Seattle artist Jaq Chartier has built up a national reputation based on her spare, abstract paintings in which simple dots, blobs, and streaks of color are arranged in rows on a stark white background. What’s gained Chartier particular notice is the ideas which drive her art. Each of her images, besides being a particular collection of colored shapes, is also a record of an actual chemistry experiment in which Chartier explores the interaction of stains and dyes with various layers of acrylic paint, a process with visually fascinating, unpredictable results. Our art critic Gary Faigin joins us for a closer look at this intriguing work.
In the case of painter Jaq Chartier, her Doo-Wop-Bop-She-Bop is the halo, a seductive glow of florescent color that massages and surrounds the various dots, blobs, and lozenges of paint that populate her images. Whatever the merits of the ideas which drive her art – and they are myriad, and interesting – it’s the sensual pleasures of those electric, chromatic blurs, that ultimately holds our attention. Each of her color spots is sort of a miniature Rothko, primary colors stewing in the miasma of their own radiance.
I need those luminous moments, because I’m not initially drawn to work with such restricted imagery. Each of Chartier’s paintings is laid out as a chart, with a repeated abstract element - a streak, lozenge, or dot of paint - deployed in grids or rows on an impeccably burnished, off-white panel. Literally a test, many of the works include cryptic, hand-written captions as to the pigments being used or the modifications being applied, modifications which include heat, light, or thin sprays of primer paint. A single color or family of colors often dominates, and the mechanical ways in which this color is applied – using an eye dropper or a stick – further contributes to the austere overall look. Gestural painting this is not – patterns dominate, and the artist’s hand is barely in evidence.
It’s at close range that these subtle pieces work the best, where what we experience isn’t so much the overall pictorial design – not the works’ strongest point – but the pulsing and fading of the mysteriously embedded colors and shapes, activity which we observe but can’t quite fathom.
And no wonder we can’t quite get what’s going on – Chartier is famously obsessed with process, and her final product is the result of highly unorthodox materials and methods. Rather than artist’s paints, Chartier employs industrial and biological stains and dyes, water-soluble liquids which feature intensely saturated, highly tenacious color. The fact that stains and dyes have the ability to bleed into other paints is the key mechanism behind Chartier’s halo effects. Her initial spots of pigment are covered with thin, sprayed-on layers of neutral paint and gels (which ironically includes paint expressly designed to cover stains), and the subsequent re-emergence of the original paint, reacting in a variety of ways with its surroundings, creates the blurs and phantoms and colorful clouds which animate her imagery. In her methodical way, Chartier notes the results, and devises new experiments.
There is an interesting a back story to the development of Chartier’s working process and visual language. On the one hand it draws on her former day job as a paint tester and demonstrator for Golden Paint, an origins story almost too good to be true. Another major influence is something called gel electrophoresis, an arcane but widespread scientific technique in which the migration of molecules through a gel medium is subsequently stained and photographed, resulting in analytical charts which are the clear model for those of Chartier, a debt she proudly acknowledges.
But for many viewers, the nature of these paintings as the results of an elaborate research project (about which the artist is clearly quite sincere) is rather beside the point. It’s really about what we see on the wall, the ghostly way Chartier’s colorful amoebas, coins, kidney beans, and streaks inhabit and illuminate their ethereal picture space.
In the moderate-sized painting entitled, "Color Chart/Chance Selection," for example, six columns of blindfold/ boomerang/ kidney shapes assert themselves against the surrounding white in a wide variety of ways. One set of black blobs has the dark, charred look of holes burned into a piece of wood, surrounded by a gauzy penumbra like the ring around a solar eclipse – with auras the color of rust, of new grass, or of blood. Elsewhere in the painting things get even more intense, with beacons of Day-Glo pink, orange, and violet surrounding darker but still colorful cores. Chartier further complicates the mix by masking and exposing these painted columns to a color-altering light, which slightly darkens their immediate background, making the whole row stand forward from the surrounding untainted white, like flowers in the snow.
Like most good painters, Chartier is skillful at altering the mix so that she can explore a range of ideas within her chosen area of focus. Some of the paintings, like "Giant Color Chart," feature a full spectrum of color; others, like "Little Grid w/Scarlet #5," are monochromatic, with minute variations of essentially the same color, enlivened by the spooky arrangement of its dissolving elements in shallow space. Similarly, the underlying shapes and methods of the repetitions are inventively varied, from honeycombs of coins, to what looks like drips turned sideways and overpainted with streaks, to one very atypical (and not terribly successful) view of what looks vaguely like a close-up of highly-angular orange lace.
Though most of the paint surface is completely flat, here and there some laboratory incident has created actual relief: tiny pits like moon craters here, enigmatic long grooves there. The grooves are found on one of the oddest images in the show, a truly confounding set of five dark lozenges shaped like the soles of misshapen shoes, all grimly blackened except for wisps of brilliant color leaking around the edges, like a gesture of hope and defiance in the face of death and decay, or the last blaze of a dying star.
This is a very strong body of work, and more than justifies the artist’s growing reputation. Part of me wishes that the imagery was as mesmerizing in its overall effect as it is in its particulars, but what particulars! By drilling down to the molecular level of paint technology, Chartier has succeeded in freeing up those energies to be found in the deep interstices, places where films of color creep and collide. One is in no hurry for this particular laboratory process to come to a close.