Now Featuring James Chronister

San Francisco painter James Chronister laboriously renders minutely-detailed canvases to depict photo-based scenes. Chronister serves as a kind of conduit for these images, translating them with dreamy matter-of-factness, leaving the viewer to search for what in the image is important, or whether the image is the important part of the painting, whether in fact it’s something else.

Print 1, Summer

Print 2, Summer

Print 2, Summer

MH: I’m interested in the way your practice seems to have evolved, over several years, from work with a relationship to photo realism and photography, to much more abstract work. Am I right in seeing that evolution? How do you view it?

JC: As an undergrad at the University of Montana, I took a class where each student reproduced a painting from the Renaissance for the entire semester. The first step is to use an opaque projector to project an image of the original painting onto a blank canvas and render the under painting.  This technique allows me to paint directly from source imagery, and photographs serve this purpose well.  I’ve also been interested in making paintings that don’t necessarily look like paintings. Most paintings, to me, just look like paint on a surface and I’ve wanted to avoid that.  The illusionistic quality of photography freed the marks from looking like paint.


The abstract work arose from just wanting to try something new ,and I was tired of working in the dark, and the paintings had become stale and repetitive.  I never thought I would make photo-based works again, but I became more interested in them anew after learning a few things about value and scale from the abstract work.

When an artist makes seemingly disparate bodies of work, the connections may be clearer later on.

MH: Even your abstract work carries with it issues of reproduction– I think I recall pairs of twinned, identical paintings. Can you talk about the way you view the copy?

JC: Yeah that’s true. For the shows Better Bowls, More Crackers at Eleanor Harwood Gallery, and An Arbitrary Group of Paintings at Et al, both in San Francisco in 2015, the paintings were made in pairs or groups of four. The desire to produce paintings in multiples arose from feeling a bit guilty about making MORE abstract paintings for the world to have to look at.  So by producing, say four, of more or less the same “spontaneous” abstract composition, a tone of irreverence may be gleamed.  Again, looking for a way to subvert the notion of a “painting.”

With the photographic based work, the original copy serves as the architecture of the painting.

MH: What’s your studio process like? I’m curious how you begin to plan or compose an image. do you work in series or is each artwork a fresh start from the ground up?

JC: My paintings are made in two phases: planning and execution.

In the planning phase, I begin with a found book image, Xeroxed found image, or a lightly Photoshopped image of my own. Usually I think about the upcoming paintings and images as I work on a current painting. Sometimes it takes years to get to an image and sometimes I’ll revisit an image years after its initial use if I feel there’s something more to add or do differently.  After the pre-production, it’s just a matter of making the marks.

Once decided upon and printed, I mount the image to foam core, cover it with acetate and draw a light grid over the image.  A corresponding grid is drawn onto a blank canvas and I project the image square by square onto the canvas and fill it in with oil paint until the painting is complete.  In the dark I might add.  A large painting takes anywhere from one to three months to complete.  Podcasts and music help out.


Generally I’m working towards a show so the paintings are conceived as a group for an exhibition.  I try to keep it loose though and let myself edit images that don’t end up working after all.

MH: What are you working on, or looking forward to trying out in upcoming work?

JC: I’m working on six forest paintings for my show Glass Summers at Eleanor Harwood Gallery San Francisco, opening Saturday, November 4th, 2017.  I’m almost done with the fifth one and have one more to go after that.  The images are my own, taken during a summer visit to Montana about five years ago.  I’m making pictures which I hope depict physical and psychological space existing concurrently.

This body of work was informed a great deal by my departure into abstraction.  I’m thinking about scale, mark making and value.

MH: How do you approach subject matter in your photo-based work? Your process involves quite a bit of digestion and distancing from the “original” image, not in terms of realism, but as a result of time and process. So there’s a bit of a hazy, out-of-time feeling I’m noticing. What are your thoughts?

JC: I’m not particularly interested in “photorealism” per se, and none of the artists whose work I admire create work in this way.  If anything, I admire the work Richard Aldrich, Amy Feldman, and David Ostrowski for the sheer economy in their paintings. Luc Tuymans is another painter I have long admired who is able to infuse photographic sources with a layer of historical or psychological space.  Tuyman’s work is simultaneously referential and abstracted.


In my own work, using photos is an attempt to utterly transform the paint.  I look at my photo-based work like abstract paintings, along the lines of Agnes Martin, where every inch of the surface is equal to every other inch.  I try to avoid a protagonist in the images.  Further, using a preordained blueprint keeps me from having to make decisions.  Our idea of a tree is very different than an actual tree.

The space I aspire to express in these new paintings is akin to music and sound.  For instance, the song Disintegration by The Cure begins and ends with the sound of glass breaking.  I keep coming back to the mental image I have when I hear this song.  I want the paintings to behave like sound.


MH: I’m curious about how, in the period where you explored abstraction, that you made more grouped works than you normally do, and you realized it was partly a gesture to give the viewer “more,” because in some way you felt abstraction offered them less. What do you think a painting should offer a viewer? I ask as a fan of both paintings that depict absorbing worlds,  and also paintings that reveal lots of physical process/brushwork, etc.

JC: Haha, yes perhaps I was looking for a way to bolster the abstract work somehow.  Those works, as you allude to, are very formal; process/brushworks etc, and the repetition, to me, aided the visual strength of the works.  The grouping wasn’t a decision I came to after a lot of pondering, it simply felt right with those works.

Trite as it may be, painting is a language.  I’m a big believer in the subconscious when it comes to appreciating art.  Our minds quickly make associations based on millennia of humans experiencing the world around them.  There’s something frightening about snakes because our ancestors had experience with them.  Art appreciation is intuitive, and some people more sensitive to it than others.  I can rarely be talked into appreciating an artwork if I don’t like it initially.

About painting, the great Joe Bradley states:

“Painting…there are only so many moves you can make in the first place.  It’s the nuance in painting that matters.  The idea that you can load an object with information.  There’s something about a painting… you could sit in a room with it for hours and the painting would look like it had been sat with for hours.  It’s like fly-paper.  Thoughts stick to it.  I wish that I could just come here to my studio, wrap myself up in canvas and wake up in the morning and there would be some sort of result.  That would be nice.  It’s not the act of painting that is interesting… What was the question?”

MH: I like the idea that a departure in an art practice can lead to a return. What else did you glean while working in abstraction, and have you had other experiments that you’ve learned from?

JC:  Mostly what I gleaned from the abstract work was humility.   It’s not as easy as “just paint what you want.”  I came to respect those painters who’ve been working their way through an abstract language and had managed to arrive at something unique and special of their own.   I learned it’s ok to just be a fan and resist the compulsion to emulate other artist’s practices.

Everything one does in a studio comes around in some way.  Sometimes it’s helpful to figure out what NOT to do.



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