Guy Chase, the cover artist for Image issue 72, passed away last year at only fifty-six years old. Art writer Wayne Roosa knew Chase for years and worked with him in the art department at Bethel University. We asked him about his friend and colleague.
What most stands out to you as a hallmark of Guy Chase’s art?
To put it directly, but in a complicated string that suits his work, I would say that what most stands out is the brilliant blend and collision of the following ingredients: high conceptual intelligence; deep embodiment of ideas in materials and form; a high command of and respect for materials, form, and process as the mode of bearing meanings; a subtle, nuanced presence of the spiritual, met and mediated by an equally subtle, nuanced self-effacing irony; a delicate tracing of the dance between faith and doubt as a method of pilgrimage and prayer or meditation; and a pursuit of the quotidian that somehow ends up in the metaphysical without being pretentious.
His work initially looks very simple—so simple that you are tempted to dismiss it as boring or trite—but of course it can also unfold as you look more closely. Could you describe an encounter with a particular work of his and how its meaning developed for you?
A good example would be Gray Grid (above). At first you are attracted to it because it is a nice, flickering, delicate pattern. But it does seem simple and minimal, as if you could be done with it fairly quickly. But the longer you look, the more you realize that every little rectangular form is an independent abstract painting of incredible and delicate beauty. Then you notice little “accidents” or variations, revealing how everything—as the metaphorical power of the image takes hold—belongs to the whole and yet is individual. Then these rows of regular-yet-highly-varied rectangles start to dance before your eyes. You can read this piece as purely formal abstract pattern or you can read it as an analog to how everything—the One and the Many—exists within a whole that is endlessly diverse.
Many of our readers will be able to see his work only in print or online, but you’ve seen it in person. What are we missing?
Perhaps the worst error people might make when only seeing reproductions is to think that Guy’s work is mostly about a kind of clever trompe l’oeil realism or game. When you see the work in person you realize the degree to which each image—for example, the pages of ledger books—are hand-made. How much they are abstract paintings and ideas, where the illusion is only the first layer or entry into extremely rich and subtle visual thought, wisdom, and holy play.
In her essay in Image, Karen Mulder suggested that his work came out of a deeply spiritual—even mystical—imagination. Would you comment on that?
Yes, certainly that is the case, although I think Guy might quickly qualify that by saying that a “spiritual imagination” is a tricky phrase and does not exactly exist without an equally deep investment in a “material imagination.” Also, “mystical” is a very loaded word with a variegated history, ranging from the deeply grounded Orthodox notion of mystery to a variety of occult backwaters. Certainly Guy’s art and imagination were deeply meditative and theologically informed. His imagination was open to “listening by way of repetitive mark-making as contemplation” (a key phrase he often used). But his sense of mystery was significantly mediated by his humorous acknowledgment of the mundane and banal. He used and laughed at how mystery and kitsch are woven into the warp and woof of our cultural fabric. By addressing these simultaneously he avoided both the sentimental and the self-serious extremes of overly earnest mysticism.
How did you see his work changing over the period you knew him?
What is more remarkable than change, per se, was the breadth or scope of his exploration. He would introduce motifs such as children’s Sunday school illustration, accountants ledger books pages, file folders, paint-by-number kits, “Gospel of Success” self-help books, and more; and then mix these with high art languages of monochromatic abstraction, Orthodox icons, the grid, Courbet, Malevich, minimalism, and more. He got the best out of all of these visual modalities while subverting their “low” flaws and “high” claims. Ranging through all of these from year to year equals a kind of change, but more importantly, it reveals how core ideas that always interested him are found everywhere.
What was he like as a colleague and a teacher? What did you and he like to talk about together? What will you miss most about him?
His office door was across the hall from mine. So many times I’d hear him knock softly and turn and see him standing there with this subtle little smile and expectant look in his eyes, always a bit reticent but at the same time eager. “I was just thinking about this idea,” he would say, and we were off on a great conversation. He was this way with all of us. His mind was so alive. He meant so much to students, who thrived on his unique blend of seriousness and subtle humor, and his way of combining insight with prodding and challenge, but always undergirded with support. He had a fearlessness that made him able to ask questions and not need all the answers at once. He understood that waiting, that listening, and especially that learning how to pay attention might be more important to faith than our linear and systematic efforts to clear up God’s mysteries. When we first knew how grave his cancer diagnosis was, the art faculty decided to do a retrospective of his life work in the galleries, as well as publish a book for posterity. His humility was such that we had no idea, really, of how extensive his research was—how wide a net of inquiry, beauty, irony and dialogue with the history of art and ideas he had explored. But when we saw the scope of his mind and the reach of his life’s work, we were amazed. In the end, I have come to believe that he simply had the wisdom and spiritual insight not to try to out muscle the disease. Instead he understood something about stepping sideways and letting it go, letting God handle it.