“I work in a subterranean nightmare full of cinder block walls, dirty cement floors, and harsher than harsh florescent lighting – but it’s comfortable (if you find just the right spot), roomy, and mercifully isolated. It’s the kind of place where if there’s a surface then there’s something on it (several layers deep, perhaps), and along with it the trace evidence that a spider once conducted an expedition there.
Right now keeping me company at my computer is a prized, autographed Angela Lansbury 8×10 – circa the Murder She Wrote era. Also surrounding me are various objects and images I intend to use in my work at some point. There’s a pencil sketch nearby (seen on the far left corner of my desk) by one of my favorite artists, Pierre Bonnard; that’s something I won’t be using in my work, but instead something that provides a lot of creative inspiration.”
Born in 1983 in Illinois, Chad Wys is a multi-media visual artist and writer. Chad appropriates motifs from art history as well as images and objects from popular culture. He subverts and recontextualizes their cultural meaning through aesthetic experimentation and manipulation via a host of traditional and non-traditional media, juxtaposing conflicting sentiments and styles in order to invoke critical thinking in the viewer. Color, form, unity, identity, and semiotics are constant investigations.
FROM YOUR DESKS: How do you work?
CHAD WYS: When I’m focused I hate to disrupt whatever is happening by hunting for a particular instrument or a particular color. I prefer to have everything close by. I don’t normally plot every aesthetic choice as I work, so I frantically grab paint, glue, pencils, brushes, glitter, etc. I’ll usually have a loose idea of what I want to accomplish, but there are always a few variables at play when I work. It helps to have most of my supplies as I aimlessly reach for something to use next. It’s all very chaotic and inhospitable.
FYD: What is your favorite sentimental object at your workspace and why?
CW: I’m most sentimental about the art I’ve collected. Normally they would be hanging in my bedroom, but I’ve got two of my most beloved drawings propped up on my subterranean work desk at the moment. I live in rural Illinois and we had a tornado warning recently, so I grabbed my two favorite drawings (one by Camille Pissarro and one by Pierre Bonnard) and kept them below ground for safe keeping ever since. They are less likely to end up down the street in a bird’s nest.
What matters most to someone like me is what the viewer takes away.
FYD: What is your favorite or most required work tool?
CW: I’ve got a couple paint brushes that I’m particularly fond of – cheap little things that you’d get in a pack of 30 other brushes for $5. They’re falling apart and the bristles are balding, but they’re still favorites. My hands are familiar with them. The tool I adore most is certainly my computer. I’m naked without it and I think I’ve done some of my best work with a keyboard and a mouse.
FYD: You ask yourself questions as you create. Why do you expose your philosophical side?
CW: The ways that I question the world around me are an enormous part of who I am and why I create. I come to art-making from the perspective of one who studies art history. I haven’t always been an artist, but I’ve always been curious about tradition and history surrounding fine art. I read about ideas that artists have had over time which have largely determined their output. Methodology and process are particularly important to me. I’m sensitive to the ideas that fuel the production of visuality and as to how that fuels further ideas within culture (e.g. what people take away from art and apply to their own lives). It’s a tortured analogy, but I’m sort of like a film critic who also makes films.
CW: All of them and none of them. How’s that for philosophy?! As a graduate student studying critical theory, and specifically how cultural theories relate to visuality and art, I grew very fond of various ideas regarding reception. Reception theory is an expansive, multi-faceted ideology that asserts that the audience attributes meaning to a work of art, a piece of literature, a film, et al. That perspective is in opposition to the modernist idea that an artist is in charge of the meaning and the viewer must arrive at the artist’s conclusion or else they, the viewer, has failed.
Many artists understand that the viewer ultimately decides for him- or herself how they feel about what they’re experiencing, and that is where the practical use and meaning of art comes into play. The fact that artists should have this level of cognizance is unique to the postmodern era and it affects what kind of art is produced – art today is more conceptual in nature, rather than formalist, for example. The artist can say what he or she felt when creating something, but ultimately what matters most to someone like me is what the viewer takes away. That’s basically reception theory in practice.
FYD: You mention deconstruction in and outside of your studio. What do you like about this process?
CW: Deconstructing something, figuratively or literally, begs the question, “what’s it made of?” That’s an enormously important question to ask oneself about culture and various systems at play there. If we’re not reflexive about things – or if we don’t consider what we’re doing and what we accept as social mores, for instance – then we’re effectively zombies incapable of correcting a disastrous course – individually or collectively. Deconstruction, whether it’s aesthetic or philosophical in nature, importantly asks the viewer to reconsider what they’re used to. I can’t think of any thought process more powerful than that to elicit a more informed citizen.
What does the “loss” of the aesthetic “clarity” of the original mean to you?
FYD: What interests you in the distortion of original images and especially that of 19th Century portraits?
CW: First we have to ask, “what is an original?” I’ve received angry comments from people who are rattled that I would destroy another artist’s hard work. In most cases I’ve either appropriated a digital file, acquired a cheap knock-off at a thrift store, or I’ve found one of virtually countless reproductions of an artwork that couldn’t be farther removed from the original (if indeed there’s one, initial referent to begin with). The essential issue that these angry viewers address is the very idea I would think so little of another person’s design that I would defame it through vandalism. They don’t seem to acknowledge or care that I’ve engaged with a reproduction, and not the original. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t “harmed” an original, it’s the rejection of someone else’s “hard work” that makes them angry. And that’s a perfectly valid reception of my work, if just a bit unfair.
Many objects and images I’ve appropriated I have a fetishistic relationship with. I enjoy the garish beauty that my thrift store finds offer, and feel guilty about that because it seems as if I should know better. The objects I appropriate are normally quite inferior pieces, mass-produced and stamped from misshapen molds, but they refer in some slight way to fine objects kept in museums and lavish households around the world. For $1 you can own a figurine of a milkmaid that looks (if you squint very hard) as if it belongs in a place of importance on a shelf in a palace; but, “WOW!” you sure are posh – particularly within in your own mind – when you’ve got that figurine in your home.
It’s all a matter of perspective.
I’m critical of mass-production and the false sense of status objects. I secretly love that stuff (part of me engages with the unapologetic corny beauty of it all), but I resent its inferior quality. In some way, I feel as if I’m defending the integrity of Gainsborough’s work when I wipe paint across the face of one of his mass-produced fancy women. I have so much respect for the artist that I feel the need to diminish the reproduction that diminishes the original.
FYD: There’s a scene in Tim Burton’s Batman where the Joker (Jack Nicholson) defaces a painting after which they appear to have more edge. Do you look for edge?
CW: I fondly recall that scene from my youth. I think a profound idea is presented there: treasures we put on metaphorical and literal pedestals are fragile and susceptible to harm. From an early age we’re told “do not touch!” creating a barrier between you and the art. That scene in Batman upended the social contract of not touching. The shift in perspective occurs when we realize it’s really just an object might cause us to think about art differently – as the over-priced and sometimes over-prized material objects they really are. What does it mean to lose a “masterpiece”? Is it the financial loss that troubles us, the loss of beauty, or the loss of something more culturally profound? I’d never want to suggest that art shouldn’t be thought of as inherently special or different – and costly when it is sold – but I would suggest that those values perhaps shouldn’t cloud our perception, or reception, of the artwork. Art objects are surrogates for more important ideas (which, one could argue, cannot really be destroyed). I think of what I do as gestural in nature and minimal. I’m adding my mark and asking the viewer to consider the disjointed nature of the object or image. What does the “loss” of the aesthetic “clarity” of the original mean to you?
FYD: How do you borrow or pay homage to artists and art history?
CW: I think everything I do is an appropriation. From the images or objects I use, to the marks I make. When I haphazardly apply a paint stroke to a reproduction of a Gainsborough painting that I’m adapting aesthetic treatments from abstract expressionism. When I paint colorful rectangles onto a garage sale painting of European street peasants I’m essentially channeling Colorfield artists like Ellsworth Kelly and Barnett Newman. I think it’s in the combination of disparate traditions and ideas that I find my voice – but even then I’ve been called a Banksy knock-off, so it’s all a matter of perspective.
I’m critical of mass-production and the false sense of status objects in general provide…
FYD: You recently conjured up a music playlist. What books are on your nightstand or films are on repeat?
CW: I don’t read as much as I used to but I’ve got Colson Whitehead’s cerebral zombie novel Zone One beside my bed. On the docket for future reading is Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (a continuation of one of my favorites, Oryx & Crake), a non-fiction about the lost colony of Roanoke, and the remaining 50 or so Agatha Christie mysteries I haven’t gotten to yet. I watch far too many films. I’ve been watching Clue since childhood. I think it’s better with age. Rounding out a hypothetical top five might be Pan’s Labyrinth, Dogville, Vertigo, and Inception. Anything Hitchcock did, and about anything Kubrick did. Rebecca, The Shinning, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Doctor Zhivago, 12 Monkeys, Silence of the Lambs. My must-see documentary pick is The Rape of Europa. It’s mesmerizing.
FYD: Where do we find you when you’re not working?
CW: At home playing video games or watching Murder She Wrote. I’m a hermit of the highest order.