On a recent visit to Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to attend the opening reception for Rebecca Chamberlain’s exhibition: HOMATORIUM III Lost Horizon at Charlie James Gallery in Chinatown. The cool palette and empty spaces depicted in the paintings offered visual relief and a sense of calm to combat the feeling that I could spontaneously combust, at any moment, during a triple-digit heat wave. Upon my return to the east coast, I had the opportunity to sit down with the New York-based artist and discuss her work.
Rebecca Chamberlain was born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania and received her BFA from Rhode Island School of Design in 1991. Chamberlain performed at the Museum of Modern Art with Maxi Geil following the debut of their rock opera: Nausea II, at Titus 1 theater. Her work has been exhibited at Dodge Gallery, 303 Gallery, and Knoedler Project Space in New York; VOLTA NY, New York; judi rotenberg gallery, Boston, MA; Leyendecker Gallery, SP among other venues. Following a residency at Het Vijfde Seizoen (an artist residence program at a psychiatric hospital in the Netherlands) in 2013, Chamberlain became an Artist Ambassador for the Beautiful Distress Foundation Artist Residency at Kings County Hospital. Chamberlain lives and works between Brooklyn and Delancey, New York.
Charlene Stevens: Hi, I’m with Rebecca Chamberlain and we are talking about HOMATORIUM III Lost Horizon. Is that how they pronounce it?
Rebecca Chamberlain: That’s it. “Homatorium”.
AP: Please tell me a little bit about the title?
RC: It is a combination of “home” and “sanatorium” and it grew out of looking at early tuberculosis sanatoriums and how they utilized light, mostly, to try to cure it. That led to a movement in architecture called light, air and openness. This philosophy was adopted by artists like Richard Neutra and many other early modernist architects of the time.
I was thinking about the idea of home and the need for a place that can provide a sense of safety. Sometimes clarity was important to me, and the anonymity of inter-war period homes became this kind of muse. These were spaces that have an openness to them and cleanliness of structure that feels very safe. You can see out and feel as though people can’t necessarily see in, and that was important to me.
I think of a home as a signifier of what’s going on in someone’s interior: What’s around them, the way they keep things, whether there are curtains drawn over their windows or whether it’s wide open… these are all signifiers to me of what’s happening inside.
This was underscored by two months I spent in the Netherlands in a mental health facility where I was an artist-in-residence. I spoke with the patients – I didn’t work with them but I visited with them – and some of them took me into their newly independent apartments. There was a lot to see in what they collected, how cluttered it was, how open it was.
So that’s the idea of the home as a healer, as a kind of a safe spot; its potential for that is why I came up with the name.
AP: In sanatoriums, light, especially sunlight, is supposed to have healing benefits. You mentioned The Netherlands and I’ve lived there as well. In grad school there was a workshop in which one of the students created a series of photographs of residential windows. The Dutch do not close their curtains. It’s a thing: If you close your curtains, you have something to hide.
As a result, every window is like a stage set, a tableau – curated spaces with very carefully selected tchotchkes. Cleanliness was also quite important.
RC: It’s tantamount to their presentation.
AP: Everything is in order and everything is revealed. I was told that it’s impolite to look inside, but as an American, new to the country, I couldn’t help myself. I like to learn about other cultures through their interiors.
Speaking of concealing and revealing, I remember floor-length curtains hanging from ceiling tracks between the images. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of architectural elements with architectural paintings.
RC: Those are hospital dividers. They’re from a company that that makes a lot of the track systems that run throughout hospital rooms when you can’t afford a private room. And sometimes when you do have a private room, if there’s something procedural that they want to keep private, they will run a track around with a curtain in a very quick motion. It makes a room, creating an instant safe space.
I’ve used those tracks in past performance art projects for their efficiency, because they can bend and go around corners and allow for a continual wall of fabric. It’s the reference to the efficiency of privacy-making, of room-building within hospitals, but it’s also because often in old movies they’re not dividing rooms, they’re just against the wall… a floor-to-ceiling velvet curtain wall that was super glamorous, it’s like those rooms were stage sets.
There’s this fluctuation between something efficient and medical and something theatrical. Also, the curtains are about concealing and revealing and that’s a subject throughout the work I’ve made no matter what the medium. Being concealed and hidden and being able to see out, and if you’re that person who’s cleaned everything thoroughly and feels they have nothing left to hide, then you’re ready to present.
It’s a manifold reference, those curtains. The actual physical curtain that hangs is a lace that I had made and it’s based on the interior of an envelope called ‘safety paper’ and it conceals whatever documents are inside. It confuses the writing, you can’t see what’s inside. It’s dyed a very, very light blue, the same color as the original paper that I draw on, called ‘vintage tracing cloth’. It’s a very light-weight fabric and it has a coating on it that was developed for architectural plans in the early 20th century.
Then I found out when I was in Holland visiting the Zonnestraal Sanatorium, designed by Jan Duiker, that the interior walls were painted almost exactly this same light blue. It gave a seamless feeling from sky to wall within the hospital. That was something I found out eight years after starting to use the paper.
So everything in the background of the show has that very light blue tinge to it.
AP: Yes, I noticed everything is that blue.
RC: That’s also the Reflex Blue of the paint that I mix. I either use it pure or I mix into every tone that I use. Originally when I started painting I was representing inter-war period offices, devoid of employees, and that was more about the relationship between men and women in a very different way than a marriage. I wanted to paint the sets in which they were meeting each other in a workplace, but without them there.
I was using BIC ballpoint ink. I was emptying it from its containers into jars and painting on this vintage tracing cloth. Reflex Blue has a red iridescence to it; it’s a tone that has always resonated with me. I’m not entirely sure why, it is a color that notoriously drives people insane. You can read about it.
AP: Is that why I only use black ink pens?
RC: It could be, but the black ink also has a red iridescence
AP: Yeah you see it on the ball. I never thought about that.
RC: I used to use both the BIC black and the BIC blue. The black becomes an aubergine color when you paint with it, but the blue retains an incredible clarity. I moved over to lithography ink because the Reflex Blue was so similar in tone and texture to the ballpoint ink, but also I could work it into any other color.
AP: Does it reference a blueprint?
RC: It references blueprints, and it certainly references office supplies, like the safety paper from envelopes that I’ve been collecting since 1987. My art career came out of having to work full-time in a corporate office environment. I was menswear designer for Old Navy. I took the job because I was able to travel around the world four times a year, and the person I replaced wanted to have children and didn’t want to travel. At that point I was making assemblage sculpture where I needed to collect ‘characters’ and I was going around the world collecting these objects, seeing factories, and resentfully doing my design work in a corporate environment where I did not feel I fit in. I was performing all the time, as someone who didn’t feel like me, and this body of work pulled itself out of that experience. I had an ‘affair’ in the office, and my images of office spaces, and the way men and women relate, came out of that experience and then developed eventually into what I’m doing now.
AP: We were talking about the title, and it could have gone either way when you were talking about home and sanatorium. Why did you choose residential architecture for the show rather than someplace medical?
RC: Because I’m a person that lives in a home. I have friends who are artists who have been institutionalized and have chosen that as a subject because it resonates with them. I think I fetishize home, and I feel okay about that. Painting the sanatoriums and fetishizing them is not my interest and I feel like it’s done so much. I look for images of inter-war period sanatoriums that are still in existence, and I come across blogs and all sorts of stuff that really fetishize old TB hospitals and mental health facilities. I guess it feels insincere for me. Home is more interesting. It’s more elusive. It can mean so many different things. I have children and a family and now I’m in a domestic setting all the time. When I started I was painting those offices, which was very ‘me’ at that point. So, that’s why.
AP: Going back to the Dutch, remember if you look at 17th Century Dutch painting a lot of it was about the domestic space.
RC: Yes, exactly. Before I knew I was going to paint or thought that I’d spend a lot of my time painting, Vermeer deeply fascinated me. Of course his hand was unattainable to me, but that he painted those settings with a reverence that always intrigued me.
AP: Those spaces have very minimal, sparse architecture. It has that bare bones feeling that you would think of with institutional architecture. This style is a connection.
RC: Unless you’re given a hint, like a plant in the corner. It’s almost like you have to be given a clue that it is a home and not in fact one of the sanatoriums. Like the large piece in the show.
AP: Duiker / Neutra Homatorium.
RC: Yeah. Jan Duiker designed the Zonnestraal Sanatorium and that’s the stairway.
AP: So the decayed stairwell is from Zonnestraal, and next to it are windows by Richard Neutra. These are institutional, right?
RC: No. The window panels are Richard Neutra, but they’re from a home he built that burned down in 1960. Then he and his son Dion worked together and rebuilt it. This is taken from the original structure, from a 1932 image of the windows, but you can distinctly see the influence of that cleanliness and efficiency of the sanatorium architecture on what he does.
I wasn’t seeking to paint Richard Neutra spaces. It was all through the sanatorium research. I kept finding his spaces over and over again in reference to this light, air and openness movement in sanatorium building.
AP: I love the shape of the canvas, how it’s exhibited. The long landscape orientation has that L.A. feeling. At the opening, I found it interesting to see how someone from the East Coast interprets the West Coast.
When I was an undergrad went to UCLA, the Neutra building was the preferred building of the student co-op. It was the cheapest place to live, but one could live in an architectural landmark. I thought that was amazing that the people actually not only had opportunity access, but immersion.
AP: Is this the Schindler house?
RC: This is the Fitzpatrick Leland house, that Schindler house is very dark and very Japanese in its aesthetic.
AP: I hate to admit that I’ve never been there. Is it more of a Craftsman, like the Gamble House?
RC: It feels a bit more Craftsman, but it’s not even that, though. It’s more like it has a darkness to it, it’s not clean feeling at all. It’s beautiful and kind of crusty feeling. It did not hold up well, it was not made with materials that were going to last.
AP: So these are the tiny ones, right?
RC: Those are the tiny ones, yeah. So this is another tiny one as well. But the question that you asked me regarding Neutra and the humanists…
AP: Architecture for the people, yeah.
RC: I definitely went after the humanists, the ‘anti bourgeois’. The reason I was interested in Frank Lloyd Wright was really for his Usonian housing that was supposed to be for the people. I’m not an architecture student; I’m still finding my way through all this. People keep throwing me more and more things to look at. But the idea of building homes that are accessible to all and the challenge of building something affordable is highly intriguing to me and something that I wish that we could figure out in some sustained way.
AP: Okay. Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about the show?
RC: It’s an ongoing exploration of this idea of home as a healer and an elusive destination, something that some people are seeking desperately and some people are seeking in more amorphous ways right now. We’re all looking for some sense of safety and calm.
There’s something in these spaces that does this for me, and I think does it for other people. But at the same time they seem like they’re pregnant with something that has either happened or is about to happen in the space. It always ends up being slightly creepy.
AP: So it’s almost like theater. I remember with Shakespeare, you never see a battle. The scene is always before or after.
RC: Yeah, the wreckage…or the anticipation of it. I’m an optimist, so I usually think of the anticipation of possible greatness. I think there’s something in that, a sense of hope. When I was in the Netherlands, that was the question I gave to the patients. Many of them didn’t speak English and I wanted to pose a clear and simple question: Take me to a place on these grounds that gives you a sense of hope, calm or safety. And they did, or they didn’t and they couldn’t and I just watched where they would repeatedly go every day. And I would return to and try to paint that space.
Video courtesy Anna Schori
On Saturday, October 7, Charlie James Gallery will host a discussion and walkthrough with artist Rebecca Chamberlain of her show HOMATORIUM III Lost Horizon, and the artists and curator of the group exhibition, On Going Home. Inspired by the dialogue between the two exhibitions, this discussion brings together a group of multicultural artists who will discuss various aspects of ‘home’, including: the micro/macro relationship of home and its relationship to place, structures of safety, ways of framing identity, and notions of idealism.
The discussion will be followed by a reception from 6-9pm. The shows will remain on view at the gallery through October 14.
Discussion participants: Tanya Aguiñiga, Carmen Argote, Shagha Ariannia, Rebecca Chamberlain, Regina Mamou, Alexis Zoto, Moderated by Debra Scacco
On Going Home is part of the Participating Gallery Program of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA 2017.
Charlie James Gallery
969 Chung King Road
Los Angeles, CA 90012