"Colin Chillag: New Works" Remembers the Residents of Westward Ho
Artist Colin Chillag keeps the titles to his new portrait paintings, now on display through October 30 at Pravus Gallery, refreshingly simple. Most are either labeled Portrait of a Man or Portrait of a Woman and, in one case, Portrait of a Man and Woman.
But that's where all simplicity stops in this show, which features 10 paintings inspired by Troy Aossey's photographs of residents at Westward Ho, the low-income senior housing project downtown.
Built in 1928, the Westward Ho, still an easily recognized landmark on Central Avenue in downtown Phoenix, was once a luxe hotel catering to the obscenely wealthy, the famous, and the infamous. It played host to guests like Myrna Loy, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor, Al Capone, and Bugsy Siegel, to name just a few, and achieved instant immortality the minute John F. Kennedy made a speech on its front steps. In 1981, the then-defunct hotel's history-heavy halls started being haunted by seniors instead of the ghosts of glittery Hollywood celebrities past.
The contrast between images of the Westward Ho's unblemished glitterati of old and its current senior residents — many of whom have physical disabilities — is glaring. Stylistically, the ubiquitous soft-focus headshots of flawless Hollywood stars and the glowing white backgrounds of Aossey's photographs may share a few similarities. But, basically, those old publicity stills are 180 degrees from Aossey's photos, which unsparingly document every wrinkle and age spot.
Chillag's interpretation of Aossey's photos is a painfully unvarnished look at the hotel's current residents. The mostly unfinished paintings are raw, uncensored, and meticulously rendered and veer off into abstraction bordering on defacement.
"I met most of these people," says the painter. "I looked at Troy's images and, for me, they personally felt as good as art gets. You have just a white background and these people are bathed in white light; you get this combination of ethereal, almost heavenly kind of quality, with all the whiteness. But at the same time, you can see every pore and every wrinkle. So it's this massive contrast and the sort of thing I can look at for a long time."
Lately, Chillag's approach to painting has taken a turn toward the Zen. His earlier, free-association canvases exhibited a confusion of intricate detail, bordering on the cartoonish, interposed with realistically rendered passages of imagery, all punctuated with patently snarky text about current events, social issues, fleeting ideas, and personal feelings. "I don't know where I am in relation to all of that now," Chillag notes. "I tried over the past couple of years to work in that vein. I don't know where the snarkiness has gone — it's still there, but I don't feel comfortable doing it anymore. I felt like I got in trouble with that way of thinking somehow."
Chillag's latest work, he says, fits into where he now wants to be as a painter. He aims to turn off thinking and making judgments in favor of just looking closely at his subjects for a long time in his quest to cultivate an ability to concentrate. The result has been nothing short of engrossing.
The artist's subjects — of varying ethnicities and moods — begin against stark white backdrops. In counterpoint to work in which he globs on, then pushes half-dried paint into tiny swirls of thick impasto, his portraits essentially are layered in thin coats, capturing every detail and defect in the sitter's face. Most have pencil underdrawings that wander on the surface of the canvas but are mysteriously left unpainted; some are blotched or stained, others partially obliterated by messy puddles, blobs, or opaque swatches of paint that have been wiped to gauzy transparency.
Realism and abstraction battle each other on every canvas; on some, it's merely a quiet conflict, on others, an apocalyptic showdown. In one of his most compelling pieces, Chillag has doodled aimlessly over the face of a woman who stares unsmilingly into the distance, her expression reminiscent of those beatific looks so common on religious statues.
Chillag says that at some point he became dissatisfied with his portrait paintings; they didn't feel finished to him. That's when he started adding elements on top of them and even risked covering up or destroying them. "What I ended up doing was using them as palettes to create the next image," he says, "then the scrapings from the palette got recycled onto another one, so you get this process carry-over from one painting to the next."
That very process is the essential and unifying part of Chillag's new paintings — his testament to the messy manner in which they were created: "I like to have that process open because it is so interesting to me. As boring as it might sound, it's kind of a nice time-out to be able to focus and let these things lead."
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