Talking to Painter Chris Hood about Emojis and Starry Night
On an unseasonably warm afternoon in early May, I met with painter Chris Hood at his fifth-floor studio in East Harlem. The walls were lined with raw canvases, each one dotted with cartoons: bombs with frowning faces, floating eyeballs, and sexy smoking hearts. These are the beginnings of Hood’s signature back-to-front paintings—which have landed him in a new show in London.
Working in wet oils, Hood paints over these playful characters, purposely letting his pigments soak through to the other side, creating a cloudy, ephemeral image that he likens to an inside-out graphic tee. He won’t see what his actual painting looks like until the canvas is flipped around and stretched—a solid act of faith that works out quite well in practice. The cartoon motifs float in familiar landscapes—they’re lifted from Vincent van Gogh, bringing the art giant’s spiraling skies to new heights of psychedelia. The finished works are a mix of highbrow and lowbrow, control and chaos, tradition and innovation; these brave experiments are both aesthetically compelling and conceptually considered.
The Atlanta native (proudly sporting a Braves cap when we met) earned his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2010, and settled in New York soon after. This month marks an important milestone for the young artist, with the opening of a two-man exhibition at Rod Barton in London, where his work is shown alongside Danish artist Carl Mannov’s concrete sculptural reliefs. And in New York, his name is on the tips of everyone’s tongues at the latest NADA fair. In advance of this momentous point in his career, Hood spoke to Artsy about this new body of work, his inspirations, and the unique process that’s garnering success for him.
Artsy: Can you explain a little bit what led you to this unusual style of painting and how you’re using it?
Chris Hood: The idea came from looking at a lot of regular paintings. If you stretch your own canvas, versus buying it pre-stretched, you start to see paintings in a certain way. It dawned on me: it’s a material with which to transmit. There’s the ability to have a surface that something passes through by using the physical aspect of the raw canvas.
In this body of work, I’m painting from behind the canvas in oil. The canvas becomes this layer—a screen, if you will—that has a distancing effect for the viewer.
Artsy: It seems counterintuitive, but it results in really interesting surfaces.
CH: Yeah, the paint itself has a staining look. It does this thing with the brushstrokes, and seepage, and changes the viewer’s ability to read normal cues of painting. But, it’s funny, the things that are happening in these paintings happen naturally with paint. There’s really nothing new I’m adding to the formula. I’m just utilizing a different way of showing what paint does—all of this painterly stuff happens—but if it was on a regular gessoed painting surface, it maybe wouldn’t be that interesting.
Artsy: Because you have to create these layers—painting what will be on the top layer first, then the background on top of that—is everything planned out in advance?
CH: Yes, planning gets me to a certain point, but then a lot of the real fun—getting loose with paint—really takes the paintings to the next level. A lot of the choices I make are intended to mix up the information that I’ve already put down on the canvas. Other painters might do the opposite and try to clarify with details. I work the other way—it tends to get more abstract as I paint, as opposed to crystallizing into something.
Artsy: What’s the significance of the van Gogh imagery you employ?
The Starry Night motif is a funny story. It came out of a day when I saw that painting over and over again. There’s this kind of ubiquity to it, and a romance that people attribute to it. It became an interesting motif to me, connecting public thought and an icon of art.
I’m using it in this body of work as a way into the emotional content of the paintings—there’s an inherent, built-up charge that’s associated with Starry Night. It can be read as melancholy, or a notion of sincerity and sentiment, which has always been a “no-no” in art. I’ve also read that some people consider Starry Night to be one of the first abstract paintings. From Van Gogh’s vantage point, he couldn’t have geographically placed certain things in the way that he did, so I see it as one of the first examples in which an artist distorted the picture plane and collapsed the environment to form the image that he wanted.
So I use it as a signified space. It’s a setting upon which to paint, use a lot of the color relationships that are going on, and to place characters into.
Artsy: And where do the cartoons come from?
CH: Well, I’ve been using these zombie, monster things and other little characters—angry eyes and smoking hearts. A lot of my interest is in their juxtapositional quality, what they can do in this simulated space. They come from mascot imagery, which you can find in clip art or gifs, and have a relationship to people’s thinking about art and visual culture at large. They’re everywhere—popping up in online advertising or as emojis. I think it’s kind of interesting how, as dumb as they are, emojis are also beautiful pictograms. They reflect the way people have been using images to transmit ideas for millennia. They’re perfect little icons with a big ability to communicate.
Chris Hood & Carl Mannov is on view at Rod Barton, London, May 8–June 13, 2015.