For the third interview of Phone Tag, I spoke with Chase Westfall from his office at Gallery Protocol in Gainesville, Florida, where he is the director. As an artist, Chase draws on a broad range of philosophical, theological, and artistic influences to consider the cultural meaning and societal function of violence. His practice encompasses a broad range of media including sculpture, installation, video, and performance in addition to painting. I worked with Chase on a text for a solo exhibition, Terror Function, that he had this past winter at 101/exhibit gallery in Los Angeles. In addition to his artistic practice and Gallery Protocol, Chase is a part of Imperfect Articles, a Chicago-based t-shirt company that seeks to challenge the relationship between image, audience, and “exhibition” space by working with artists to create t-shirts. I caught up with Chase after he was recovering from a busy period of teaching, preparing for his most recent exhibition, gallery projects, travel, and the holidays.
Phone Tag is a generative interview format, where I ask each participating artist five questions (plus others as the discussion meanders). At the end, I ask him or her to introduce me to a working artist whose attitude and work they find interesting and inspiring, who I then interview with the same five questions.
LW: “What are you working on now?”
CW: “Right now I’m pursuing something I haven’t done in a number of years: a couple of local exhibition opportunities. I grew up in this area, but then moved away when I was about 19. Since then, for the past 15 years, I’ve had that stereotypical nomadic lifestyle–two years here, two years there. And there was actually a brief period when I was back here finishing my BFA (I graduated in 2008), but then it was off again to the next thing. About two and a half years ago we–my wife and kids and I–moved back here when I accepted the position as the director of Gallery Protocol. With all of that coming and going, it had been almost 9 years since I had exhibited any work in Gainesville. Then a friend of mine approached me about doing a show in a space here in town. It shifts my set of personal criteria for the exhibition. Not in the sense that I don’t take it seriously, but for whatever reason doing a show in my hometown after so long is a way of like, snuggling in. All the people and reasons integral to my start are here, so it becomes a chance to celebrate them. I’m going to focus on making a set of paintings. The 101/exhibit show was very interdisciplinary, more so than I’ve worked historically. I had a lot of fun with that, but it also felt raw and vulnerable. All my current efforts are about rediscovering my comfort zone. I’m just going to make some paintings, which is my metaphorical artistic home.”
LW: “After nine years, there’s a lot of room to reflect on what has happened.”
CW: “Yeah, and it’s actually in the same space that I did my BFA exhibition. As I was getting ready to graduate, I wanted to do something off campus and this space was available for rent back then–it was something like $75 a night? They were just trying to cover their costs. At the time it was called Downhome Gallery, but it closed after we moved away. One of the guys I was in school with when I was here, Micah Daw, also recently moved back to Gainesville and reached out to the owners of the building and got permission to start doing shows there again. This upcoming exhibition feels like it completes the circle since it’s in the same space where I did my first real exhibition–the first time I did a show on my terms and, more importantly than that, was able to pursue my own vision.”
LW: “You live in Gainesville, but you just had an exhibition in L.A.. Do you think it’s better for an artist to be in big city like L.A.—with a strong cultural scene but higher cost of living—or to be in a smaller place like Gainesville, where maybe the focus can be more on making?”
CW: “Honestly, because of a number of personal life choices and circumstances, being here in Gainesville is the right thing for me. But I tell any young, genuinely ambitious artists I talk to: go to New York, go to Chicago, go to L.A. You’ll face real challenges but those challenges, over the long term, will help you develop the qualities that you need to have as an artist. Even if you can only take it for a couple of years, have that experience and it will give you a lot of perspective for moving forward.
The nature of access is changing because of the internet. But there is still a visceral energy and phenomenological pressure that you get in the city. For me, there is something about these big cities as places where the talent collects and pools and, in a healthy way, you realize you can’t sit around and wait. You gotta’ hustle and get after it. There is a larger mythology about what it means to be an artist that centers around a fantasy of self-fulfillment and self-expression. While those are really wonderful privileges of being an artist, they aren’t sustainable over the long term unless there’s a real blue-collar work ethic to lay a foundation for that self-indulgence to happen.
So, I still say get to the big cities. You can stay informed and educated in smaller places in a way you couldn’t in the past, but even so, you want to be around the best people. You want to be around the freshest, rawest, toughest, and grittiest ideas, and the areas of critical mass are still the big cities.”
LW: “Speaking about being an artist, when did you first consider yourself an artist?”
CW: “That’s a great question. Well, like a lot of artists, I was the kid who could draw really well. I developed a sense of self-worth around that skill. But that sort of lost its importance for me as I got older –by the time I got to high school I didn’t want to be the kid who could draw really well–I wanted to be the kid who played soccer really well. So I spent four years of high school, despite my lack of natural athletic ability, focusing on that. After high school, I started messing around with BMX but then broke my ankle really badly. I was in a walking boot for 8 months. I was stuck in my house. We lived out in the country and I couldn’t drive, so I stayed at home all day. And my parents are kooky enough people that, one day, when I got the urge to start painting murals on the wall, they said ‘go for it.’ So I started painting murals and had a lot of fun with that. At that time I was also getting ready to serve a religious mission for my church. The timing of the injury was such that just as I was getting out of the boot I left the country for two years to serve as a missionary in Costa Rica. All I had been doing before I left was painting, so I left in that mindset–thinking about art. Maybe not art with a capital “A” but certainly drawing, the rendering of images, etc., had had this sort of stunning rebirth for me. The whole time I was serving my mission, I felt like that was what I wanted to do when I got back. I couldn’t really rationalize it—perhaps it just was a coincidence that that was the flavor I left home with. I would tell people there that when I got back, I was going to be an artist. That was it. I never really questioned it after that.”
LW: “Who has influenced your practice?”
CW: “That’s a question I really struggle with. It must be like a mental block that I have because I look at a lot of art and I know it influences me, but the influences that I’m the most conscious of, or self-aware about, are more the conceptual or philosophical ones. A lot of it comes from things I read, so a lot of authors have been very influential.
You always take material cues from other artists. But I think the biggest thing I learn from other visual artists–speaking in the broadest terms–is about what is and isn’t effective–what kinds of things can and can’t be reached through the language of visual art. Looking at where their works succeeds, where it fails, developing a sense of what kinds of information it can most effectively communicate. That was something I personally struggled with early on, confusing the communicative potential I wanted my artwork to have with the kind of communication that was better left to other forms of expression. I was very fixated on being able to express specific ideas and being able to communicate in very concrete ways. I’ve learned through engaging with visual art that you have to let go of that to a certain extent.”
LW: “Speaking of the difficulty of representing certain things visually, and being inspired by a lot of writers, do you ever write?”
CW: “I have. I’ve written criticism and what I might call art theory, but I’ve never really undertaken writing as a creative practice. I’ve thought a lot about doing it. The first baby step I took in that direction was the poem I included in the Terror Function show. My brother and I composed a poem—my brother’s a writer—and had it displayed in the space as part of the exhibition.
There’s this mythology around artists, which could very well be true, that real makers can’t live without making. And that’s never been me. I like being in the studio and I have certain skills for art making, but I also acknowledge, as we all know, that making a good drawing, for example, is not the same thing as making art. And I don’t have that emotional dependence on art making that I hear other artists talk about. The satisfaction that I derive from writing, even when it’s something as simple as the press releases here at the gallery, is often equivalent to making paintings. So, I have thought about transitioning parts of my practice into writing.”
LW: “Regarding making and how you approach making, what does an ideal day look like in the studio for you?”
CW: “An ideal day?…is something I’ve probably never had. I don’t really believe in the value of the ideal or perfect world—the challenges we face are the vital spark that keep things moving forward. That sounds pretty corny really, but I’m embracing it more and more as I get older: it’s the little thorns in your side that keep you moving, progressing. For me, that’s the best way to ensure that what you do has a vitality and edge.
But an ideal day would involve getting up early, so getting into the studio by 5 or 6 am. Read for an hour or two. Then, a combination of prep work and actual execution. The prep work can be as enjoyable as the making itself. Of course, you can’t really separate it out from the making. But if there is a kind of zen state to be achieved in the studio, for me it happens when I’m assembling and stretching canvases. You’re not making complicated value judgements. There is a cleanness that process has that other aspects of your studio practice don’t have. Then you really settle in to work and get some painting knocked out for the rest of the day. When you’re ready to go home you make a few calls to check up on the progress of your other projects–because if this is an ideal day I am farming out my sculptural stuff!”
LW: “How often do you try to get in the studio?”
CW: “It’s streaky; I’m definitely a studio sprinter. I don’t have—just because of life circumstances—consistent studio time. For instance, I’ve only spent a couple of days in the studio since the Terror Function exhibition, and that work was delivered in late October. There has been a ton going on since then with the Gallery and Imperfect Articles so that’s how it goes sometimes–I’ve only been in there like one day a month. What will happen is that as a deadline gets closer I will switch gears and then I’ll be in there every day for as long as it takes to get the work knocked out. That’s not ideal—I wish it wasn’t that way. But, the frequency of the studio time is really dependent on the immediacy of the deadline.”
LW: “Yeah, but I can only imagine. You do have a full-time job and you do have a family. You fit it in where you can.”
CW: “That’s true, but it still puts you through the emotional wringer. Every few months it’s like: ‘OK, I’ve allowed other things to displace my studio practice as priority. You think, maybe I’m not a real artist, maybe I don’t have the dedication or passion that it takes. Would a real artist go two months without being in the studio?’ You start to ask yourself, should I try to transition into something else, do more writing for example? And then, as soon as you have those doubts, you have a good studio day, and you’re stoked again. It’s a constant back and forth.”
LW: “Certainly for me, the way I approach the writing I do, it’s a balancing act. Those are all my questions. Thank you for participating!”
CW: “Thank you so much.”