Ceremonial Handball: On Jim Chatelain
RYAN STANDFEST Ceremonial Handball: On Jim Chatelain by ryan standfest
Ceremonial Handball: On Jim Chatelain
by ryan standfest

(Published in "Cass Corridor: Connecting Times", edited by Simone DeSousa | published by Simone DeSousa Gallery, 2017)

Jim Chatelain’s 2016 painting "A Stray Bullet" assembles a space: in the foreground a blue structure like a sliced cross-section of arterial meat, punctuated by striations of red that vibrate and overwhelm in their brilliance. The form has been opened with two slender, vertical apertures allowing for a view into and behind it. Peeking out from the other side of this red and blue portal is a thicket of forms—ivory hybrids of saguaro cactuses and wishbones, silhouettes resembling little anguished hands, and myriad curls, drips, and pipes—constituting a comic jungle, not unlike a bit of plastic aquarium décor or a blatantly fake Hollywood rock and brush set-piece, the sort that a cowboy might be hiding behind as he prepares to fire off a rifle.

What lies even further behind this dense grouping of material, is a maelstrom of darker, paler colored forms that contrasts with the brightness of the foregrounded passages. The cumulative viscera seen through the blue and red window activates the entirety of the space with its hooking and curling, unfurling and reaching forms, packed and teeming. These forms both obscure and reveal, block and frame. Even further back into this space, there is a little patch of calm—an orange and red-fleshed face with grey-rimmed squinting eyes, staring back at the viewer like some camouflaged peeping Tom hiding at the bottom of a dumpster. This undercover observer contrasts with the pronounced conglomeration of forms and colors piled before him, and welcomes a moment of halting, absurd humor when one views the painting. As a spectator, there is a tendency to doubt the presence of this little orange face, to turn away half-expecting him to disappear before a return glance. And yet the face remains, again and again, staring right back at you. Unmoved. Unblinking. With this, Chatelain achieves a wonderful bit of comic theatre. A viewer of the work is aware of the constructed space of the painting: the immovable, monolithic red and blue frame dropped down before a scene to initiate a game of spectatorship that alternates between investigative progress and regress, both the allowance and denial of entry. The very conditions of the painting’s manufacture, relies upon a layered process that mirrors how it can be viewed. On the reverse of the canvas is the following:


Three titles and more than one image iteration. In the beginning a figure and a ground was established. What followed was a process of reworking by means of covering and obscuring. A new painting was imposed atop an older painting, reframing the scene. A new window was opened by obliterating portions of the prior image. The conditions were established and then changed, element by element until a new setting was achieved. Chatelain’s working process is founded on changeability, a state of doing and undoing. In 1989 he was quoted as saying of his approach to painting:

“I wear them down so they reveal themselves. Then they become perverted and just evolve into something else: a ball of paint, a stack of circles like a snowman. They grow on themselves, two become one, one becomes two. I attempt something, then it comes out of your mind and into the paint as something else. I accept it.” (1)

Creation by way of intuitive reasoning: a thing in conversation with itself as each action necessitates a new decision or direction. The act of thinking on one’s feet. Conditions are established for a playing field with rules for engagement: surface, scale, color, medium, an initial set of shapes. A game of formal play is set in motion as balance is sought through a conversation between the elements at hand. The ensuing batting back and forth determines a situation. There is a necessary momentum to this activity to maintain a freshness in the image as Chatelain operates within a set of constraints and circumstances, attempting not to overwork or overthink. His method of abstraction is the result of this play: ever refining and altering the situation by running interference, with conditional disruptions and the strategic editing of space. The resulting painting is a vehicle, a circumstance depicting the presence of things vibrating beside one another. He has referred to the psychological positioning of figures in his work, as they relate to one another determined by degrees of distancing.(2) The space of the painting calls to mind a theatrical setting where consideration is given to staging moments for maximum effect.

In the 2015 painting "And Cries Behind the Door" these moments are not hooked into a narrative. Rather, the subject of the image as defined by these moments is a meditation on its provisionality, with evidence of sanding, scraping, and painting over. Chatelain fluidly negotiates with the mechanics of compositional construction. This intuitive drawing-out of the image emerges as a memory of space reconstructed. (3) Deconstruction as construction. Intuition relies upon building foundational memories to fuel deeply felt gestures. Here, fragmentary, remembered observations of things, exploded and weightless, are reintroduced to gravity as the artist pulls the shrapnel and debris back together into a pictorial orbit. New objects and spaces emerge with occasional surface glimmers of their former lives. There is a tendency to seek out direct meaning here, stitching together the evidence of content at the expense of experience. But it is best to avoid heavy-handed readings grounded in the specificity of this means that, which would only curtail open-ended immersion in Chatelain’s psycho-theatrical spaces. Despite all attempts to lock his images down into a particular time and place, these works are not that. They create their own time and place. It is space as question mark. Not paintings of space, but a space itself, pushed to the edge of each frame.

In 1972, Chatelain created 13 to 14 paintings comprised of layered, intersecting, rigid diagonal bands of color using sign-painter’s enamel applied with a roller. (4) Although stylistically austere in contrast to his later work, the methodology remains the same. Discussing the construction of these, he stated:

“Then I just, I don’t know, it took... you had to build the painting up a little bit with many marks, so in the beginning the thing was real arbitrary until it started to have something that you were interested in looking at and then you could work off that. But I can’t remember, I wouldn’t know. It is there somewhere. But it was this great kind of process where you would look at the painting and look at the painting… and it all had some kind of timing because it took about a day for the paint to dry before you could paint over it. You could do like three or four paintings at a time… that is still my kind of approach. You would look at it and then make this decision to make this mark or cut through it or whatever and try to create some kind of composition basically.”(5)

Chatelain employs the practice of photographing his paintings, printing the images using inkjet and then cutting them up to intuitively re-mix new, smaller compositions that he affixes to hardboard and paints back into. This desire to rework information extracted from a source painting is a way of further distilling, compressing, sculpting the image, developing some new essential relationships. Often there is a thick black, graphic outline around the forms that populate Chatelain’s paintings. In some of the collages this line is painted in, reinforcing the cut edges of the paper shapes (6).

The central “figure” in the 2015 painting "On Its Last Leg" is outlined in black and stands in isolation before a yellow log cabin or shed. Another form, suspended, comically interrupts the scene as if collaged on top of it, blocking a full view of the figure and merging with it. This is a big fat, irreverent gesture in line with Chatelain’s penchant for disrupting the image with objects obstructing other objects, each asserting their own mass. The bold simplicity of "On Its Last Leg" speaks to this thingness. This is a painting of suggested things: here is a leg. Perhaps there is another leg. A rope. A birch trunk. A cabin. A stage setting of things in a heavy conglomeration pressed to the edges of the panel so that the painting itself becomes an object. Chatelain’s paintings are filled with explorations of surface texture and pattern that lend weight to the image and buttress the density of objects: coverings such as skins, shells, doors, hats, and shelters with wood planks, logs, clapboards, and shingles. The vernacular of these constructions possess a humorous, straightforward quality. Chatelain will often engage in a comical “nubbing” or “knobbing” of forms within these settings. Objects are simplified through rounding and truncation. He has spoken of the use of hats or caps in his figurative work, to make an interesting shape out of a head. (7) The resulting nubs, in their comically stunted state, have an absurd earnestness to them.

From 1975-1977, Chatelain produced a series of 20 to 25 figurative paintings depicting ambiguous encounters between vaguely rendered figures.(8) At the outset these situations were meditations on the sort of violent inner city encounters found in Detroit’s Cass Corridor, where Chatelain had lived and worked at the time. But as the series progressed they became theatrical spaces within which Chatelain could explore the provisionality of painting and basic relationships between forms in isolation. The figures are comically nondescript, deformed and abstracted through the loose handling of thick paint. The degree to which the figures are isolated within a larger, empty space, creates an absurd scenography as the encounters unfold in a void. Much like "On Its Last Leg", the figures in these earlier works merge with their thickly painted ground, excised from a specific time and place, dropped and glued into nowhere.

"Candle Lamp" (1989) and "Fortress Lamp" (2000) both appear as sculptural objects that have been carefully cut from the situational space within Chatelain’s paintings. Now freed from the weight of surrounding objects and the pressure of being locked into a thick synthesis, these lamps become self-contained entities for contemplation. Absent of actual electrical components and the power to generate physical light, they become a metaphor for illumination. Be they on a floor, a shelf or a pedestal, the lamps function as theatrical, meditational objects, activating a mental space when viewed in isolation. They are confident in their simplicity, possessing a timelessness and a neutrality that deflect visual tension and unfold a thoughtful space. Chatelain’s paintings emerge from a practice in which there is an attempt to move beyond the reflexivity of the discursive or logical mind, into a more intuitive and relaxed state of consciousness open to the possibilities offered by shifting conditions. The sculptural objects are resolved in their presence, while the paintings are spaces both permanent and contingent, a site of constant resolution and irresolution.

Jim Chatelain’s studio practice is predicated on the possibilities of intuitive migration. Although he has been closely associated with the artistic activity that unfolded in Detroit’s Cass Corridor of the 1970s, he has spoken of his own relationship to this time and place in halting and tentative terms:

“Well that’s like the history or something. I mean I don’t, I guess if somebody was going to write… generally write about me, they would use that as sort of a starting point or something. But I wouldn’t present myself in New York… I wouldn’t present myself… that wouldn’t mean anything to them probably. I never stopped, I mean I never really stopped thinking of myself... when I’m in Detroit people know what that meant so it is a way to give reference.” (9)

Beyond the Cass Corridor, Chatelain has maintained a studio practice for roughly four and a half decades between Detroit, New York and Ohio, fluidly alternating between figuration and abstraction, expressionism and formalism, two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality. He has noted that a change of environment, from studio to studio, from city to city, can change one’s headspace and requires adapting to conditions.¬¬(10) In earlier work from the 1970s and into the early 80s, Chatelain would explore a phase that ended when a subject was exhausted and a new interest was to be taken up. His practice then settled into the current working model in which multiple projects unfold simultaneously and overlap—sculptural, figurative, non-figurative, drawing, collage. While working out one idea, there may be others kept to the side that fester, to which he can turn his attention when the time feels right.

It should be noted that Jim Chatelain enjoys a game of handball, a sport akin to squash in which a small, soft rubber ball is batted about with the hand within a walled court. This activity requires a presence of mind, intuitive thinking and a chain of action and reaction to maintain a state of play.


(1) Marsha Miro, “Painters Relax Into Oddball Maturity,” Detroit Free Press, Sunday, October 29, 1989, 4C.

(2) Diane Spodarek, “James Chatelain,” Detroit Artists Monthly, October 19, 1977, 5.

(3) “The painting remembers for me, in a way. It's a recording of thought. Some memory might be blocked out in the past of the painting. And my memory of other paintings might also affect the work. It’s my fancy memory jug.” Jim Chatelain interviewed by Ryan Standfest via email, June 2017.

(4) Exhibited at the Willis Gallery, Detroit, in a one-person show in 1972.

(5) Burton, Derrick. “Oral History Interview with Jim Chatelain, 2011, April 4.” Audio Interview, Wayne State University, 2011. WSU Libraries (b4293156).

(6) Regarding his use of the graphic line: “I know it’s there, and I like it. Maybe I want an overall image, to be able to see the painting all at once. As one of the ways the painting is seen. Paintings need a hook, to be able to be seen in an instant. Graphicness does this for me.” Jim Chatelain interviewed by Ryan Standfest via email, June 2017.

(7) Jim Chatelain in conversation with Ryan Standfest. June 2017.

(8) These works were included in the inaugural New Museum exhibition “Bad Painting,” curated by Marcia Tucker in 1978. In her catalog essay for the exhibition, Tucker writes of Chatelain’s series: “This kind of generalized image, found often in primitivistic renderings, serves to intensify Chatelain’s images and makes them more terrifying because they are disengaged from a specific situation and are universalized. Paint drips down over the Chatelain’s frames— when he uses them—reminding the viewer that the images are pictures as much as they are events.” Tucker, Marcia. "Bad" Painting. New York: New Museum, 1978.

(9) Burton, Derrick. “Oral History Interview with Jim Chatelain, 2011, April 4.” Audio Interview, Wayne State University, 2011. WSU Libraries (b4293156).

(10) Jim Chatelain in conversation with Ryan Standfest. June 2017.

(image: Jim Chatelain | "A Stray Bullet" | oil on canvas | 30 x 40 inches | 2016)