Thursday, March 10, 2011

On Grad School and Art: A discussion with Courtney Chappell

Courtney Chappell is currently finishing up the MFA program at Western University. As her thesis project she created I can see your house from up here, a mixed media installation based on her personal response to images of war, and the dehumanization of the "other." See more of her work at

How has being in a 3 year graduate program affected the way you look at art?

School provided the basis of an understanding of various art epochs. I think of the art world --and the recent history of art as we know it -- as a game that you observe from a distance. It’s like the game of the art establishment. It’s a construct that I didn’t really see myself connected to, but school gave me an understanding of the institution of art. It helps certain old or archaic texts seem relevant.


When I was an undergrad I remember learning about how this painting by Picasso (Les Demoiselles d'Avignon) was the gateway to Modern Art Modern Art. He flattened the perspective, which in turn became self-referential because it drew attention to the artist’s decision to do that – the simplification of form and so on.

In grad school I learned to think more like an art historian or critic. I also gained a global self-consciousness about my work, I had a strong self-awareness that I was very separated from this world of art making as a trajectory, and I never found a place for it in a historical context.

My knowledge of the history of art making became more fine-tuned. I learned about German Expressionism and the various problems that arose, such as the conflation of the victim and the victimizer during the Holocaust. The critics say Josef Buey’s for example romanticized the sufferings of the holocaust. I formed my own analysis of his work but I never felt like I was saying anything new. There’s a feeling with art history that everything’s been said.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that ultimately the difference between undergrad and grad is that the focus is narrowed. There’s a feeling in grad school that your focus is so narrow and that by the time you get out you’ve only touched the tip of an iceberg.

I have to say that there’s nothing in grad school that you can’t learn outside of it it. You just need to get your friends to tell you what their favorite artists are, look at curriculums on the internet for reading lists if you care. It is nice to have someone to talk about these things with though.

Lets talk about your work.

I felt very self-conscious. It’s the only time where you really have an exclusive relationship with your viewers that that is formalized. I always felt invested in the opinions of the people who inhabited this temporary community that I was a part of.

I was very susceptible to changing my ideas to connect to people. When I was finally in a situation where people were offering their suggestions it felt like such a gift, to have people around me who would tell me what they wanted from a piece that would help give voice to your vision. It felt very collaborative.

But I know that a part of grad school is learning to defend yourself against other people’s critiques. So I would constantly find myself wanting to make alterations according to their suggestions but sometimes they would critique without offering a suggestion of what to do better. It would be a blanket suggestion like, “this isn’t working,” or “you need to dig deeper.” I was always asking for specific instructions, “should I paint portraits, should I do more house.” It would feel good to me to relinquish control.

But this is also my own personal issue with relating to the viewer and some people don’t have that instinct to internalize or conform to what people think they should.

Of course, many times I disagreed with the critique.

How did you get to your final thesis project?

I had always been really controlled in my work and it was somewhat masochistic. I wanted to learn how to paint the right way. In a way I felt unworthy of art and if I could paint well I could do anything. This perfectionist instinct became exasperated during the first part of my schooling. Because of that pressure I sort of cracked and started cutting up pieces of my junk mail in an attempt to do the worst possible thing and reject anything I thought I was supposed to be doing. That lead me to create these small cities and little houses, and it was a different way to connect to the people I had been painting in my paintings.

Who were these people?

Individuals. Strangers, humans that I’ve only seen on the Internet basically, or in the news.

Specific to the Gulf War?

I kept it specific to the Iraq Invasion because that was the first war I was conscious of. I feel like it’s useful when approaching a war or an invasion as a topic to keep my focus narrow.

How did the installation come about?

I think that the imaginary pressure of working in a tight knit community that was also an institution led me to work in a frantic and rushed manner which I had always tried to fight when I was painting and which I allowed to be a part of this work. When I was working on the installation I jumped from one thing to the next – one object to the next. I would draw as quickly as possible. Leave things in an embarrassingly unfinished state. Sometimes over decorate or overwork things and then get lazy with the line work. I allowed myself to be easily distracted. I decided that that way of working would tell some sort of story about my role as an American --my experience as American woman.

In what way?

In that I think America is easily distracted.

So in this way the process of making the work became a part of it?

Yes. Very much so.

How do you think the experience of being in grad school will affect your work from this point on?

The main thing that’s been great are my friends. Maybe I got lucky. Two of the people I ended up being in school with were old friends. Everyone in the program was great and that was really wonderful to go through. Beneath all the trappings of academia, the actual connections you make are very real. We have a joke that we actually came to grad school to meet each other.

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