Caroline Wells Chandler
Caroline Wells Chandler’s brightly colored hand-crocheted works explore notions of queerness and sexuality as well as the art historical canon. His characters are radically queer, and his representations of gender declare queerness as the normative state. Chandler completed his foundation studies at the Rhode Island School of Design and received his BFA cum laude from Southern Methodist University in 2007. He has shown at numerous institutions including: Roberto Paradise (San Juan, Puerto Rico), Lord Ludd (PA), Art League Houston (TX), Zurcher Studio (NY), Field Projects (NY), Vox Populi (PA), Sanctuary (PA), N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art (MI), Open Gallery (TN), and the Stieglitz Museum (‘s-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands) among others. Chandler is a 2011 MFA recipient in painting at the Yale School of Art where he was awarded the Ralph Mayer Prize for proficiency in materials and techniques. He lives and works in New York.
Choosing joy is radical because joy is idiosyncratic pleasure and that destabilizes power as it currently exists.
Q&A with Caroline Wells Chandler
by Emily Burns
Hi Caroline! Looking through your work, you have employed a variety of media and methods in the past. When did you begin to crochet? What interested you most about crochet and fiber as material?
I was taught how to crochet while attending Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX by my professor Rebecca Carter who was a newly minted graduate from the Fiber and Material studies program at SAIC.
I ignored the majority of my professor's advice to go straight to New York because I wanted time and space for the work to grow so I moved to Tyler, TX where my mother's family is still rooted. I landed a full time job in publishing and I lived next door to my grandparents in a duplex. I thought it was lame to ditch them to make mediocre paintings so I started making in a more social way that didn't demand absolute isolation. Crochet was the solution.
How do you approach your process? How is your approach different depending on the type of exhibition (group of a solo show) and media?
I make lots of drawings to understand form. I like working with floor plans so that I can make something in response to a space. I try to make everything that I do better than the last show. That means better color, pushing form, pushing scale, and trying out new characters. Staring into space for prolonged periods of time to visualize the work and think about feelings is important too.
Your solo show at Roberto Paradise Gallery in Puerto Rico was incredibly ambitious. What kind of schedule did you adhere to in order to create such large-scale work? What was the experience like?
It was hotter than Hades making that work in the summer but lots of fun. I was terrified when I found out the walls were forty feet long and seventeen feet tall. I woke up at five am every single morning and went to bed around ten pm. One of the schools I teach at is year round so I was also simultaneously teaching five classes. I raced the clock for about four months straight and crocheted pieces until the day before the opening.
Hand-crocheting the large pieces must take a tremendous amount of time. What do you listen to while you work? Is boredom something you have to contend within the studio?
My favorite podcast is the Psychedelic Salon. The host Lorenzo is kind of annoying but it houses many of Terence Mckenna's talks. Other than Jennifer Coates, he is my favorite weirdo thinker and lore weaver.
In your body of work as a whole, your ability to play seems apparent—is this something you consciously cultivate?
There's a lot of stuff that bums me out. I want my work to make me feel good about being alive and in a body.
The crochet characters in your two most recent shows have so much personality and emanate joy. How did you first create these characters? Did they originate directly from the crochet process or did drawing play a role?
The work always stems out of the earlier work. I made these bombastic psychedelic blanket pieces encased in scatalogical framing devices littered with individually hand casted snacks. Much of the work made at this time was a result of going on vision quests at JoAnn Fabrics and Michaels Arts and Crafts. When I feel like I have thoroughly marinated in an idea or body of work I tend to move on. The crocheted pieces were a way of exploring the blanket space in the earlier work with more authorship.
I was working on a show for Art League Houston and I was stuck on this one wall and I was like hello clowns tell me what to make; I'm ready; I need some help please! That resulted in a pink piece titled Orgin which is intentionally misspelled. I guess you could say it came to me in a vision. I drew the image once and tried to make the piece three times before I got it right. Sometimes people think they have to draw like someone else but really the only thing you have to do is draw like yourself.
Your use of color is fantastic, it’s so bright but also incredibly balanced and harmonious—how do you navigate color when using fiber?
I only make color decisions using sun light. My studio gets messy and yarn spills out everywhere on the floor. I tend to work intuitively and use colors that I like. When I make work for a show I think of the entire space as a canvas. Sometimes when you're painting you think, "hey I need something red over here." That's the kind of logic I'm working with. I feel most confident using red, yellow, and green which are the three colors alchemically that one has to pass through to move from the murky to the luminous, so they say in the crunchy tales of yore. However, I try to push my color comfort zone so that I can feel more and more successful with a wider range. Taste the rainbow! Tasty timez!
What types of fiber are you using for the crochet pieces?
I use thick acrylic wool blends primarily and a few other types from Michaels and Lion Brand Yarn.
There seems to be a thread (ha) of symbolism in your work, is this important to you and what is the evolution of the awareness of symbolism? Is it pre-planned or does it emerge through process?
Art is about creating your own language. I try to let symbolism enter into the work naturally. Sometimes I don't know what a piece is about until after I make it and through analysis of the work I name it or discover that a gesture means something more specific.
The titles of your installations, as well as individual pieces seem specific and descriptive in a wonderful way. How do you go about titling your work?
It sounds so flaky to say this but I feel like the work names itself. Titles are a way of having more specificity to what I'm thinking about or obsessing over and they can communicate love.
I've been making the giants in my life. I made this fifteen foot piece in response to a drawing that Angela Dufresne had made at her killer show at Steven Harvey of a six breasted beast woman. So I made this trainer with six top surgery scars reminiscent of a general with accolades, and double rainbows, wearing tube socks, and Angela's wild mane! I named it The Angela Dufresne Workout Plan because Angela is officially my Queer Art Mentor through the Queer Art Mentorship Program. I feel so lucky that I was able to hang out with her this past year because she is a brilliant badass painter, and all around joy-filled weirdo.
Most recently at Danese Corey in a group show titled Common Threads curated by Brent Auxier I have an installation in the back room. I call it the RYG Room. I was working on this piece that I thought I might title Genital Mask but that felt too pretentious and it didn't interest me calling it that so I looked at the drawing again and I knew exactly what that piece needed to make it interesting, Katherine Bradford's magic glasses! She has two pairs that I know of. One pair is honey combed and professorial like Santa and she wears these really great red circled ones in public. I like that they are red circles because circles are communal. I live with some of her paintings and I stare at them every day. Her work is incredibly healing and emotionally moving for me. So after I made a piece that referenced her, I unintentionally made these other characters that sort of reminded me of her friends and of artists that I've been looking at so I named them Tamara, Chris, EJ, and Stanley after specific artists. Guess who! I like my work to celebrate artists that have been generous and kind to me especially when I needed it the most. Sometimes the generosity is direct and personal and sometimes it is a bi product from making authentic work.
Is humor an important theme for you?
Once I had a dream that I had an Insane Clown Posse advocating for me from another realm in a different dimension. One of them looked a lot like Rachel Dratch in goth regalia. They were protecting me from Christian missionaries who wore too much khaki. Terence McKenna talks about how the Iconoclasts destroyed works of art because the art was thought of as a vessel to house interstellar demons. For fun, I like to think that each artist is in communication with a very specific group of interstellar demons. I guess my posse just happens to be a ragtag group of protective rowdy clowns. Parallels of this archetype exist in some forms of organized religion. There are these silly looking tusked guardians in Tibetan Buddhism that are sometimes called ferocious which is inaccurate. They are much more so fierce and jolly but if you fuck with them you'll have to deal with the consequences. I kind of like to think of my figures in a similar way as big queer jolly guardians that keep the edges free and flexy.
You mentioned in another interview that you were interested in the way the Neo-Sublime “simulates the process of integrating the subconscious with the conscious mind.” I really loved this idea, is this integration part of your process or the end result of a work?
Art is the only tool I have to integrate and interrogate my subconscious with my conscious mind. I think this happens while you make work and often the work gives your future self a gift that you get to find out about later. It's kind of like finding forgotten Christmas presents in grandma's closet.
What is a typical day like for you?
This question makes me wish I was way more interesting. When I don't have classes, I wake up and drink coffee and make stuff in my underwear all day until I go to sleep. I like to eat a warm meal in the evening with my partner and we talk about life and our day. Sometimes we watch a movie or we do tandem play and work on our art near each other.
What is the most exciting thing for you that is happening in your current work?
Finding new colors to work with makes me the most excited.
Do you feel like it is necessary to get into a particular headspace when in the studio? If so, how do you get there?
I try to be accepting of who I am each day when I wake up and I guess all of that including the muck goes into the work. I love the movie Ghost (1990) staring Patrick Swayze, Whoopi Goldberg, and Demi Moore. In the movie Sam Wheat, played by Patrick Swayze encounters a schizophrenic ghost on the subway who teaches him how to move objects in the living world. There is this cheesy exchange between the subway ghost and Sam that resonates with me regarding headspace,
"What are you doing? What the hell are you doing? You're trying to move it with your finger. You can't push it with your finger! You're dead! It's all in your mind. The problem with you is that you still think you're real. You think you're wearing those clothes? You think you're crouched on that floor? Bullshit! You ain't got a body no more, son! It's all up here now! You want to move something, you got to move it with your mind! You got to focus, you hear what I'm sayin? ...You take all your emotions! All your anger, all your love, all your hate! And push it way down here into the pit of your stomach! And then let it explode, like a reactor! Pow!"
What are the most important components of your studio?
Natural sunlight, a comfy chair, and proximity to my boo.
What are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently? Can you talk about the concept of an ‘art family’ that you mentioned in an interview with Katherine Bradford?
'Art Family' is a term that my professor Jeffrey Stuker came up with in graduate school at Yale. The premise of art family is to compile a list of artists, books, movies, songs ...whatever! that affirms you as a maker. Being an artist is the hardest thing psychologically and emotionally that anyone can attempt to do in a culture that does not value the function of art, so it is important to build one's own family to reinforce and support yourself especially when you feel alone.
I have so many favorite artists but most recently I've been thinking a lot about the work of Katherine Bradford, Jennifer Coates, Angela Dufresne, Helen O'Leary, Stanley Whitney, David Humphrey, Brian Belott, Manal Abu-Shaheen, Rachel Schmidhofer, Brandi Twilley, Kari Cholnoky, Michelle Segre, Steve DiBenedetto, Bill Saylor, Giotto, Bill Traylor, and Guo Fengyi.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
In high school I was trained as a third generation Norman Rockwell oil painter. That gave me a crash course in the role of kitsch and how that language functioned in Americana propaganda. During this time I was also obsessed with Contemporary Cuban Art and the work of Pepon Osorio who is Puerto Rican and a Bronx resident. I still think that Osorio is still the most meticulous and considerate installation artist who absolutely pushed the form to the limit. No one can touch him. I was attracted to the way everyday materials and the language of folk was subverted politically in Latin American Art. That work also heavily influenced my palette because at sixteen I had never seen color combinations like that.
My sophomore year after I transferred to SMU, unbeknownst to me I got really into ideas associated with Art Brut. My color theory teacher and mentor Mary Vernon told me that I needed to make myself familiar with Jean Dubuffet's work and ideas. I'm glad I did because not only did he coin the term Art Brut and make a space for that work to exist in the larger story but also I came across some of his essays. Anti Cultural Positions is incredibly flawed and the language is problematic but the thoughts in it to question one's preconceived ideas strongly resonated with me at the time. I still feel like my work is a hydra of Norman Rockwell, Art Brut, and Latin American Art.
There are so many books that I want to read but feel very short of time so in the caveman fashion I listen to a lot of audio books. Next on my agenda is Edith Hamilton's Mythology.
What initially piqued your interest in art and becoming an artist?
I got the call young. I do not think I would have been an artist if I had not attended Virginia Beach Friends School. All of my teachers were earth mothers or former hippies. It was incredibly egalitarian. We addressed our teachers by their first name such as Teacher Pat and Teacher Sandy. We had wood shop, and ceramics. We were given choices such as would you like to play in this bath tub full of blue jello or would you like to read? In the Quaker fashion we sat in a circle in silence in the morning and if we wanted to share something we would speak. Things dramatically changed when I turned six and was forced to attend an extremely repressive and strict college prep school for ten years until I had a nervous breakdown after I broke my back. Norfolk Academy crushed my spirit and I had stopped making art but I started up again because I was no longer able to play sports. My friend Claire Hanson asked me to take a figure drawing class with her at the Virginia Beach Art Center. After that I was hooked. I was allowed to change schools and be in an environment where I could focus on art. But I think it was Friend's that did it. That school was a truly affirmational environment and I've been trying to recreate that feeling of community and comfort in my life currently as an adult.
Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
Beware of bridge trolls disguised as guardians.
What is your relationship with social media? Do you have a favorite or least-favorite platform?
I do not have a favorite platform. Social media is gross for the obvious reasons but I like to use it as a community building tool and to celebrate my talented friends. I also like to use it to show love to my partner by annoying her. I take great pleasure in posting stupid memes on her wall.
I tell my students to use social media to build community because if you see an artist's work that you like you can be their friend online and engage in a conversation with them. You can find out when and where they have shows and meet them and maybe you can actually be friends in real life. As a result you may learn about new places where art is shared. That's kind of really cool because before the internet you just had to know where to go. I imagine that it took a lot longer to figure out who was making stuff in affinity with you.
Do you have any news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
In the Fall I will be a resident in the Sharpe-Walentas Studio program. In September I will be in a three person show at Eleven Rivington. My next solo is in 2017 at Fred Giampierto in New Haven.
Anything else you would like to add?
I love tie-dye!
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your work and chat with us!
To find out more about Caroline and his work, check out his website.