As origin stories go, Garrett Chingery’s is something of a classic. This East Coast painter has been working within his chosen medium for over four decades, creating figurative, dream-like pictures with both oils and acrylics, as well as common materials, such as plaster and glue.
The natural world and the realm of the mind, are recurrent themes for this New Yorker, whose canvases have been shown in several solo exhibitions, including one presented by the noted contemporary collector, real-estate developer, and tastemaker, Aby Rosen.
With this in mind, it shouldn’t surprise us to discover that Chingery’s earliest artistic creation was an epic depiction of one of the most engaging Bible stories, which, coincidentally, also features a vast menagerie.
That early work has not survived, yet Chingery continues to paint, despite the financial pressures, social challenges and everyday inequalities artists face within the gallery system.
In this interview, published to announce Chingery’s inclusion in Artspace’s Artist Direct program –- which offers unencumbered access to the artist’s studio work–the painter describes how he went from creating visions of Noah’s Ark as a preppy school boy, through to expressing his newfound sexual ambivalence as a stoned New Jersey punk rocker.
Also look out for a little insight into his own artistic process, how he settles on the names of new works, and what he thinks you should tell your friends, once you’ve got a Chingery in your collection.
What was your first art creation? I’ve always loved to draw, and recall making some pretty great paper mache sculptures in grammar school as well. I would say my first real attempt at making an epic piece of art was when I was twelve-years-old. I decided to illustrate the animal kingdom entering Noah’s ark two by two. I drew a rather detailed composition using pen and ink, and took over the kitchen table after dinner every night for almost two weeks straight. It was going really well and I was very near completion when my little sister excitedly ran over to express her enthusiasm for my incredible artistry and in the process knocked over the entire bottle of black ink, causing a black ink flood of biblical proportions that ruined the entire drawing. I’m still working on forgiving her for that!
What made you want to become an artist? I went to an all boy’s Catholic College prep high school which was very conservative and focused learning on traditional academics. Art class was treated as an afterthought, and the lone art teacher, although a very cool woman, functioned as more of a big sister/ den mother than a serious mentor who could shepherd a kid with potential into a good art school. By high school I’d largely lost interest in most of my required classes, but art always provided the space to express myself as much as a super stoned, sexually ambivalent punk rocker kid from New Jersey could be in the late 70’s.
The thought of pursuing another 4 years of academic studies in college was incredibly unattractive to me. Although I grew up only 30 miles outside of NYC, my suburban upbringing was pretty much the antithesis of what I imagined for my life. I spent a lot of time in the city on weekends, and knew that’s where I needed to be. At 17, I visited the School of Visual Arts for a day with a friend of mine who had just started in his first year there. My eyes were opened WIDE, and that day cemented my decision to go to art school and never look back, although I wound up at The Cooper Union, not SVA.
What are the aspects of being a fine artist that you struggle with? The financial insecurity, the belief that what I’m doing is meaningful, the lack of commercial recognition. Being an artist takes a lot of belief in oneself, and a thick skin surely helps. You also have to be able to push yourself to make work and to create in the face of what can often be a tremendous amount of self doubt. Those negative voices can really be a killer!
I’ve been painting for over 40 years and may not have had the type of career I dreamed of at 18, but I am proud of the work I’ve produced throughout my life. The art world is very cliquey and difficult to penetrate, and as someone who is very solitary, I’ve not really made many of the necessary connections that lead to gallery representation and the like. But I sell my work privately and through platforms like Artspace that are more open to artists who are talented yet not necessarily household names.
How has your work changed over the course of your career? I feel like my development as an artist and the visual arc of my painting is directly related to my growth and maturity as a person. Using decades as markers of time is a pretty good way for me to evaluate the shifts of interest and subject matter that I produce.
I’ve always been a representational painter- where the subject of the painting is immediately recognizable on a certain level, but the nuances and layers of meaning and interpretation shift as I explore human perception and the power an image can have based on the way it is painted. I think over the years my work has become more rich and subtle in the way in which I put across my ideas.
I explored my religious upbringing and sexuality in my early work, I became more interested in the psychology behind portraiture in my mid career efforts, and lately I’ve shifted focus to the natural world and have been making work that is largely focused on animals and their relationship to the planet.
How would you describe your work to someone who has never seen it? I make paintings that are a record of the world in which we live, recognizable images of both people and animals that are highly rendered and yet simultaneously transcend their realism by offering an insight into what the subject is composed of on an emotional and experiential level.
Could you describe your process, or a typical working day? Prior to beginning a new painting, I gather a number of reference images from the internet, and make a drawing that will serve as the general blueprint for the final image. After I transfer the drawing to the canvas, the next few hours are spent blocking in the canvas . For me, this is the most enjoyable part, because I get to see my thoughts come alive very quickly in front of me. It’s very immediate and very gratifying.
That might be it for the first day’s work. I work rapidly and generally spend 3-4 hours at a time on a piece. Music is essential, and I almost exclusively listen to house and dance music when I work. The repetition and steadiness of the beat puts me in a zone where I can just focus on what’s in front of me and nothing else.
What do you think about when you’re creating? I try not to think too much when I’m working. My preliminary drawing generally sets the piece up enough to the point where I just try and immerse myself in bringing the painting to life. And as the piece emerges, the progression of that journey begins to offer me cues as to how to represent the image in a way that is distinguishable, yet also new and fresh to the eye. It’s always fun to make an unexpected mark or detour in the process, and that’s what makes painting so engaging for me.
Where do your titles come from? I’ve always admired artists who come up with fantastic titles for their work that are literary masterpieces in and of themselves. I, unfortunately, am generally not so clever when it comes to titling my work. I usually name the piece after I’ve completed it, and in doing so, think about what the piece means for me.
As an artist whose primary focus is a sort of realism gone slightly ‘askew’, I often choose titles that are descriptive of the image in some way yet are ambiguous enough to allow the viewer sufficient leeway to interpret the image through their own lens.
What are the things currently going on that are inspiring you? For many years, my work dealt with identity and the human condition. I was interested in exploring the psychology of modern life, how people interact and relate to one another within society.
Over the last few years, I’ve taken a bit of a step back from tackling those issues and shifted my focus. The political climate in the world coupled with the pandemic and all the fallout from that really tested my faith in the human race. The natural world–that which exists outside of humankind–has offered me a new source of inspiration that I really never considered until recently. I’m awed and inspired by animals in particular at the moment; there’s an endless variety of creatures that exist in this world that bring a collective voice and spirit that is totally pure and devoid of malice. I feel they are the perfect counterpoint and the answer to so much of the destruction that the human race has unleashed on the planet. And so, for the last few years I’ve been making animal-centric paintings. It’s been a great experience so far, and led me to growth I hadn’t expected.
If I buy one of your paintings, what should I say to friends about it? Send a text message to all of them with an image of the painting attached and tell them, ‘I just bought the most wonderful painting from this artist Garrett Chingery, whom you may have never heard of, but is one of the best kept secrets in contemporary art. I absolutely love his work! Check out his Artspace page NOW and snatch up one of his paintings- this guy is great!’
Care to send that text yourself? Then take a look at more works by Chingery on his Artspace page, here.