There's a message amid the humor
By Leah Ollman
Los Angeles Times
September 22, 2006 in print edition E-28
What do Al Gore, Dracula, Madonna, Hitler and Abraham Lincoln have in common? They all make cameo appearances in Empire 2 (Survival), a hilarious, horrifying painting by David Quan and Colin Chillag. The Phoenix-based painters feature five additional works in their show at Angstrom (formerly Q.E.D.), but Empire 2 is so rich with political commentary, cultural critique, crude humor and language play that once it ensnares you, you may not make it to the others.
The painting, just larger than 6 by 8 feet, is a feast of irreverence, a sprawling take on the American appetite for violence and spectacle. The action takes place in Iraq, by way of the Roman Coliseum, as filtered through American media. The single lion that appears in the crumbling arena occupying half of the canvas is a docile creature, spreading its jaws for a circus trainer. Mayhem erupts all around them in the form of bubble-headed cartoon figures that stab, shoot, kick, spear and otherwise hammer away at one another. In the midst of it all, cheerleaders in chadors (Jihotties) raise red pompoms and a generic, blank-faced political couple poses for the cameras. In one of the box seats on the upper tier of the packed house perches a vulture, wearing a business suit and declaiming, Where you see tragedy, I see opportunity.
Outside the stadium, oil pipelines gush blood, a bulldozer shoves piles of corpses off to one side, and propaganda, American-style (an I Love New York T-shirt, a pack of Twizzlers red licorice), parachutes down from above. Quan and Chillag are savvy at sampling different visual idioms, reworking iconic war photographs, adapting television formulas and capturing the graphic immediacy of the comics page. Their satire is beautifully, painfully barbed, trading on familiar symbolism. Another of many examples: On one of the upper arcades of the arena, a janitor sweeps out a clutter of skulls. Below, where they are destined to fall, stands Uncle Sam and one of the little blue cartoon figures. The blue guy pleads to the emblem of American patriotism, Please, stop, but Uncle Sam hushes him with a finger to his lips as pools of dark blood spread at his feet.
By Leanne Potts
Phoenix New Times
October 27 - November 2, 2005
Colin Chillags paintings at Modified Arts make you feel like youve seen them before, in an earlier life.
The one of a grandmotherly woman holding a baby is eerily familiar, as is the one of the middle-aged couple standing in front of an elaborately decorated cake. Weve all lived these domestic tableauxor weve seen photos of people who lived them. In an age when we see more images made by some one else with a camera than with our own eyes, the distinction hardly matters.
Chillag derives his déjà vu-inducing images from snapshots he buys in thrift stores. He finds telling oddness in these decades-old, ho-hum photos from the discarded family albums of strangers. Chillag isnt trying to depict individuals. You cant see the faces of that grandma or baby clearly; Chillag paints them into a blur lost in bright highlights, as if their features have been blown out by a flashbulb. He doesnt even paint the cake in that other aforementioned image, leaving it instead as a faint pencil sketch on a white canvas.
Its in those blank spaces that Chillag works genius. There, you can feel the tedium of days on suburban cul-de-sacs where the sun always shines, where every day is alarmingly identical to the one that came before and the one that will come after. The vague parts of the image are the equivalent of an existential yawn, a visual yadda-yadda-yadda. Chillag skips the granny faces and the wedding cakes because youve seen grannies and cakes a million and two times before. Hes more interested in showing how the sameness and predictability that is inherent in middle-class life can breed boredome so immense that it feels like death.
Its a powerful new body of work that cements Chillags spot as one of the Valleys most gifted painters.
Its also quite beautiful. Translated into paint, the faded Kodachrome colors of flesh and fabric take on a lush, hallucinatory intensity. Even though Chillag takes his images from photos that date to the 1960s and 1970s, his work feels fresh and relevant. Look at his painting of a woman in cat-eye glasses and you can feel the familiar terror of a life gone banal. Chillag applies paint as thickly as cake frosting in many pieces, shaping it into a swirling, tactile form that rages against the ordinariness of the form that contains it. The cloth of the house dress worn by an elderly woman in an untitled painting is alive with motion, as if the frumpy garmentor maybe the sould of the body it coverswas aboil with quiet desperation.
There is no sentimentality or irony in Chillags work. He isnt dismissive of the banal lives he depicts in his paintings. He shows us the avocado green vinyl chairs and teased hairdos sans snarkiness. He even depicts parading Shriners without so much as an arch smirk. By avoiding the easy suburb-bashing clichés, Chillag reveals a profound reality. The ongoing dilemma of how to live in the land of tract homes, Rotary Clubs and in-laws overwhelms all hipster attempts to ridicule it.
Chillag, 34, was born in Syracuse, New York, and studied at the San Francisco Art Institute, according to Modifieds press release. Like most of his generation, he was pulled equally by the tides of low and high culture, taking his artistic inspirations from underground comics and Renaissance masters. He found his muse in the sun-washed strip malls, subdivisions and freeways of Phoenix, painting unpopulated cityscapes that possess the same empty clarity that make the portraits in the show at Modified Arts so resonant.
Chillag mimics the impassivity of the cameras that dominate and anesthetize our culture. In doing so, he reveals an essential reality: To cope with the onslaught of visual information, we edit out the unimportant details of everything we see. We see so much that we have stopped noticing, in self-defense. This means we dont look too closely at our mothers face because it looks so much like the faces of all the mothers weve seen on TV commercials or in the movies.
Sometimes Chillag apes this reflex and leaves out the details. Other times he makes us see what we dont notice by painting, matter-of-factly, the stuff we unconsciously edit out. His untitled painting of an elderly man portrays the lines in his bifocal glasses, the age spot on his forehead, the tuft of hair in his ear. Life is unbelievably complex, and the proof is that when you freeze any part of it and look closely, you are stunned.
Environmental conscience: 'PHX/LA' exhibit displays ravages of modern life
By Richard Nilsen
Sunday, May 16, 2004
It has been interesting over the past two decades watching Los Angeles rise as a counterweight to New Yorks art-world hegemony, displacing Chicago as the nations genuine Second City.
LA has become one of the major art centers of the world, where we turn to find everything from the mysteries of Robert Irwin to the telling blankness of Dan Flavin.
And, as a cultural dynamo, it spreads its influence over the desert to its east. Phoenix is clearly in the cultural slipstream of LA. This can be seen at the new show at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, called PHX/LA.
Phoenix and Los Angeles share one other thing: They both spread out over the landscape like tarpaulins, covering what was once desert with the geometric shapes of the man-made.
So, it is not surprising that art made in both cities shares the concern over degradation of environment and loss of the natural world.
The seven artists in the showtwo from Phoenix and five from LAmay not primarily see themselves as nature artists, or as conservatives, but they are.
Each posits an opposition of the natural and the man-made, the artificial and the organic, and each casts a vote for the natural and organic.
This is overt in the case of LA artist Jared Pankins Natural, Natural History 3, which is a parody of natural history museum dioramas. In this installation, the stuffed fox and his prey rabbit are situated on a parapet of cracked concrete, a wild animal on a curbstone. There is further irony in that the stuffed fox is made of fake fur.
The theme is less obvious in Brian Coopers Gratification Management, a comic installation of four galvanized buckets that seem to spill a tacky polyester quilt out onto the gallery floor. The cushioned fabric is upholstered with buttons and seams. It replaces the natural spilt milk with the artificial fabric.
Shirley Tses case is more ambiguous. She creates inflated boxes out of blue polyethylene, arranges them and photographs them in the wilderness, juxtaposing the obvious artificiality of the one with the more conventional beauty of the landscape. One might take this as a case of artificial bad, natural world good, if we were not culturally trained by the film American Beauty to see the beauty in the plastic.
A more direct attack is made in paint by Keith Sklar and Phoenixs Colin Chillag. Their large canvases are a chocolate mess of discontinuous imagery and a good deal of fun.
Sklars High Noon is 28 feet long and jumbles everything from Krazy Kat and Ignatz to the dromedary on the pack o Camel cigarettes to the bird head from Hieronymus Bosch. It castigates American commercial crassness and the proliferation of cultural junk. But the real find of this show is Chillag, a painter of exceptional inventiveness, whose large oil panel, City in the Desert most succinctly sums up the concerns of the show. It is a kind of comic map of Phoenix, with a good many recognizable detailsbuildings, flyovers, golf coursesand bits of endangered desert in the far quarters of the canvas: Monument Valley is prominent in the maps northeast.
His smaller panels, too, take on the modern world. Plant is a thick impasto oil painting of a factoryprobably a power plantwith paint so thick you wonder how it can stick to its panel. The surface of the paint has been allowed to partially dry, creating a skin like that on the top of a pudding, and then crazed, to create a wrinkled, twisted mass of paint that mimics industrial waste.
The sense of loss of a clean nature to a corrupt modernity is most direct in Phoenix artist Matthew Moores Historical Landmark Plaque, which imitates the historical markers you see alongside rural highways. His laments the loss of farmland to pavement.
By looking at the evolution of this landscape over a 130-year period, one realizes that the search for the frontier does more than transform land, but also endangers traditions and cultural practices, it says in part.
This is why these artists are conservative: They all lament the loss of something they believe has value and decry the ugliness that has taken its place. There is a kind of romanticism to this nostalgia, and an inherent conservatism, or wish to staunch change.
Colin Chillag and mark Takamichi Miller at Studio LoDo
By Deborah Sussman Susser
Art in America
Colin Chillag drives big trucks through the American west for a living, so it's not surprising that many of his recent works are landscapes. in paintings with titles such as "Long Beach, San Francisco" and "Monument Valley," he builds thick globs of oil point into a kind of pigmented frosting. The resulting surfaces look like melted plastic in some places, parched earth in others.
Chillag, who attended the San Francisco Art Institute from 1989 to 1993 and is now based in Phoenix, makes work that is playful yet earnest, approachable but not easy. In "The Golf School" (2003), several suburban golfers, male and female, stand around the central figure of an instructor crouched at a student's feet. The painting's composition and its sense of hushed anticipation are oddly reminiscent of a medieval annunciation scene. Like the other paintings here, "The Golf School," which recalls Frank Auerbach's work, celebrates the human hand with a surface that practically vibrates.
"Cityscape" (2003), a large oil-on-panel painting, combines a painterly approach with the surreal cartooning that marked Chillag's earlier work. The city in question seems to be under attack, perhaps from the large, goofy alien craft at the top of the panel. In the streets, a soldier with an automatic weapon stands next to a burning car, a dozen tiny figures flee and stumble, a man clutching a television set runs away. As is often the case with Chillag's work, the painting quotes directly from other visual sources: a little R. Crumb in the corner, some Escher no the far left, a Pop "POW!" over the black-and-white passage that looks as if it could have been lifted from an architectural drawing. Lare portions of the panel have been left unpainted; the wood in these areas is marked only with a faint grid. Chillag seems to be both pointing out the artificial nature of the city, any city, and proudly showing us how his talent and vision have transformed his materials.
The second room at LoDo was occupied by Seattle painter Mark Takamichi Miller's grand portraits: smeared, specific yet generic figures that look like psychedelic Gerhard Richters [see A.i.A., Mar. '99]. They didn't complement Chillag's landscape-based work, but they did provide an interesting counterweight.