San Francisco Interviews

An Interview with James Chronister

San Francisco-based painter James Chronister will be the spring artist in residence at Lux Art Insitute in Encinitas, California where five residencies are awarded each year with the goal of connecting the artist with the community and supporting the artist through the completion of a project. This February, I began correspondence with Chronister to discuss his work and process, his Walkman playlist as a kid, and the best advice he has for emerging artists.

Robin Tung: I was awed when I first saw “Devonshire.” Why did you choose to paint in the likeness of photography? And what inspired you to take on pointillist painting, such a time and labor intensive technique?

James Chronister: For years I painted B grade photo realist paintings and was never satisfied with the result. At best they just kind of looked like photographs. The way the paintings are made now, each mark is a separate, one-time incident. It is very hard to go back if I mess up. This gives the painting a feeling of being hand made despite the fact that they are essentially mapped out beforehand by the source material. There’s something poetic in recreating images that already appear in the thousands through the lens of an oil painting.

"Dreaming of Me (Devonshire House)," oil on canvas, 2011, 60"x60" collection of Howard M Steiermann

RT: Your bio says that you “grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons and walking through the forest listening to cassettes on [your] Walkman.” What were you listening to?

JC: When I was a kid growing up in Montana, I used to walk around in the woods listening to my dad’s old cassette tapes. Zeppelin, Stones, The Doors and maybe a little Pink Floyd. Stoner rock. The Led Zeppelin movie The Song Remains the Same was very influential. Especially the scene where Jimmy Page is climbing up the mountain side to meet the Psychedelic Wizard. The music and the landscape had a relationship with one another and the paintings are looking for that connection.

RT: Were you exposed to art as a kid?

JC: My grandmother, on my mother’s side, was into art and had a lot of old art books which my mom inherited. Reproductions of Monet, Manet, Rembrandt, Millet, Van Gogh and Picasso were my first exposure to art. My earliest paintings were basically studies in cubism and copies of Van Gogh.  That’s what I thought modern art was.  The lone genius smoking a cigarette, sequestered in his studio.

I like artists from Santiago Sierra to Aaron Curry to Kaye Donachie. Tons of people are making interesting art, clearly too many to mention. But music is also very influential. The experience created by sound correlates closely with the mental space I want in my paintings, with a lot less need for jargon.

"Wildness," oil on canvas, 60"x60", 2009

RT: What is your process from the inception of an idea to the finished piece?

JC: I like to look through the collection of old books I have when taking a break from the actual painting. An image will strike me as interesting for whatever intuitive reason and I will think about it for up to a year.  I think about how large the canvas should be given the size of the source image, what color the scene “feels like,” whether or not it makes sense with other paintings, and even what the sides should look like. When a painting is next in the queue, I’ll begin by constructing the stretcher, stretching the canvas, gessoing and sanding, painting the surface and sides black, and bringing the whole surface back to a hued white.  The source material and canvas surface have a matching grid and then it’s ready to be painted on.

RT: How long does it take on average to complete a painting?

JC: Not including surface preparation (layers of gesso and oil paint), a 40″x40″ painting typically requires one month of full time work. I like the 9-5 schedule just like a job.

RT: What has your journey as an artist been like?

JC: I never thought I would be an artist when I was young. Something like a lawyer or doctor seemed like a better idea. I was planning on going to Law School but when it came time to study for the LSATs my brain was so far from this place I could no longer conceive of going on. So I took Drawing 101, was kind of good at it, switched my major (from sociology), and took a 5th year to complete my BFA. I then took a year off, worked at an ice cream store a block from my house in Missoula, applied to grad programs and got into California College of the Arts.

I moved to San Francisco, and was awarded an MFA in 2004. I spent the next five years trying to hang onto studios, working and generally surviving as an adult in California. In 2009 Eleanor Harwood gave me my first solo show at her gallery and to everyone’s surprise, it sold out.

Studio interior

RT: What’s your best advice to emerging artists?

JC: The main thing is to keep going after school. Matthew Higgs was around at CCA when I was getting my MFA and during studio visits he would always come back to “let’s see where you are in 5 years.” At the time I found it to be super annoying advice but in hindsight it’s absolutely true. Everything gets in your way when you get out of school, especially carving out time and space to keep making art. That’s the only silver bullet, to try to keep going. Eventually you’ll discover something interesting.

"Dreaming of Me (Hyde Park)", oil on canvas, 40"x40", 2012

RT: How did you connect with Lux Art Institute?

JC: Reesey Shaw (the Director of Lux Art Institute) first saw my work at the Scope Art Fair in New York City with the Eleanor Harwood Gallery (SF). Reesey and I made contact and we discussed the program with its focus on one artist at a time, his or her involvement with the community during the residency, the production of a work from start to finish during the residency and the accompanying survey exhibition of the artist’s work through the years. It sounded great to me! Reesey then flew up to SF to do a studio visit and view several paintings in the homes of collectors and the residency was confirmed.

RT: What will you work on during your residency? And where can we see you in 2013?

JC: At Lux I will be working on a painting of a Palace Interior. And a show at Eleanor Harwood Gallery in San Francisco whenever I can get the work together. Hopefully Lux leads to some other opportunities.

James Chronister will be in residency at Lux Art Institute from March 14 – April 13. His work will be on display there through May 18.