Neoteric Art: Let’s start with school. Discuss your experience at Brigham Young and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Todd Chilton: My BFA was in printmaking at BYU. I did a lot of intaglio, but also worked in lithography, drawing and collage. By the end, though, I was mostly making paintings and my final show ended up being paintings and monotypes. Since then, I’ve done a few intaglio prints and still love it and hope to eventually get back to it.
BYU has a very traditional foundations program (or did when I was there, I imagine they still do) with requirements of drawing, 2D and 3D composition, color theory and application, etc. For such a conservative and geographically isolated school, I feel like I got a pretty solid and fundamentally sound art education. I worked closely with some of the younger professors who exposed me to contemporary work and ideas and challenged me to develop content as well as the aesthetic issues of my work.
SAIC was (maybe obviously) a huge change. It was largely self-driven, which I appreciated, and gave me access to a wide range of advisors and other students to talk to. Overall, I think my experience was made by interaction with my peers. I got a lot out of meeting with advisors, visiting artists and other faculty, but the constant interaction with other students in studios sticks with me. Those relationships were vitally important I think, and I hope will be for a long time. I still get together with a couple of guys who graduated with me and we go look at medieval paintings at the Art Institute. Of course, I still keep in touch with people from BYU as well, people who are still making work, and that is very helpful as well. But for me, the function of peers in grad school was different from undergrad.
Between undergrad and grad school, my wife and I lived outside of Philadelphia where I worked for a stone mason, painted, and saw as much art as possible in New York and Philadelphia. Looking back, I think this time was just as valuable as either degree. Seeing the work in person and trying to evaluate it was extremely helpful. Also, growing up, I went to high school in Maryland and spent a lot summer weekends at the National Gallery and Hirschhorn. That kind of early exposure helped shaped the way I would interact with art later. I guess I’m an advocate of seeing as much art as possible, which is just as important as going to school.
NA: Discuss your overall work/thought processes when starting a new piece.
TC: I guess it changes from painting to painting, but generally my work starts with thumbnail drawings of patterns I make in notebooks. My paintings these days are built from simple patterns that cover the surface, from edge to edge of the rectangle. When I move to canvas, I start by drawing those patterns in paint, and they evolve from there. I very rarely make studies and usually a painting will end up completely different from how I imagined it. This may seem odd when you look at the work, which often looks pretty simple. But frequently there are layers of paint underneath, whether it’s a different pattern or drawing, colors weren’t working, the surface wasn’t right, etc. I don’t just build up layers for the sake of building up layers, though. Some paintings work out right the first go. The short version is, I have an idea of what I want to make and I make it. Sometimes it’s a matter of drawing a pattern and filling it in. Other times it’s more intuitive. When it doesn’t come together, I rework it (and sometimes throw it away).
NA: How has your work evolved since getting your MFA four years ago?
TC: My work changes slowly, incrementally. I don’t work serially or in series, so since school, I don’t have large shifts or differentiated bodies of work. Sometimes I abandon an idea and come back to it a year or two later. Toward the end of graduate school I figured out some things in my work that started the direction in which I’m more or less still moving. One thing that I appreciated about being out of school is the ability to work for long stretches of time without talking to anyone about what I’m thinking or why I’m doing what I’m doing. This allows me to focus on the paintings and make what I want to make. I know artists who suffocate if they don’t have anyone to talk to. I guess I thrive on isolation (to a point). Then when I’m ready, or get stuck, or whatever, I invite people over. It’s on my own time and allows for an evolution that hopefully is honest and not forced. When I don’t have a show deadline, I give myself deadlines to keep things moving (which deadlines are rarely met). It’s about continually working and adjusting. I haven’t made a seismic shift in a while, though, and maybe I feel one coming on.
NA: You live and work in Chicago. Describe the Chicago art scene.
TC: The Chicago scene seems exceptionally supportive of artists and allows artists to take initiative in making things happen. I hear it described as cliquey, and I think that is true to a certain extent, but it’s the kind of place that recognizes effort. Artists see a need to show their own work, that of friends, or work they believe in, so they put together shows in apartments. Some of the most dynamic spaces in the city were started in apartments and/or by artists. ThreeWalls is a great example of a space started by artists that continues to serve artists and the city. The show “Artists Run Chicago” at the Hyde Park Art Center makes this point pretty well. It seems like the people who work hard and make good work will show, but you have to actively invite people to see it. Of course, no system is perfect and people fall through the cracks or are excluded. But Chicago is a good place to make work and to try to make your own scene. Do I sound like I work for the Chamber of Commerce? Since grad school though, there have been times where I’ve shown more outside of the city than in, and long stretches of time where I didn’t (or don’t) know when my next show will be. At some point I decided that no scene anywhere is going to come to me, so I have to make the work and do my best to talk to people.
NA: What art magazines and/or art blogs do you read?
TC: I’ve been reading more novels than anything else lately. I look at Artforum, but don’t faithfully read it. I look at various other art magazines when they catch my eye or someone tells me about an article. As for art blogs, I skim and look at the headlines of several, but again, I don’t read every word. I do read as many reviews as I can handle and interviews with artists. Blogs are a great way to see what’s getting made out there and what people are thinking about it. But I’m more interested in making paintings than in keeping up with all the happenings. I like to read writing that shows evidence of looking at art and thinking about it. Fortunately, I think a lot of blogs are doing that, but they’re full of filler too.
If you want a list, here’s a very partial one: Art Fag City, Art or Idiocy, Art21 Blog, Bad at Sports, C-Monster.net, Contemporary Art Daily, Culture Monster, Ed Winkleman, greg.org, Hrag Vartanian, I call it Oranges, jameswagner.com, Joanne Mattera, Modern Art Notes, MW Capacity, Two Coats of Paint, LACMA Blog, and various other mainstream media blogs (NYTimes, LATimes, NY Mag, etc.) and museum blogs. If you’re interested in architecture, A Daily Dose of Architecture and Arch Daily are great. Lots of pretty pictures.
NA: Concerning your art career, where do you see yourself ten years from now?
TC: I hope to be still making and showing. And hopefully have a much better studio-time-to-day-job ratio (if I can’t eliminate the latter).