Monday, December 7, 2015

In Conversation: Celeste Chandler

Celeste Chandler is a painter. Her mesmerising images and uniquely shaped canvases question how people, particularly women, are represented in the history of European painting. Gallery & Curatorial Assistant Marion Piper recently chatted to Celeste about poker faces, shaving cream and her work in Town Hall Gallery's current exhibition, Likeness.

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CHANDLER, Celeste, I feel for you 2 (2014), oil on linen, 150 x 120 cm, courtesy of the artist and Heiser Gallery Brisbane.

[MARION PIPER]: Can you describe your artistic practice for us? (The themes and processes you engage in to generate your beautiful paintings)

[CELESTE CHANDLER]: My practice consists primarily of oil paintings on canvas depicting the human body and face. I begin by making staged photographs of my subjects - in recent years this has involved coating the head and face in fluid substances such as custard or shaving cream. Once I sort through, edit, adjust and crop the photographs I decide the scale and composition, working around how the viewer's body will correspond with the body or face in the painting.

Many years back I used to built up paintings in twenty of more layers but now I work up the images quite quickly, applying a layer of color and rubbing back with a rag to map out the forms and then building the picture with between 1 to perhaps five layers depending on the section of the image. I want the anatomy of the painting to be visible - the way it is made and the marks that coalesce into a face to break down when you look at the surface of the painting and then reform as you step back. I also want the viewer to feel a strong presence and physical relationship with the person depicted.

I am fascinated by how people, particularly women, have been painted through the history of European art and by the way that some paintings of people can can feel so present and generate intensely emotional connections while many other similar images do not. I guess its a fascination with how paintings work on an emotional level.

The paintings in 'Likeness' are the most recent in a series of works in which I have concealed, framed, distorted and accessorized female heads with shaving cream. I am exploring how to represent the threshold between our internal and external experiences, manifest in the surface of the face. In this way the face becomes a tactile verge or portal between the private and unverifiable world of thought and feelings and the external world of touch and of looking and being looked at. It is intended that these paintings are both serious and absurd; reflecting the way that our identity is a blending of nature and fabrication; concealed and revealed simultaneously.

[MP]: It’s really interesting to me when you talk about making the ‘anatomy of the painting visible’, that the very language you use is very bodily and compositional. In your works for Likeness, there is a very strong presence of this ‘structural revelation’, especially in terms of the balance between each face and the amount of shaving cream portrayed.

The simultaneous acts of revealing and concealing often manifest in our facial expressions, and it reminds me of phrases such as ‘poker face’. How did you go about describing the kind of ‘look’ you were after to each subject who sat for you? Was it an organic process or did you just let them play and experiment?

CHANDLER, Celeste, I feel for you 1 (2014), oil on linen, 150 x 120 cm, courtesy of the artist and Heiser Gallery Brisbane

[CC]: Yes, I think about the paint as skin and also the surface of the painting as a threshold, the way that skin is the threshold of a body. The painting itself becomes a kind of quasi person for me too, no longer the person represented but another entity. something that is both image and object. I have found that I personify the oval paintings much more then previous rectangular ones.

The way you have described the shaving cream as a 'structural revelation' is a really interesting way to describe how this masking and shaping, created by the shaving cream, operates. I think about it as both a construction and simultaneously an erasure and I've tried to convey this in the paint application by rendering the shaving cream by wiping away paint and, in some areas leaving the canvas bare.

I love the term 'poker face'! I'm actually fascinated by Buster Keaton and how he managed to capture an awareness of the absurd and funny and also a kind of tragic sensitivity by showing no overt facial expression at all.

I have a very clear idea of the expressions I want to paint - I want expressions that suggest embodiment, that suggest the person is absorbed in their thoughts or sensations whilst also looking out into the world. In this way I hope to capture something of the invisible threshold between our internal and external lives. Although the construction and theatricality in these paintings is somewhat self-conscious and artificial its really important that the person's expression is not.

Another thread that is beginning to emerge in my practice is the idea of the heroic image and this, historically, has been communicated by this kind of poker-faced outward gaze into the middle distance but also suggestive of internal reflection. I think it partly interests me becuase making heroic paintings seems such a dorky thing to do! somewhere you shouldn't go...

[MP]: Yes, you’re right, there’s something quite bold and daggy about the notion of ‘heroic painting’ - perhaps it has something to do with the abundance of the ‘hero’ figure in contemporary media? Placing a woman into the hero context is an interesting shift in the genre also. In your experience thus far, with your oval paintings, how do viewers tend to interact with them? Do they try to imitate the facial expressions, or do the paintings facilitate a moment of quiet reflection?

[CC]: Good question - to be honest I'm not quite sure yet. I think they create quite a strong parallel to the view's body and position but I don't yet have a sense of how people respond as, to date, they have mostly been exhibited in other states where I'm not as connected to the audience. In 'Likeness' I will finally have the opportunity to install the works as I really intended them to be viewed - as a collection of images that activate each other and bounce the gaze of the subject around between the paintings so I'm really exited to test how this works for viewers. I feel that the pictorial space in the oval canvases is different to a conventional rectangle and positions the person represented closer to the viewer somehow, like they have one foot in pictorial space and the other in actual space...have to wait and see though!

CHANDLER, Celeste, I feel for you 3 (2014), oil on linen, 150 x 120 cm, courtesy of the artist and Heiser Gallery Brisbane

[MP]: That is very exciting Celeste! We’re looking forward to seeing how our visitors engage with them too.
Let’s talk a little bit more about the shape of your paintings. The oval shape, to me, reflects both the shape of an antique mirror and the human face, but also, as you mentioned earlier, a porthole.
How did you come to use this shape in your work?

[CC]: I was making a group of works in 2011-2012 of my head coated in custard (as you do) on rectangular canvases with very saturated yellows and there was one image that just needed to be oval. It refused to work as a rectangle, it needed the symmetry and central focus. This combination of the image and the oval shape turned out to be really powerful so I have been exploring it further. The only problem is that the oval stretchers I use are stupidly expensive and really make what I'm doing pretty unviable at the moment. Then again I was never destined to be an economist.

[MP]: Haha I like your attitude. 
I’ll ask one last question - what’s coming up for you in 2016? Any exciting projects or exhibitions you can reveal? Also, if readers want to find out more about you, where can they go?

[MP]: 2016! Well there is a solo show in Melbourne at Nicholas Thompson Gallery later in the year and I'm writing a crazy proposal for a residency in London at the moment because I want to go and research historical cameos and oval miniature paintings and also to look at how contemporary artists are engaging art history to explore contemporary identity and the human image - but that's always a long shot. I think mainly it will be spent between my studio and my four year old daughter, with a little teaching in the mix. I'm looking forward to 2016!


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Likeness is on at Town Hall Gallery until Sunday 20 December, 2015.


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