this interview originally appeared on the Field Projects Gallery blog.

An Interview with Caroline Wells Chandler

Caroline Wells Chandler (b. 1985) received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Southern Methodist University, and his Masters of Fine Arts from Yale University, 2011. Chandler was awarded the Yale Ralph Mayer Prize for proficiency in materials and technique. He lives and works in Queens, NY. His solo show, Homunculus, is now on view at Field Projects until May 10th.


Robert Grand: I’d like to start off talking about the influence of science, psychology and psychoanalysis on your work - particularly with the title of this show, Homunculus. Could you elaborate on this term and its importance?

Caroline Wells Chandler: Homunculus can be defined three ways. Specifically, a homunculus is a dwarf made in an alchemist’s flask. In general homunculi are thought of as deformed mythological creatures. Frankenstein, or Gollum are good examples. In the field of science, the homunculus functions as a scale model to illustrate sensory information received by the central nervous system from various parts of the body. This map looks like a little deformed man with enlarged lips, hands, feet, and genitals, which corresponds to the increased sensory neurons in those parts of the body.

RG: Could you discuss the ideas behind the works in the show? For example, the decision to title the cookie pieces as “Selfie as…” and the inclusion of Sesame Street characters adorned with phalli.

CWC: I strongly believe that there is a large shortage of semi-hard cock in art specifically as art objects and specifically not from art makers. The phalli adorned Sesame Street characters function on many levels. The generative work for that series was Dionysian Gonzo. His face is curious to me in that the suggestive eyes and nose depict tea-bagging-temptation dangling right above the mouth which is unmistakably a vagina. Gonzo for me is archetypally a hermaphroditic form, which is something I identify with as a trans man who currently navigates the world as a lesbian.

I’m interested in the way things are felt, both intuitively and tacitly as a way of gaining information. The phalli serve as a very sensitive antenna to explore desire and their exposed quality suggests vulnerability. The latter brings up a conversation regarding masculinity as masquerade.

In terms of desire the Sesame Street sculptures in relation to the cookie paintings employ self-deprecating humor in that they loosely depict various states of the strung-out artist. They are waiting for sublime inspiration, basking in paralyzing self-reflexivity, wondering if they should trust their hallucinatory visions, etc…. The paintings are spirit guides from another dimension; some are benevolent, some are neutral, and some are horrifying.

The selfie has been in existence for about ten years since the dawn of cell phone cameras and MySpace, but I have only recently heard the term within the last year. I am fairly out of the loop with these things, so it could of totally been in circulation prior. There is something about the calling out and naming of an unconscious human activity or cultural phenomena that has potentially powerful implications. In regard to the selfie, this process allows for two things. The first, which is far less interesting than the second option, is commentary, which functions as permissiveness through mimetic performativity. The second is the ability to monitor one’s own activity after becoming self aware of a once unconscious behavior, and the choice to use this new awareness to actively construct the self or in most cases persona. I think of post modern humans as being overly self aware of their behavior, and this is reflected in the calculated cynical art which is devoid of any emotional content except for repressed anger yet filled with “knowing” that has thrived in the last decade.

I make from a place of not knowing. If you’re open to it as a maker your art can shatter your fragile perception of reality.

The first painting I made after moving to New York was “Selfie as Chocolate Chip Cookie.” I thought about it for over a year until I was able to afford a messy space to make it. I noticed that stoners were really into my work because of the subject matter and because of the casts, which caused them to ponder what was fake or real. Making a half-baked cookie that was burnt out and mimetically side grinning back at the viewer seemed like the next best step. The cookie/selfie series marks a return to painting for me. One of my first experiences painting involved decorating and icing cookies. I wanted these works to explore what I want painting (verb) to be, and what I want in a painting (noun).

RG: Your work, while very contemporary, places a heavy emphasis on craft. What inspired this way of working for you? Do you feel as if your work is a reaction against some current trends in contemporary art, specifically post-internet practices?

CWC: In all honesty, there are so many beautiful paintings that use shitty abstraction made by good-looking young straight dudes that are selling for big bucks, and most of them are absolutely forgettable.

I don’t actively think about post-internet practices. Primarily I think a lot about painting and drawing and how I can explore color, texture, and form.

When I was in school in Texas, I didn’t know that there was an art supply store until the end of my junior year. I did most of my shopping at JoAnns Fabrics and Michaels Arts and Crafts. I was interested then in using materials that felt comfortable to me which meant using materials that I loved as a child.

Now I like to think of the works as exploring otherness. I make the things that I need to see.

RG: On that note, I really liked your essay about art school in an issue of The St. Claire. Do you have more advice for recent art school grads who are heavily influenced by, as you say, “the wheeling and dealing of ideas”, and yet are trying to carve out an identity and practice for themselves separate from the tastes of their faculty and institution?

CWC: Get a job. Make something that can undeniably be recognized as yours. It is the only thing that will save art.

RG: What have you been reading and looking at lately (art related or not)?

CWC: I am reading through all of Carl Jung’s work. The artists that interest me the most right now are Howard Finster, Forrest Bess, Bob Thompson, Bjarne Melgaard, Manal Abu Shaheen, Josephine Halvorson, Brandi Twilley, and Eric N. Mack. I recently watched Blue is the Warmest Color on Netflix instant. It was sexy and awesome and everything that first love feels like.

RG: Your education background is very interesting - a BFA from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and a MFA from Yale. Both environments, in their own way, can seem to outsiders as conservative institutions. What was your experience like, being a trans artist exploring notions of queer craft at these universities? Did you ever feel pressured to change your style or approach? I ask this question because I recently graduated from art school in Tennessee, which can also appear as a conservative environment when it comes to art reception and production. Many times my work that dealt with queer sexuality and identity, and the work of my queer peers, was deemed too abrasive, vulgar, or insincere. While at the time, this seemed like relevant critique, further reflection has led me to think of it as, perhaps, an act of unconscious censorship due to the school’s and area’s culture. Or, possibly, an expression of their (the professors’ and viewers’) discomfort and unfamiliarity with queer struggles, issues, and histories.

CWC: I never tried to make trans or queer art. I just wanted to make art that felt like me. I use art as a tool to better understand myself. I would prefer otherwise in order to avoid sheer embarrassment but the work is highly personal. It wasn’t until my balls literally dropped in my shapeshifting bear portrait, “P(ie/ee)r into My Butt Soul” that I came to the realization that I was a trans man. I have always been a late bloomer. As soon as I figured out what was going on with my body I was so relieved and so happy and I came out to everyone that I knew. This was shortly after graduating from Yale. In graduate school leading up to my thesis work, I made a lot of subconscious art that dealt with trans-identity, namely the “Self Portraits as First Ladies” and “Hello Golly.” I think in images first and I make the ones that are persistent. I think of myself as an artist that also happens to be trans rather than a trans artist because I explore so much more than my gender identity in my work. With that said, gender is a common theme.

At both schools I attended there was a strong unstated sentiment that hetero-white male painting with minimalist leanings is the fulfillment of truth and beauty and something to aspire to. I see this as racist, sexist, and super boring. Visibility is so important. The denial of a person’s right to exist is prevalent in art and in general, culture at large only celebrates a few options. This lack of visibility has the potential to limit our understanding of ourselves. While I was at Yale, I was so lucky to have Deborah Kass as a core critic. She was/is brilliant, talented, and so empowering. She was the first out teacher that I had in all of my education. Her openness about who she was and what she stood for was huge for me. It is pathetic that the world we live in is so uncomfortable with anyone who is not white, straight, and rich, especially when those people are in the minority.

I guess I didn’t really feel too much pressure to change what I made/make because I make out of necessity and obsession.

RG: What did you have for breakfast this morning? Was it a savored or rushed meal?

CWC: I forgot to eat but I had a cup of coffee. I realized this around 11:30 when I was teaching tie dye techniques and then proceeded to drink my Maple Hill yogurt after feeling light headed.