On Exhibit: the sophisticated naivete of Gaston Chaissac | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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On Exhibit: the sophisticated naivete of Gaston Chaissac

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It was a sad life for first-rate painter Gaston Chaissac. On August 13, 1910, in Avallon, France, he was born to parents who soon divorced. A failure at school, his hopes of entering the cavalry squashed, he worked as a cobbler, cook's boy, and saddle maker. The death of his mother in 1937 prompted him to move to Paris, and there he took up painting. Shortly afterwards, he contracted tuberculosis, and spent his time in a sanitarium painting and working as a shoemaker. The rest of his life, he did odd jobs to support himself and his art. When fame finally arrived in the early 60s it brought the tired Chaissac little happiness; and on November 7, 1964, he died Of a stroke. Receiving little fame and recognition during his life, Chaissac's inner need to create spurred his artistic career. The handsome results are on display at Phyllis Kind Gallery.

Due to Chaissac's whimsical imagery, the significance of his work has often evaded audiences. Radish-headed men, crosseyed, grinning folk, and fabric-covered beasts inhabit his oeuvre. In Femme sur fond rose a nightgowned woman with fabric eyes slightly askew -- one green and one red -- floats on a half-beige and half-green wallpapered floor. One arm hangs limply to the side, the sleeve slides over her hand. The effervescence of the piece is beguiling and slightly disturbing, with its mauve painted background threatening to seep into the dark outline of the figure, like seeing a child oblivious to the hideousness of its worn, one-eyed -- but dearly loved -- stuffed doll. Yet the disquieting effect is brief. Who can help but smile at the superb, simply fashioned woman transfixed in the middle of the canvas?

The childish quality in his work brought Chaissac together with Jean Dubuffet in the mid-1940s. In an attempt to liberate accepted art forms, from the stifling, academicism of the prevailing art scene, Dubuffet searched for spontaneous, unconstrained artistic expression in the crude and direct imagery of the art of children, primitives, and the insane. "L'art brat," -he called such work, or more literally, "raw art." Paralleling Jung's theories on the child archetype, Dubuffet did not regard such untrained efforts as retarded or backward, but as representative of a forwardness. He believed that unschooled and uninhibited artists would be the source of art's rejuvenation. Believing Chaissac to be self-taught, simple, and as childlike as his meager life-style, Dubuffet thought him a perfect naive. They struck up a friendship.

Both Dubuffet and Chaissac used materials not used in fine art -- Chaissac, undoubtably, due to lack of funds, Dubuffet, in order to avoid the pitfalls of technical conventions. They exchanged letters and the results of experiments: sand, gravel, insects, and fruit skins mixed into their work provoked technical on and new imagery. Chaissac -used cheap wallpaper, cardboard, newspaper, walls, and whatever else was available as his canvas. In Untitled he used two different green wallpapers as the sky and ground, separating them by creating a horizon line of patterned irregular circles, outlined in black, looking like a stone wall. The "wall" ends with scraps of material alternating in brightness, and a newsprint photo Of two women dressed in clothing of the 20s. Their children stand with their bikes in front of a house and mannered garden. Opposite the photo is a smiling face, bodiless like a mask, balancing the complexity of the photo. Here Chaissac has brought the real world into his subjective world. With the mothers seeming to discuss domestic trivia, the smiling face and painted world seem far more appealing and inviting.

Chaissac and Dubuffet were also intrigued by automatism, or reaching the subconscious by suspending the conscious, and its preconceived artistic conventions. Dubuffet often used spot putty in his paintings, applying it indiscriminately. Once it dried, he would determine the picture's subject, in the same way that one perceives shapes in clouds, and accentuate the found motif with paint. Chaissac often let traced outlines of vegetable peels or wall cracks form the outline for his painted people. In other works, he appears to have employed a technique widely used by gradeschool teachers. While a record is playing, children are instructed to follow the music with their black crayons. Once the music stops, they fill in the dark outlined spaces with different colors. In Untitled a black loopy outline covers the center of the canvas. Into the spaces are painted a face, parts of a body, and various -- primarily gray -- colors. Labels reading "Nestle" and "camembert" are glued onto the piece. Far less chaotic and random than those of children, his colors are delicately balanced: even the brightness of a silver painted area and the complicated label designs fit neatly into the composition, creating a somber and august painting.

Not long after a few art brat shows that included Chaissac's work, and Chaissac's one-man show (for which Dubuffet wrote the catalog introduction), Dubuffet began to suspect that Chaissac's art was not as naive as he bad thought. In fact, Chaissac was not really self-taught. A painter, Otto Freudlich, bad shown him the rudiments of painting and had encouraged him in his endeavors, as did the painters Albert Gleizes and Robert and Sonia Delaunay. Chaissac was not oblivious to the art world and made many studies of Picasso's works. "More than ever, I'm a Picasso in clogs, Picasso's student, student by correspondence course," he wrote in a letter to Picasso. Like van Gogh, Chaissac was eager to learn to paint "correctly," but his personality exerted too strong an influence on his work, and his view of the world always affected the result.

Yet Chaissac's view was quite sophisticated. In fact, after Chaissac enticed Anatole Jakovsky, a well-known lover of naive art, into coming to one of his shows by sending an invitation written on a sugar-box lid, Jakovsky claimed: "What naive painters create as the result of painstaking application, immense attention to detail, Chaissac can get with no trouble at all, at a single stroke, thanks to his purity of vision and freshness of colour." And it is true. Look at the painting on newspaper that depicts a bemused, brown, tearshape-headed man wearing a pointed, dull orange beret, yellow pants, and orange wooden shoes, with hints of blue and purple throughout, and it is evident that Chaissac was one of the few artists who can be called "value perfect. Like a singer who has perfect pitch, Chaissac was able to choose perfect shades. His colors never appear garish or out of place. His imagery, though seemingly childish, is composed of highly sophisticated arrangements of color in elegantly balanced harmony.

Chaissac imagery no longer seems shocking, unusual, or trite . In Chicago -- home of many Dubuffet sculptures and the Chicago Imagists-- it seems very modern. His purity of vision, technical virtuosity, and sensitive handling of color no longer suffer from his humorous motifs. However, the glib reworkings of primitive and childlike images so popular today easily pale in comparison to the sincerity and accomplished works of the ingenuous master Gaston Chaissac. Chaissac's work will be on exhibit at Phyllis Kind Gallery, 313 W. Superior, through January 11; 642-6302.

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