Sunday, December 18, 2011

5 Questions With PAUL CHATEM

That Phineas Taylor Barnum may never have actually uttered his oft quoted maxim about suckers is somewhat fitting. He saw the potential in "branding" far ahead of the pack. He figured out a way to profit on peoples fears and depravities. The clown college that still bears his name is, by all accounts, harder to get into then Harvard. He was shrewd and brilliant. He was also a shyster and con artist, but more than anything else, he was the quintessential businessman. He rose to prominence at a time when great advancements were being made in agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation. Advancements that gave rise to new business models, and new Barnums.

I mention all this because, for me, the art of  Paul Chatem seems to reflect the era just after Barnums' death. The aftermath. The detritus, if you will. The dawn of the 20th Century. The decades when giants of industry were simultaneously propelling mankind toward incredible achievements, and gunking up the gears with unparalleled greed. Chatem's paintings depict hellish scenes rife with shady, mustachioed plutocrats, multi-faced Keystone cops, and damsels in distress.

However, these aren't merely "paintings". These are intricately designed vignettes with fully functioning gears and hand cranks. The viewer is no mere voyeur in these Carny nightmares, but becomes a willing accomplice. Chatem renders all this in beautifully aged tints and bold linework that loosely reference his most cited artistic influences (E.C. Segar,  Max Fleischer), and conceptually echo musical ones (Charlie Patton, Tom Waits).

 Although Chatem's work is immediately striking, and engaging, this ain't front-loaded stuff. This is the kind of art that sticks to you. These painting follow you home. Much like Todd Brownings "Freaks", you can't unsee these things. Paul Chatem is, hands down, one of the most compelling artists working today. Oh, and did I mention he's colorblind?!

 Naturally, I had some questions:

1) Your work is a combination of various skills (carpentry, engineering, and painting). How did this marriage of disciplines evolve?
Chatem:  "I've done whatever it took to pay the bills to get my painting career off the ground. For every job I worked, no matter how menial it was, I took that knowledge or skill I gained and and applied it to my artwork. Over the years I've worked as a carpenter, prop maker for films, scenic and mural painter, art director, ditch digger, truck driver, movie projectionist, and on and on. From all these jobs I've learned a little bit about a lot of stuff, and I try to bring it all to the table every time."

2) The paintings seem to seethe with oily businessmen who are unable to hide their innate hungers, all the while spinning their gears. Going out on a limb here, do you think the lessons of the Industrial Revolution (setting a new standard for greed and corruption, etc.) have been largely lost on us?
Chatem: "I definitely believe that most people don't think about how much the world has changed since the industrial revolution. From my perspective most of the problems we have these days has come from the greed of competition, where everyone is trying to top the next guy without thinking of the long term consequences. I love modern technology and what it has given us, but what scares me the most is how fast things have changed. Because of how technology has made our lives easier, the worlds population has gone from just over one billion people in 1900 to over six billion people just one hundred years later. We've come so far so quickly, like pulling a rubber band to its limit, eventually something is going to snap back or break."

3) I understand you're color blind, and see limited reds and greens, but the reds in your work are quite vibrant. How do you get around the color obstacle?
Chatem: "I had a lot of trouble when I first started painting, but it's gotten easier over the years. I still make mistakes, but I know color theory and I keep my paints labeled and organized. For the most part I just paint what looks good to me and don't worry about what other people see."

4) Your paintings have a wonderfully weathered, shopworn quality to them. Without giving away too many secrets, how do you achieve that aged look?
Chatem: "When I started out I had different techniques I used for various projects, eventually I started to integrate these techniques together and I came up with what I'm doing now. It's a mixture of washes, dry brushing, letting some paint dry half way then scraping it, some sanding and a little old fashioned splattering."

5) What's your favorite Tom Waits song?
Chatem: "I love it all, but my go-to song is 'Falling Down'  from the album BIG TIME. It was the first Tom Waits CD I bought and still my favorite."

Mr. Chatem is currently gearing up for his next big show at the SHOOTING GALLERY SF from April 14 to May 5, 2012.

All photos courtesy (and copyright) of Paul Chatem.

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