Time and Again: by Peter Clothier
Step into Gregg Chadwick’s studio and the first thing that engages your attention—aside, of course, from the multitude of paintings stacked up everywhere—is the books. All kinds of them. Books about art and art history, as you might well expect; but also philosophy, psychology, politics and social science, mythology, travel, novels, poetry… And don’t think they are ranged in neat shelves, as one senses sometimes, more for the display than for the reading.
You get the feeling that these shelves are plundered, regularly, with real intellectual curiosity and a hunger for what their contents can provide by way of food to satisfy it.
Look now at the paintings, though, and you’ll soon see that this artist who loves books is not a literary painter, but rather a literate one. The results of his reading are processed through the work of the arm and the wrist, the hand and heart. The slow, deliberate digestion of ideas, and their maturation, is not merely a prelude but an essential part of his painting process. As the work progresses in the studio, each choice, each image, each gesture is informed with meanings, all of them so deeply interwoven as to be indistinguishable as single threads. If we want to “read” Chadwick’s paintings, then, we must read them not as prose, for what they have to say in linear fashion; but rather as poems, for how they put this harmony to work to make their particular music. Meanings become manifest through our simultaneous perception of luminosity, viscosity, rhythmic structures, the effects of brushwork and associative patterns—the entire process of the work’s creation.
The artfully titled “New York Minute” offers a fine example of these complex interrelationships. Prominently, front and center, the heroic, mythical figure of Christ/Atlas supports a “globe” in which the measure of time is chronos—the sequential time that regulates and governs the rational aspect of our lives; elsewhere, throughout the painting, it’s kairos, lived time, indefinite, the way we experience it through its interstices, in odd, often disconnected fragments, diffracted by the emotional lens of our desires and fears. Here, the background image of the city, “reality” itself, is evanescent, disappearing behind the cloud of steam that flows out from the subway vent. The human figures—some of them hidden between multiple layers of paint—are isolated in what Chadwick refers to in the title of his exhibition as “Time Between”: they are caught in motion, shifting uneasily in that slippery gap between past and future. The figure in the number 13 baseball shirt (the reference is to Alex Rodriguez, a “crucified” hero of the baseball world) glides away from us, his lower half a blur of blue jeans, toward the (seemingly) younger figure—male? female?—in shorts and tank top, footless, handless, lost in contemplation. In the right foreground, two figures in business suits, one black, one white, would seem about to head out of the painting in the direction of some unknowable destination.
Is the painting “about” time? About the alienation of city life? About the loss of heroes and spiritual guides? About the crucifixion of Christ, its significance as a recurrent theme in the history of art; or in a contemporary world that no longer respects or needs its deities? About the values preached by Christianity—but more rarely practiced? Is it about the way we perceive our environment? The way we pollute it? About the social context, the racial barriers that persist in our society? It is, of course, about all these things—and none of them. It is, rather, an invitation for the eye and mind, a field of form and color in which—since it is a literate painting—we can find much to respond to in this way, to think and talk about, and mull over. It is an extraordinarily rich tapestry of ideas, associations, feelings, all of which can engage the mind in a continuous, creative back-and-forth.
But because the painting is eventually irreducible—it is, what it is, no more, no less—such analysis is bound finally to come up against its limitations. Our most complete and satisfying understanding of our encounter is a visceral one. We stand in front of the painting and allow it to enter into us, perhaps even to ravish us, not only with its peculiar beauty but with its wholeness. What we “get,” if we pay attention, is the entire process of its making, from the earliest layers of paint to the final, translucent touches. The eye/mind is kept in constant motion, exploring the layers of paint as, themselves, metaphors for and evidence of layered time. The predominant movement of the broad brush strokes, we notice, is up-and-down or side-to-side, with emphasis on the horizontal sweep that leaves in its wake the blur of never-quite-arrested motion.
From between these layers, too, bursts here and there in every one of Chadwick’s paintings that display of spectacular luminosity, evocative of a powerful life force or energy source beyond our normal physical experience. Call it, for lack of a better word, “spiritual”—and if I qualify that word, it’s because it has been so much debased by overuse as to risk becoming meaningless. In Chadwick’s paintings, though, these glowing passages of intense, if nebulous light are often counterpointed by his sparing use of an ethereal lapis blue, calling to mind the transcendent effects of that color in the great religious paintings of Renaissance Italy. In today’s post-religious world, the juxtaposition proposes an uplifting threshold between the human mind and the awesome mysteries of a universe that continues to tease and baffle our rational explanations; a path for us to follow into the unknown.
Much of the appeal of Chadwick’s paintings, then, lies in their invitation to identify with the predicament of the human figures they represent. We share in their vulnerability, their uncertainty, their ambiguity. We are the woman in “I Canti,” the woman as three women, each stepping away from the other in different directions; or “The Poet of Milan,” moving at once forward and away, into and out of himself. We are the smoking woman at the “Rancho Motel,” haunted by the shadow of… what? A partner? A former lover? An imagined threat? Who knows? What we do know at heart—and in our most honest moments—is that what we humans cling to in our pursuit of security and reassurance is at best provisional, ephemeral, insubstantial. What Chadwick paints for us is a disturbing, but somehow profoundly comforting vision of ourselves. The comfort part, I would suggest, lies in our recognition of its truth.
Peter Clothier is the author, most recently, of Slow Looking: The Art of Looking at Art. He writes a daily blog, The Buddha Diaries.