Todd Chilton at raw & co
Painting doesn’t exactly solve anything, doesn’t really go anywhere,; but that doesn’t stop
painters from trying to unlock the doors of perception in their own way. Like artists in
other disciplines painters share at least one thing -- a need to establish some medium of
exchange so they can buy a little chunk of real reality. Abstract painting in particular is a
sort of machine built to manufacture such coinage. Sometimes the emphasis is on form,
sometimes on materials, but the crucial ambition is to produce a self-contained system,
often based – paradoxically – on synecdoche, proposing a small part of visual/tactile
experience to stand for the whole shebang. Then the serious messing around begins, the
trimming and training of the chosen visual fragment until it becomes a thing somehow truer
than other visual objects, an artifact from a less distracted dimension.
This isn’t easy either to do or recognize and galleries sensitive to such quietly ambitious,
highly demanding labor are tough to find, especially outside of major art markets. raw & co’
s Director Per Knutas has done a consistently good job of finding and showing such work
over the past three years, despite the difficulties of being located well off the beaten track.
A small but enthusiastic audience has learned to expect art of a high order from each
show mounted at the tiny storefront gallery in Tremont.
The current display of works by recent School of the Art Institute of Chicago MFA grad
Todd Chilton is no disappointment. His six crisp, introspective oil on canvas paintings are
engaged in a search for some word, some clue, trapped between paint, canvas, and
simple, even primitive formal ideas. His paintings often take place on a surface nuanced
by much under-painting. Like subcutaneous levels of history and influence these
emphasize a feeling of contingency already inherent in Chilton’s roughly rendered lines of
paint. No search for certainty or inevitability drags this work away from a plain-spoken
acceptance of imperfection. Take Squueeze (2006) for example, a medium size painting
that seems large in Knutas’ parlor-like space. The oil on canvas work is made up of a
series of blue and brown lines against an orange background, arranged in a diminishing
series of rectangular boxes, one inside the other. A couple of the final inner boxes have a
slight warp to them, so that the keyhole-like patch of orange in the center is in fact
squeezed. At first glance there’s not much to look at, but there turns out to be more. For
one thing Chilton’s brown or blue lines aren’t exactly what they appear to be; they’re
weirdly lumpy. The blue ones in particular are complicated constructions of short, probably
vertical strokes of brown, covered with a lateral swathe of blue. The top and bottom of
each brown stroke is just barely visible and has a textile-like , nappy quality. Then there’s
the over-all optical buzz that these colors and formal choices inevitably crank out.
Squueeze is like a home-made Op Art piece, like a 1960’s era Frank Stella painting made
by someone who, for whatever reason, has no interest in Stella’s crucial, overstated
Chilton has said these paintings aren’t about optical effects, but surely several of them
allude to perceptual vertigo. With Squueeze it’s as if he’s trying to press the trickiness or
trippy-ness of Op right out of it, restoring an elementary geometric quality through a
somewhat funky, highly personal technical approach. But this is incidental to his central
project. All six of the paintings at raw & co seem to insist on the basics: that any painting
first of all is an interplay of color, form, and substance, and the physical way that a painter’
s moves and processes shift these facts around. Chilton chooses his somewhat obsessive-
seeming motifs and actions as a kind of game board, where contests of the self –versus-
whatever are deprived of most of their oxygen. What is squeezed in these paintings is
irrelevance, inadvertence; they resist theory of any kind, but also stop short of personal
reference, apart from conveying a sense of the hand that made them.
Precision (2007) is about the same size as Squueeze and is another purely geometric
piece, consisting in this case of thin green lines against a white background. Optically it’s
also somewhat mesmerizing, for two reasons: the green lines aren’t just one shade of
green but play with each other in a wavering tremulo of tints; and the geometric pattern
here is hard to resolve into any sensible linear idea. There are things that it is not, like M.
C. Escher’s plays on repetition, or Stella’s hard-edged angled chevrons, and there are
things that it resembles, like a doodle in a high school kid’s notebook. It reads from right
to left, starting with a few lines that run from top to bottom. But the next few start turning
corners. Instead of forming boxes, they abruptly make a corner or two and head out the
left side of the canvas, converting vertical to horizontal motion. Just above the center of
the work is a white box, the eye of this orderly storm. Maybe it’s a portrait of the painting
itself, before it was invaded by green lines, or maybe it’s just a place they can’t go – either
way, it’s both a rest area and a place-holder for some unarticulated question. Again, part
of the content of this work is the wobbly, hand-hewn quality of Chilton’s painted lines,
which lends them an aura of personality and suggests that these long marks really don’t
have the time to care about being good lines; they’re too busy being paint and not
describing boxes, as they head in an orderly fashion for the edges of the surface.
Located near the margins of contemporary American abstraction, Chilton is inspired by
the great New York abstractionists Mary Heilman and Thomas Nozkowski, among others.
Most of his work is deliberately far simpler than either one of those painters, and he
avoids the relatively overt tensions between natural and ideal renditions of form that
characterizes much of their work. Yet his rough, peculiar lines do embody very similar
ideas, mixing the personal and formal as they try to buy enough time from between the
lines of their rudely decorated space to become, or at least hint about something real.
[Free Times 8/29/07]