Thomas Chimes, The Per Contra Interview with Miriam N. Kotzin - Part 1
In the seventies when I was doing the dark portraits, I was particularly amused by Jarry’s poetry, so I tried my hand at doing some similar poems. They were a kind of wordplay, and I wasn’t satisfied with them. They were too ridiculous.
Actually, I see the images themselves as a sort of poetry. The images of boats that are in The Study for a Mural [l963-65, Taylor, p. 47.] in Doctor Faustroll [l977, oil on panel, Taylor, p. 170] are references to Homer. Circe tells Ulysses that he has to go down to the world of the dead, and she gives him instructions that will keep him alive. He does what she says, and while he’s in the world of the dead he sees all his friends who were killed in Troy. I find it moving.
Having protected Ulysses from death, having allowed him to come home to the world of the living, Circe tells him this: “For most men, she says, one death is sufficient, but you will have met death twice.” [Book 12] But when Jung talks about this topic and alchemy, he points both to menopause and to midlife crisis for men. He says that these two phases are like going to the world of the dead, that when we pass through them to the second part of our life we’re returning to life.
Jarry talks about Homer and the “joyful walk of the irreproachable son of Peleus down the meadow of the asphodels.” In my painting Faustroll is with the boat, trying to get home. I left out the other figure in the photograph, Alfred Vallette, so Faustroll is alone with that overturned boat; the missing figure would be in the space occupied by darkness in the painting. In the photograph Jarry is watching Vallette work on the boat, but in the painting, in the absence of another person, he’s contemplating the boat, thinking about getting home. [Chimes used photographs as references in painting the series of dark portraits.]
Boats are also in a study for one of my crucifixion paintings.
MK: And the white paintings?
TC: The first night after my separation from my wife, I was in my new apartment, in my bed that night, and I realized it was the first time I’d been alone. I’d lived with my family, then in the army, then with my brother in New York, then with my wife, and then my wife and children. The feeling was. . .special.
And this phrase came to me, “winter is white and mutterings are distant now.”
And then I began working on the series that are the white paintings.
MK: Are you still writing poetry?
TC: No. I’m painting now, and I’m not writing poetry any more.
MK: What sort of notebooks do you use as you work, if any?
TC: I don’t use them now. For a while in the eighties I used notebooks for quotations to make sure I got them right. For example, at my request Anne d'Harnoncourt [Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art] had the words on the museum building translated for me: Earth, Air, Water, Fire. Sometimes I’d write the words in English, other times I’d write them in Greek.
It’s not a notebook, but it functions in the same way some artists use notebooks for sketchbooks. I have a cardboard box that I made, and in it I keep Bristol board. I’ll take a piece of Bristol board, draw a circle, sketch, erase, draw, erase, and so on. I build up a palimpsest with ghostly remains of prior drawings. These are an important part of the three-inch paintings.
I use what I do on the Bristol boards so I can see what I want to go for in terms of a surface, what transparency and what brushes to use to achieve that effect. I use glazes, polishing to make the work more glasslike.
I do these small paintings on quarter-inch birch with a black cradle. To prepare the surface I use Elmer’s glue, which I started using in the dark portraits on panels after talking with Arthur DeCosta.
Take Monet’s water-lilies. You look up close, and you see the rough texture of brush strokes. Then when you move back far enough, to the right place for the focus, you have the luminous glow.
The ultimate is the luminous glow of transparency.
Transparency is what all art is about. Poetry and music are most profound because they’re the most transparent.
MK: About the white paintings, you said in an interview with Cynthia Veloric for the Smithsonian that the early paintings used rose madder, permanent green light, and unltramarine blue mixed with white. In the paintings that used titanium oxide and mars black (iron oxide), what was your use of glazes?
TC: One of early paintings that did use color is Waterfall. [oil on canvas, Taylor, p. 74]. In that one the roughness of the canvas broke up the surface of the paint in giving it an Impressionist quality.
For the white paintings, I’d buy Belgian linen, stretch it and use rabbit skin glue on the canvas before painting.
As a student I used lead white, but when I noticed I was getting it on my skin, I switched to titanium white (mixed in the factory with zinc white). I put the titanium white on my palate and mixed a lot of linseed oil into it. Then I added mars black on the palate. I chose mars black because it dries faster and is a warmer black, i.e., browner, than ivory black or lamp black, which are both bluer. I’d mix the two to get a gray, then paint a kind of contour or silhouette with the mixture of white and black, until I got a ghostly image of, say, Jarry with his hat.
I used a small amount of cobalt drier in the white. I’d let the painting dry; the next day I applied another coat of white over the whole thing, and I’d go back into the portrait. So if have twelve to fifteen layers on whole painting, I have the same amount over the head.
In the white field, in constant motion I brushed from left to right. Where the head is on the canvas, I used different strokes.
If I stare at the bottom edge of an all white canvas-sometimes I have writing there, sometimes not—the canvas itself being white, my eye catches what is beyond and below, a kind of darkness. My hand moves, and suddenly I get a prismatic effect: As white interacts with black, I see color.
There’s an explanation for that. Goethe was something of scientist, and he wrote about color theories. He developed a color wheel, which I’ve sometimes used. He thought Newton’s color theory was incorrect; Goethe thought that color results not from pure refraction, but that color results when pure white light interacts with darkness. Heisenberg said Goethe was right about the interaction of light and matter.
Newton’s theory is more precisely physical—Goethe’s has a hint of the poetic in it: the interaction of light and darkness.
MK: Are the images (portraits, the dome) in your white paintings, as you see them, emerging from beneath, or submerged/obscured? In another context you’ve said, "I felt something was emerging, something was coming from beneath, below, reaching up, something almost ominous and that feeling was caught by the canvas for me. Something emerging. That led to the metal boxes."
TC: Psychologically, they’re emerging. Like the music of Rossini and Beethoven, they’re rising, coming forward.
By the way, Marion Locks noticed that the strokes I used on the metal boxes was the same, left to right.
MK: What significance is there in the placement of your signatures in what you call your brown portraits (others call them sepia-toned)?
TC: The placement of my signature is an element of design. I place it in the canvas where a space needs something: a word, a mark, an image. I might change the signature. Ch relates to alchemy; sometimes I use tc; sometimes Chimes.