Multi-disciplinary artist Chad Wys interrogates the infrastructure of art history. In appropriating the canon, Wys uses contemporary digital technology to intervene, and to siphon back through the history of art in order to extract kernels of information and misinformation. His practice is one of both revelation and obfuscation but leaves the meaning to be made by the viewer.
Installation Magazine: Your artistic practice spans genre and mediums. You engage with photography, videos, mixed media, and digital work. What have have you discovered in working across these varied approaches?
Chad Wys: I think a medium can be limiting if a user approaches it as such. It can make a real difference to the artist, the artwork, and eventually the viewer if mediums are interpreted and used as boundless instruments and processes rather than a concentrated and consecrated technical monolith to be mastered (à la the academic tradition.) I think mediums are especially creatively freeing when they’re considered in conjunction with one another. Inter-medium experimentation is essential to my process.
Are certain mediums more successful in translating a particular theoretical theme that you are trying to address?
Not necessarily theoretical themes (they’re too broad and encompassing to be examined in only one way); I think critical theory in visual art can and should be addressed in infinite ways. However, works of art can take on additional meanings depending upon the medium. For example, my Nocturnes series is broadly about artistic tradition and the presence and absence of visual information (a subject that could be addressed any number of ways), but, for me, the series had to be digital in nature because it’s the digital (mechanical) reproduction that I’m specifically confronting under that broader umbrella.
The “inter-medium experimentation” that you cited earlier is present in the Nocturnes, Readymades ’10, and At the Museum series.
I take a cue from artists like James McNeill Whistler when I try to avoid a forced narrative in my work. Modernism sort of discredited the importance of narrative in visual art, while the Postmodern essentially revived it, but in doing so transplanted it into the domain of the viewer rather than the maker. I approve of that dynamic. I want to address specific ideas (like object fetishism, or mass production), but I want to address those ideas on the viewer’s terms. In other words, I do what I do but the viewer decides if and how it comes together in their own mind. My work depends on this fluidity.
How did your journey as an artist begin?
I was a child of the arts. I don’t know where it came from because my parents couldn’t give a rat’s ass about pictures and decorations (unless it’s out of respect for my work), but the urge to understand and to create has always been a strong compulsion in me. Perhaps my passion for art was made more intense because I explored it on my own and on my own terms- I didn’t have an overzealous parent cramming it down my throat. So, I grew up creating, reading about creating, and admiring the creations of others. Ultimately, it was through the study and adoration of art history in college that I thought to put on the artist’s hat. I began, like so many artists do, by painting relatively traditional abstract landscapes and eventually found my voice in appropriation.
What source material inspires you most?
I’m drawn to mass-produced objects and images that harken back to some antique original or some finer ideal. Whether that’s the reproduction of a painting on the Web or a factory-produced figurine one’s likely to find in a junk shop, this visual noise interests me. A lot of images and objects are superficially, or even deceptively, beautiful, but fundamentally soulless, like kitsch avatars. I’m curious about how that makes me feel.
In Nocturnes you appropriate images by obfuscating the visage of the sitter. You play with imagery many of us have seen as students in art history lecture halls.
The appropriation of a particular digital image is where the heart of my process lies with regards to the Nocturnes series. Actually, the act of appropriating is the primary process of most of my work. The rest is basically fluff: painting with a computer mouse instead of a brush, and removing visual information by, ironically, adding to the composition. I employ some trompe l’oeil elements and techniques in the Nocturnes to keep things interesting and somewhat ambiguous regarding the nature (the medium itself) of the thing the viewer is seeing.
By obscuring or omitting the faces in the portraits what are you communicating about the tradition of portraiture?
Primarily the limitation of the portrait itself. We see, but we don’t understand the sitter.
You also work with sculptures. Did you create a sculpture and then photograph it, or was it rendered in Photoshop?
It will depend upon the individual work, but with my readymade sculptures I’ve acquired the objects from garage sales and thrift stores and I’ve intervened with them by changing their aesthetic makeup with craft paints, glitter, or what have you. Some “sculpture,” as in the American Tapestry series, is digitally processed- but I consider those digital files or images rather than sculptures.
At the Museum is another example of providing a minimal amount of information to the viewer. The perspective of the camera is tilted up so that it only catches the edges of the frame or pieces of a sculpture.
My presence in the museums where the images were taken served as the inspiration. I didn’t visit the museums with any plan to document my visit in this way; as I traversed the various galleries I began to grow more curious about the museums themselves, and about the experience of looking. I wanted to document the space as well as the curious nature of admiring the objects I was seeing.
Does the series comment on your feelings about the attitudes of the masses toward art?
It surely can. All of my work, to some extent, investigates our relationships to objects that are connected to our cultural landscape. Art is the greatest means of expression we have, and I’ve always been curious about the human connection to it- both the profound depth and the profound superficiality that comprises those human/object connections.
What museums and paintings are represented in the series?
The photographs were taken over a series of weeks during a trip to New England. The Met and MoMA are represented here. While some of the works themselves are recognizable, within this series they aren’t very important.
Which artists have had the greatest influence on your practice?
I’ve mentioned Whistler, who, like many artists of the 19th century and earlier, had a profound though nebulous influence on me as a student of history and theory, as well as my work as an artist. Marcel Duchamp paved the road- or did he mix the concrete?- that has allowed so many artists after him to traverse the content and aesthetics that I explore; the Dadaists in general are big influences. I’m realizing that I owe a lot to the Pictures Generation, as they’ve been labeled, of the 1980s. Artists like Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, and Roberto Longo are giants in my mind. But 20th century philosophers such as Walter Benjamin and Jean Baudrillard have been equally instructive, if not more so; they both did a lot of work regarding images and the ways we interpret them.
How does your writing practice influence the concepts that you employ in your art?
Literature and artwork are different ways of tossing around ideas. Writing is inhibited by language and artwork is generally inhibited by sensory perception; but writing provides incredible specificity and visual art provides a kind of universality. They’re the best tools we have for changing our ideological environments, yet their inherent limitations can become misshapen by our perceptions of the world around us. I’m rather reflexive about my use of language and visuality, and I believe critiquing them helps make them stronger tools overall.
Your work also reflects the process of making art and the ways that everyday colors create complex palettes. In Readymades ’10 paint swatches are paired with found prints. Where did you retrieve the prints? What message about art making were you hoping to communicate in the series?
I found those in a bin at Goodwill. I’m mainly asking what the objects are for, and I’m noticing that decorative pictures of that sort are often used to adorn fairly innocuous or even homely interior spaces that are regarded, perhaps, as superficially as the paint one chooses to coat one’s walls. It’s a curious role for “art” to play.
In constructing your bodies of work have you found an overarching narrative present in your work thus far?
A consistent theme in my work is the interrogation of visuality and its relationship with viewers- a narrative broad enough to grant much of the authorship to the viewer.
All images © of the artist