OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Caroline Wells Chandler

Roots Rock (detail)
Stretched blanket, foam, paint, pompoms, gold leaf, stickers, magic doodles, skull and crossed bones sequined applique, fruit magnets, moss, moss rocks, foliate forms, pine cones, resin casted: lobster gummies, shark gummies, dino eggs, and juju fish, model magic, sculpey casted: cheerios (both honey nut and original), honey smacks, honey comb, apple jacks, gold fish, kix, and cocoa puffs, glow in the dark bugs, birds nest, plastic baby dinosaurs, plastic monkeys, plastic palm trees, plastic robin's eggs, plastic eyes, pearl tipped straight pins
63" x 60"

CAROLINE WELLS CHANDLER queers craft and consumer culture materials such as pipe cleaners, pompoms, stickers, breakfast cereal and candy in his densely constructed surfaces. He reveals an idiosyncratic experience of a normative culture that can be both “a comforter and a discomforter." His detailed material lists imply that every single thing we encounter—both material and text—is part of the complex web of personal and cultural myths that feed into the construction of our identities. Caroline received an MFA in Painting and Printmaking from Yale in 2011 where he was awarded the Ralph Mayer Prize for proficiency in materials and techniques. Notable exhibitions include Myth Maker (2012), a solo show at Vox Populi in Philadelphia, Deep Cuts (2013) at Anna Kustera in New York City and Interwoven at Arlington Arts Center in Virginia. Synchronicities, a solo show, will open in May 2013 at Open Gallery in Nashville, Tennessee. Caroline lives in Long Island City, New York.

OtherPeoplesPixels: In your most recent work, found blankets, which feature manufactured and glorified representations of animals in the wild, are stretched inside excessively embellished frames featuring pompoms, cheerios, gummy bears, stickers, plastic toys and other colorful materials from craft stores and grocery stores. I read these pieces as a meditation on the similarities and differences between our culturally constructed, collective fantasies about wilderness and our personal, idiosyncratic experiences of kitschy, manufactured goods that are evocative of childhood in the 80s and 90s. Can you tell us about your intentions with this body of work?

Caroline Wells Chandler: The series you speak of is titled Tranny Chaser. The title references Ru Paul's ballad of the same name. The work bridges a variety of culturally constructed dualities including the hunter and the hunted, the hunter and the gatherer, the embodied and the superficial and the real and fabricated. My intent is to dissolve perceptual binaries through the process of queering form. This body of work explores my personal mythology that inevitably spills over into a mythology about culture through the deployment of images associated with Americana naturalism coupled with Surrealistic tendencies. Overall I am interested in the mythologies that humans live by and how these personal and collective stories are internalized via text and images. The idiosyncratic is a tool to empower the individual. The idiosyncratic proposes that we all posses the ability to become our own cartographers and to discover terrains on our own terms with our own maps. I couple this process of navigating the work and world with pre-existing texts, theories and materials to avoid pure fantasy.    

Thunder Spoon
Stretched blanket, foam, paint, pompoms, copper leaf, shetland pony, mancala beads, tacks, brads, flowers, sculpey casted: oatmeal, and coffee beans, moss
48" x 65"

OPP: Could you expand on the idea of queering form?

CWC: Queering form is a mode of making that involves the appropriation of the everyday in order to expand or augment its use, function or meaning. This is achieved in a variety of ways including changing the scale, the material or the relationship/s to other object/s and/or context. As a result, the use, function or meaning is subverted, critically engaged and expanded.

OPP: It seems like your titles play into that mode of queering form, too. I'm not always sure I'm getting every reference, but I have the sense that the titles are helping to subvert and expand on the original context.

CWC: The titles are very important and they contextualize the pieces. For example, I Singing to Nelson is a reference to the masculine softball player Marla Hooch from A League of Their Own. Her power is actualized when she performs on stage in drag—for her, this means wearing a dress. In an inebriated state, she sloppily sings her heart out to Nelson, the man of her dreams. The title is the slurry speech she retorts to her teammate who is trying to subdue her and get her off stage. Marla asserts herself, "I Singing to Nelson. Ain't I Baby!?!” Totally entranced geeky Nelson affirms, “You sure are!” This scene is a celebration of queer form. An analogous action is echoed in the structure of the pieces from the Tranny Chaser series, in which I take the familiar and everyday and place it in an unusual context.  
I Made It Through the Wilderness
Stretched blanket, foam, paint, pompoms, gold and bronze leaf, liquid plastic, stickers, model magic heart peeps, sculpey casted sweet-tart hearts, resin casted cherry candies, plastic eyeballs, pornography, carpet liner 
72" x 63"

OPP: That's clear in your use of materials as well as language. You have extensive—almost aggressive—materials lists for each piece. Many viewers don't read material lists—some don't even read titles!—and many artists would simply say "mixed media." Why do you choose to be so specific?

 CWC: The material lists are as important as the titles. They are ingredient based poems. In L'ours I sculpted decoys of Lucky Charm's cereal from polymer clay and resin. The well known jingle in the Lucky Charms commercials functions like an incantation: 'Hearts, stars and horse-shoes, clovers and blue-moons. Pots of gold and rainbows and the red balloon!' The sing-songy repetition of the jingle works to make us internalize the idea that indeed Lucky Charms cereal IS magical and delicious! The work fluctuates between moments of experiencing Teddy Grams, Honey Combs and Cheerios as concrete objects and believing in their function as symbols, bridging disparate perspectives on how myth functions. Joseph Campbell’s belief that myths are archetypes of the collective unconscious tangos with Roland Barthes’ view of myths as propagandistic tools of potential fascisms.

Each material functions like a word in a Mallarme poem: both have an expansive and collapsible quality. The state of this quality is dependent upon formal play. Sometimes the Cheerio symbolizes the idea of the self proposed by Jung because of its structure and other times it symbolizes the promise of a wedding ring because of it's correlation to nearby forms. Sometimes a Cheerio is just a Cheerio. I'm interested in using materials symbolically, because symbols are three fold in meaning, namely: personal, universal and cultural. This allows for inclusivity; many entry points and interpretations of the work are encouraged.
Can You Find the Christmas Mouse?
Faux velvet, pompoms, duct tape, panel
18" x 24"

OPP: Looking back at older work, I see what seems to be an intentional and recurring use of childlike aesthetics and references. Some of your earlier work, such as the intaglio print anatomical studies and the hand-embroidered self portraits as first ladies, has the quality of childlike scrawl. Then there are the sculptures made from Teddy Bears you bought at Walgreens, the hand crocheted life sized costumes based on the outfits of the American Girl dolls and your video Christmas 1990: Becoming Molly McIntire (2010) that reveals a very personal experience of the American Girl cultural phenomenon. But this isn't your average nostalgia. What is it?

CWC: The work that deals with looking back involves a process of investigative interrogation disguised as nostalgia. I don't associate these bodies of work with nostalgia because they do not look fondly to an earlier time. Becoming Molly McIntire is filled with pathos. Absence and presence is visually deployed through the weight of the hand crocheted costumes of the American Girl Doll historical characters. Ominously they each hang as victims and oppressors, providing few options regarding our culturally constructed notions of identity. The embroidered works and anatomical studies akin to the sculptural works you mention deal with an idea of subverting the gesture both literally and metaphorically via action. Rather than deploying nostalgia, the maker is interrogated. I was trying to force myself to be honest about my relationship to the enacted roles we perform. Memory was a tool in doing this because memory allows the individual to time travel, and it collapses our linear notions of time by stretching and folding it. I can simultaneously be 26, the age that I made Christmas 1990: Becoming Molly McIntire, and five, the age that I received Molly. This process has a Shamanic quality associated with soul retrieval.  
As Above So Below II
Stretched cotton on panel, sculpey, resin, pompoms, sequins, stickers
18" x 24"

OPP: Do you remember why you wanted Molly McIntire so bad? What did she mean to you then? Do you think of that desire differently now that you look back at it as an adult?

CWC: I am a trans person, and I grew up in an extremely heteronormative environment where this identity was not an option. Molly was an archetype that I could successfully perform via drag. She was the only tomboy option out of the available dolls. I wanted her so badly because she wore shorts and because she was nerdy. She allowed me to be a misfit and socially “appropriate” at the same time. Dolls, of course, represent our notions of the ideal and, at that time and until very recently, I was very concerned with performing the role of the dutiful daughter. Making this work allowed me to breakdown the hegemonic roles within my family structure in order to love more fully. Looking back as an adult, I think I confused wanting to be Molly with wanting to date someone like her. I would switch back and forth between these states fluidly in order to bask in desire.

OPP: The mention of your desire to perform the role of the dutiful daughter makes me think of your videos The Message (2009) and Johnny Seagull Johnny Clyde (2010), both made in collaboration with your mother. Both explore the expectations placed on us by our families and the surrounding culture to perform gender in a prescribed way. But your mother represents a different position in each of the videos. In The Message, she encourages conforming to norm of “Southern femininity and grace and genuineness” and in Johnny Seagull Johnny Clyde, she reveals her own resistance as a child, admitting that she wanted to be a boy. It doesn’t really matter if either of these roles she plays are true to life, but I find it touching that she participated in the creation of this work. What was it like working with your mother in this way? Is she simply a performer in the videos, or was she also a part of the conceptualizing of these videos?

CWC: The summer prior to attending graduate school, I lived at home with my parents in Virginia. Before that, I lived for several years next door to Patsy and Calvin, my grandparents on my mother’s side, in Tyler, Texas. During my short return to the nest, my mom kept on saying phrases to me that ended up in The Message. It was intriguing because my mother’s suggestions regarding my conduct were the exact phrases that Patsy would say to me. The function of this matrilineal knowledge fascinated me. I asked my mom if she would make a video with me regarding all of the things that she would say. She agreed, and we made it in two takes. For the first take, I was in the room and we both started to laugh uncontrollably whenever we looked at each other.  So for the second take, I turned the camera on and left the room and waited until she told me that she was finished. For both videos my mother is not reading a text. She is giving directions or reciting a story.  

In Johnny Seagull Johnny Clyde, my mother tells a story about a gender queer identity that she constructed as a child growing up in East Texas. She repeatedly told me this story as a child. About a year after making The Message, I called my mom while she was driving to meet my sister for brunch and asked if she would be interested in making another video with me about her Johnny Seagull Johnny Clyde identity. She agreed and told the story on the spot as if she were reciting or reading a text. With her permission, I captured the sound for the piece on my cell phone's speaker and I recorded the sound on my computer.  I had found and viewed the original super 8 film footage for the first time in VHS form the same summer we made The Message. I was delighted and amazed to see my mother in drag. The myth became reality.

Johnny Seagull Johnny Clyde
Collaboration with mother 

OPP: In your statement, you say,"Ultimately my work explores where culture ends and the individual begins." Is that a fixed place? What have you learned about that place in the process of making your work?

CWC: For me, the place where culture ends and the individual begins is the body. This space houses locations that are both fixed and transitional. The body is the mediator between hegemonic external norms and one's internal desires and motives. The hegemonic trappings of the normative oppress, not because they exist, but because they are reinforced daily as superior and correct ways for one to navigate the world. The internalization of texts and images raises the question “Where does the self begin and culture end?” This process of internalization culturally embeds and implicates the body. I believe these ideas are best explored in the structure of the pieces in the Tranny Chaser series. The blankets encased in scatological opulence of cultural detritus operate in a geological fashion: a hot magma centrifuge surrounded by a hardened cooling crust. They are heavenly bodies navigating space. They belong to the same universe while maintaining autonomy.

To see more of Caroline's work, please visit carolinewellschandler.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and existential significance of participating in mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will begin teaching in Spring 2013, and is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Notable exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, Chicago).