New American Paintings: "Disappearing Act: Jaq Chartier's Climate-Changing Paintings"

September 2013

New American Paintings
by Erin Langner

Jaq Chartier | Lettuce Coral, 2013, acrylic, stains, paint on wood panel, 28 x 36 inches.
Jaq Chartier | Lettuce Coral, 2013, acrylic, stains, paint on wood panel, 28 x 36 inches.

A similar consciousness persists in Chartier’s newest series SubOptic, on view at Seattle’s Platform Gallery, for which she reconfigures her processes for more traditional subject matter. Through allusions to cyanotypes of underwater flora by Anna Atkins, an early 19th century British artist and friend of photography pioneer Henry Fox Talbot, Chartier fuses the highly present concern of climate change with the historic sensibilities of scientific drawings and traditional landscape scenes. Designed to fade over time, SubOptic mirrors the fate of both the cyanotype reference points and the bleached corals the works portray, steeping the paintings in a deep sense of temporality. I caught up with the artist to find out more about the new direction for her work and the processes behind it.

Erin Langner: Both SubOptic and Ultra Marine, your show at Elizabeth Leach Gallery in Portland, OR earlier this year, take inspiration from coral reefs and their destruction due to climate change.  Was there a particular incident or experience that instigated your interest in this subject?

Jaq Chartier: Something clicked when I saw Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth. It filled me with dread for the magnitude and complexity of the problem of climate change. At the same time, the rich imagery resonated with my “art & science” inclinations. I wanted to explore this imagery in the studio, but I didn't see a way to integrate it with my Testing paintings. So it has been a slow-moving side project for a long time. This year, I finally decided to concentrate on the new series, just allowing it to exist as it's own thing, separate from Testing, and to see what happened. It didn't take long to realize that the overall topic of climate change was too big to take on all at once. I needed to find an approach that was focused and personal, and that turned out to be the forms and structures of corals.

Jaq Chartier | Stony Coral Landscape, 2013, acrylic, stains and dyes on wood panel, 11 x 14 inches.
Jaq Chartier | Stony Coral Landscape, 2013, acrylic, stains and dyes on wood panel, 11 x 14 inches.

EL: I thought your use of coral is interesting in the way it can appear both as a very real, defined object and also as an amorphous abstraction that resonates as a broader, almost atmospheric sensation. You mention it as a more personal way to capture climate change, as well—how so? 

JC: By personal, I was thinking about the studio – finding a way to transform the broad topic of climate change into my own aesthetic language. The simultaneously abstract and representational aspects of coral that you mention are precisely what attracted me to them as a subject. There’s a tremendous diversity of forms within coral structure, and coral are often suggestive in that micro/macro way.

Jaq Chartier | Core Sample, 2013, acrylic, stains and dyes on wood panel, 24 x 18 inches.
Jaq Chartier | Core Sample, 2013, acrylic, stains and dyes on wood panel, 24 x 18 inches.

EL: Do you consider your work a form of activism, in terms of its bringing attention to environmental issues?

JC: Maybe activism-lite. I don't mean to trivialize what I'm doing; it's just that I still have so much to learn about the issues. Right now, the process of making the paintings is drawing me closer to the subject, and I'm just following my curiosity. 

 Jaq Chartier | Golden Coral, 2013, acrylic, stains, spray paint on wood panel, 42 x 32 inches.
Jaq Chartier | Golden Coral, 2013, acrylic, stains, spray paint on wood panel, 42 x 32 inches.

EL: Your earlier Testing series integrates scientific imagery, such as DNA charts and microscope slides, with the physical testing of materials you orchestrate through the stains and formulas you combine with conventional paint mediums; this feels like a highly original process.  Your newer work relates more overtly to traditional painterly imagery, such as landscapes and maps.  Was this a conscious shift in your practice or do you see the two bodies of work as continuous?

JC: I don't see them as continuous. I'm using the same materials for the new paintings, but otherwise the two bodies of work seem to be on separate tracks for now. I haven't given up the Testing series, as I love exploring color and the interactions of the materials. Those paintings are stripped down to very specific rules; each painting must be an actual test of some kind, and every element has to be there for a reason which supports the test. The newer paintings are a more traditional kind of picture making, and it's a refreshing counterpoint which I seem to need right now, to open the process again. 

Jaq Chartier | 12 Samples, 2012, acrylic, stains, paint on wood panel, 50 x 40 inches.
Jaq Chartier | 12 Samples, 2012, acrylic, stains, paint on wood panel, 50 x 40 inches.

EL: The stains you create and utilize in your paintings are designed to change over time.  Are you at a point in your practice that you can anticipate the forms those changes will take, or do you still experience surprises? 

JC: The paintings in SubOptic will change in subtle ways over time to reflect the problem of coral bleaching, but in this case it won't be anything dramatic. I can make paintings that completely disappear, (such as the piece I documented in a video titled Sun Test: Time Lapse), but that wasn't my goal here. The idea of change is a place where the two bodies of work can overlap, and I'm sure I will be exploring that more over the next few years. 

And yes, I'm still surprised every day by these materials. While I'm making each piece, throughout all the layers and various steps in the process, I'm holding an image of the painting in my head which I know can only be an approximation of the final result. Each time, after I've applied the final coating of white acrylic medium, I walk away never sure what I'll see when I return the next day. It's like waiting for a Polaroid photo to develop. There's a period of time where it's just a field of white, wet mystery, and anything could happen.

Jaq Chartier | Elephant Ear Coral Landscape, 2013, acrylic, stains, paint on wood panel, 11 x 14 inches.
Jaq Chartier | Elephant Ear Coral Landscape, 2013, acrylic, stains, paint on wood panel, 11 x 14 inches.

Jaq Chartier lives and works in Seattle. She earned her BFA from the University of Massachusetts and her MFA from the University of Washington. Her work has recently been exhibited at Elizabeth Leach Gallery (Portland, OR), the Frye Art Museum (Seattle, WA), Robischon Gallery (Denver, CO), Morgan Lehman Gallery (New York, NY), and Haines Gallery (San Francisco, CA).  Chartier was a finalist in the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards (2011) and a Neddy Fellowship Award nominee (2005 and 2006), and she is the recipient of a Purchase Award from Seattle Public Utilities (2013 and 2003).

Erin Langer is a writer and museum professional based in Seattle, WA.