothes for like 40 years of school picture days. Why’d you want to create a whole series revolving around this one concept?
He literally just wore the same dorky outfit for like 40 years. So that was just a funny idea. I came across this and was struck by the whole concept of it all—and this concept was a pretty conscious thing he was doing. But in an interesting way, it’s kind of related to what we were talking about earlier—how the mundane aspects of life can be very interesting in a variety of ways. So, in a way, Dale Irby was almost the personification of that idea. And while I painted it, I started playing around wondering what this guy was like and the psychology of it all. But, really, what I gleaned about him was just that he had a nice sense of humor and was able to poke fun at himself, which is something I really admired.
The other painting I want to talk about is my favorite painting of yours that first introduced me to your work—the one that says “Fuck You Dave.” I find that to be so funny. What is the meaning behind this one?
The official title of that portrait is actually “A Portrait of Ken Looking at Dave.” So, the guy depicted in the portrait—I kind of thought he looked like he was stuck in some sort of resentful thought or looking at someone with extreme contempt. And there was just something about the face that struck me that way, like here’s someone with an inner-dialogue going on with this real stinging resentment. So, I just transferred some private thoughts I figured he might be having while looking at my friend Dave. Mostly, I was just fucking with my friend Dave. He’s just staring at Dave with complete contempt, to the point where his thoughts actually appear on the canvas.