Christopher Stout is an artist I met years ago during a studio visit in New York City. I was looking at his work in his West Village studio and realized he was a different kind of artist than many I knew. Stout’s Bushwick Art Crit Group got a lot of attention in New York while he continued making, selling and promoting his paintings—Stout was everywhere. His monochromatic sculptural paintings stood out to me and resonated with an intensity I wasn’t feeling was in New York, and I admired the cultural exchanges and organizations he helped nurture. Stout has an intensity as a person: Like myself, he has a curiosity about people and a desire for interaction and exchange—we connected. This kind of arts leadership and a passionate interest in art and artists has propelled Stout in fine form. Now, in 2018, Stout continues as an organizer of talks and interactions and continues to make paintings — he’s an artist, curator and now a gallerist, with his Art During The Occupation gallery, in full swing.
I had a chance to catch up with Christopher Stout and do an interview about his complex life and work. I also wanted to ask him about his solo show Sonic Opera currently on view at Lichtundfire gallery on New York City’s Lower East Side.
AP: Why the title, Sonic Opera?
CS: My general process for titling exhibitions is to do word studies for things that I feel purport the emotionality of an exhibition.
AP: What is your next step?
CS: I look for symmetries that I find hit different points about it. Sonic refers to the energy of the show, and Opera is an art form that talks about things that are monumental, and maybe painful and profound, and masks all those things used in pageantry and other such things. I am a big opera fan, and a very big music fan, and music is something that has always been prominent in my work. And I really wanted to dial that up to the forefront.
AP: Your work is also very sculptural.
CS: It is very sculptural; it’s entirely sculptural in fact. One of the big preoccupations in my work is that I consider myself, or label myself as a painter. However, I always wrestle with the tension between sculpture and painting.
AP: Are you perhaps clarifying the definition between painting and sculpture?
CS: Perhaps. And in this show, something I realized is that in making a fusion, or a marriage between painting and sculpture, I extracted certain things out of the definition of both media to make them work together. For this body of work, I made a list of “what is painting”? In order for something to be a painting, what does it need to have? And then, in order for something to be a sculpture, what does it need to have? I was insistent on having one hundred percent of the definitions of both types of work, manifested specifically as the outcome of this work so nothing was needed to make it work together—everything needed to be in there.
AP: Is this style something you’ve always done, or were you working in one way and then suddenly had an epiphany and started working in this style?
CS: There’s never been an epiphany in my work, perhaps in my career—I’ll explain. I started painting in the early 90’s. I was studying pre-law at the University of Maryland. I went to the de Kooning retrospective at the National Gallery of Art—which was either in ’93 or ’94. And that was where the epiphany happened. Suddenly I realized that my career was going to veer wildly from being a left-brained individual in terms of my profession to being a right-brained individual.
AP: And you saw this de Kooning at a museum and suddenly you realized that you wanted to be an artist?
CS: Yes. I studied music for twelve years. I played classical piano, and I studied voice for six years.
AP: So you’ve had some major career changes?
CS: No, I’m talking about elementary school and high school.
AP: You were not at a career level yet?
CS: No—absolutely not… And that was the thing. There was nothing inherent in music that passed muster to me. But, when I started painting, or when I was introduced to painting, probably the difference was that painters paint their own point of view whereas studying classical music, I was only portraying someone else’s work. So, the dealmaker in painting was that I was going to be able to transcribe my own thoughts using art as opposed to thoughts of other people.
AP: You work in monochromatic or pale modes: Is there a reason for this?
CS: When I started painting in the 90’s, my work looked entirely like action painting—because those were my heroes. That was my introduction in terms of wanting to be in the arts. And I spent the first ten to fifteen years of my studio time redacting and editing and taking things out slowly. I was terrified because I wanted to be an artist and I think maybe as an American, or a capitalist, or what have you, the way for me to demonstrate my work initially was to have everything feel entirely actional, which is what action painting is.
AP: Was it a long process?
CS: Somewhat: Slowly, things would come out, and come out, and come out. The more things came out of the work—in terms of what made it so—the more I felt my own voice became representative in the work. For me, expressing myself using minimal tools is what gives me satisfaction.
AP: Remind me where you’re from…?
CS: I grew up in agricultural Maryland. I was kind of in between Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington. But each one of those cities was an hour and a half away.
AP: Did you start doing art there, or did you start doing art when you came to New York?
CS: I lived in San Francisco for about ten years. That’s where I learned everything about what my art was, and about artmaking. And, quite frankly, all of my art world peers that aren’t in New York are in San Francisco, with the exception of one person who is chief librarian at the National Gallery East, the Smithsonian.
AP: Who is he?
CS: He was an early person that championed my work, and we’re still close. But he’s the one person from Washington D.C. that’s still very much in my work. My first painting teacher was Elizabeth Samworth and we keep in contact from time to time and send each other pleasant little letters but we’re not really professional. I still go make little pilgrimages to the Smithsonian and Gregory and I will talk about my work and have lunch and just sort of catch up on things.
AP: I see. When you first started painting, what was the work like?
CS: When I first started painting, the other genre of works that I was very interested in was queer-based work. I came out as a gay man in the 90’s during the horrific apocalyptic rise of the AIDS crisis. There was a relationship between art and my sexual orientation: Those worlds were literally crashing together and it’s probably true that when I first starting making work, I assumed that my work would fit the category of gay art. Especially when I first started in San Francisco, I was actively trying to make work that fit that genre. Ultimately, I realized that there was nothing in the work that I was making that was new or additive.
AP: In what sense do you mean—were you feeling avant-garde at this point?
CS: In the sense that I needed to release myself from that sort of pursuit and find something that was for me, was authentic and genuine and would allow me to follow my own path. But that being said, I’ve always been excited by supporting all kinds of works that are avant-garde or sociopolitical or just kind of on the fringe. I was a director for a short period of time of a large not-for-profit gallery in San Francisco.
AP: That’s good experience, but when did you feel like things changed for you?
CS: About four years ago, which is like a lifetime in terms of what’s happened in the art world, people were in the media crying about intellectual gentrification and questioning the validity of New York as a world-class art center.
AP: I remember, yes.
CS: I’m talking about how it was impossible here. “People shouldn’t live here” was the general tone—all those things written by Patti Smith about New York no longer being for artists. People were saying that the art and gallery scene had finally become totally antiseptic here in New York—people were fed up. And the thing was: I didn’t really agree with any of their sentiments.
AP: It changed something in you?
CS: Yes, it chipped away something in me. There was a chipping point because I had been doing so much curating anyways, mostly fair projects. I already felt this sort of activist/curator point of view. But those articles enraged me. They made me mad enough to write a business plan, and that was how the gallery happened.