June 2008
Volume 39, Issue 5

“Christopher Chinn at Overtones Gallery”

Based in Los Angeles, Christopher Chinn moved to the unsavory downtown area called Skid Row after art school because that's all he could afford. He is a gifted portraitist who had until recently mainly worked off friends and family members. One day he was forced to admit by circumstance that he was scared of his homeless "neighbors" and an idea was born--to train his skills at the easel on the unlikely subject of the very homeless which made him so uneasy. Portraits of individuals, when they do their main job, contain their stories, residual evidence of their lives. In fulfilling the very highest historical function of portraiture, they also contain clues to the sitter's economic status (usually elevated). What Chinn has undertaken with this project thus has profound sociopolitical foundations as a psychological subtext. In paying attention to those to whom it is rarely paid, it is analogous to Gustave Courbert's transgressive Stone Breakers (1849), considered brashly bohemian and inappropriate for lavishing that kind of technical finesse and dispassionate formal accomplishment on peasants doing manual labor. And so it resonated as a political statement and sparked a realist movement.

The images in Chinn's series, especially the most unsettling ones like Downtown Lullaby and Under the Bridge, follow Courbert's lead, bringing unflinching frankness and a steady, deep gaze to portraits in which the subjects seem to be suffering physical and emotional breakdowns right in front of your eyes. Surprisingly, or not perhaps that surprisingly, the main element that comes through is their stubborn dignity. You see them being seen. It's powerful stuff. In the former, wide cross-laid strokes of thick white paint shroud the man's shoulders and bleed the white into the background, so that his long, dark face, pinnacle of a blue cap and uneven gaze loom forward into the room. In the latter, the man enters the frame from the left, dividing it more or less in half vertically at a slight diagonal, the other part a thick stew of blue pigments and impasto light patches. The pitch of the man's body threatens to fall forward, with his front hand foreshortened in drastic contrast of scale with his other hand. A certain sea-sickly pitch sets in that might help explain the look of disoriented panic on the man's face. That or a fatal lack of medication.

But none of this narrative, no matter how compelling, should overshadow the striking formal gifts this still-young artist possess. His facility with expressive, variegated brushwork, manipulations of scale and perspective, facial expressivity and dexterous line work are shown to equal advantage in the vast wide passages of pure abstraction as in the meticulous evocations of skin and hair. The patience, detail, energy and, let's just admit it, beauty of the unlikeliest moments are the secret delight of the work. When the Mediterranean glare of sun skips across the unconscious man on the sidewalk in Curbside Motel and it bounces around the fully two-thirds of the canvas given over the swashing, braying blue of the concrete, Chinn's brush is free to flaunt its moves.

Christopher Chinn: On the Row closed in April at Overtones Gallery, Los Angeles. Shana Nys Dambrot is a contributing editor to Artweek.