Although preparation for this article began in 2008, by the time it was completed Guy Chase had begun to lose his fight with cancer. He approved a near-final draft a few months before slipping away in his sleep on August 18, 2011, at the age of fifty-six.
I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all…. I am for an art that imitates the human, that is comic, if necessary, or violent, or whatever is necessary. I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself….
I am for art from a pocket.
ART THAT RELIES primarily on concept is fragile, vulnerable. An idea that flips a switch in our brains cannot be protected by the office of patents; it is not under any warranty as intellectual property; it is easily ignored, easily dismissed, and difficult to explain. Concept-based art rarely even looks like art in the conventional sense. It may have humble origins: it may come out of pockets, and from the lines of life itself. When exhibited, it vibrates rather timorously amid louder, vaster, more visually impressive or ambitious constructions.
Even so, when Oldenburg’s pocket surrenders art that flips the switch, when we “get it,” there is potential for a deeply satisfying sense of intellectual communion. This is the sweet spot of conceptual art.
For me, Guy Chase’s ability to hit that sweet spot first registered in 1985, the moment I saw an unframed piece of cardboard tacked provisionally to an exhibition wall, an unassuming gray scrap covered with ink dots and dog-eared from being repeatedly shoved into the artist’s back pocket [see Plate 1]. As Chase later explained, each dot represents one of forty thousand moments when he responded to a sensation that God was present. These mini-revelations happened during a busy life of teaching, making art, mulling the art issues of the 1980s, raising a family, and trying to respect God.
It reminded me of the inscrutable charts of reeds and shells used by Polynesian priest-navigators to negotiate vast, empty stretches of the Pacific, or old Aboriginal dreamings on bark that indicated, in dotted and dashed shorthand, the location of water, food, landmarks, corroborees, and hearths. These unconventional maps delineated the topography of survival—if you knew how to read them. Their spiritual efficacy was inextricable from life itself, which after all included the hard business of finding yams, or a sandy atoll somewhere in a thousand miles of open sea.
In some sense, we all have maps like these, but most are never drawn. It takes an artist to give this inner life a physical form. Guy Chase’s maps are unique, simple, and profound—if you know how to read them. His work appears uncomplicated—so much so that explaining the built-in quips and ironies runs the risk of reducing its eloquence. His conceptual springboards, however, are complex. As we navigate them, they divulge layers of meaning that deliver the satisfactions of resolved algebraic equations or finished Sudoku puzzles. In fact, some of them are Sudoku puzzles.
For Chase, ordinary life provided an endless stream of material. In the catalogue for a 2011 retrospective at Bethel University, painter Joel Sheesley speculates about Chase’s formative experience mowing lawns as a groundskeeper at a school. Perhaps, he writes, cutting neat rectilinear rows of grass, slowly dividing and re-sectioning the same plot each week, enhanced Chase’s appreciation for making and unmaking space, for disassembling and recombining fixed patterns into “a new unity.” Hours of making tidy patterns at five miles per hour may have heightened Chase’s innate fascination with grids—fixed formats that beg to be broken, altered, or reinforced, with the inevitability of overgrown grass.
Chase came to translate quotidian objects into the formal vehicles of art. Pages from old books, legal pads, cigar-box altarpieces, classroom projection screens, and paint-by-number kits—like dots on a scrap of shirt cardboard, these items provide fixed testaments to real life. Finding limitless possibilities in the mundane, Chase made art from coffee-cup rings on white placemats, or a gorgeously perfect square—an icon of unity—hatched in fluorescent orange marker over ten spent paper-towel rolls. The materials’ humbleness matched Chase’s own bearing: he would express the most challenging conundrums in soft tones, with a quiet smile.
A subversive bent appears in Chase’s earliest appropriated art pieces, made from yellowed book pages. In the early 1980s, just after grad school, Chase began borrowing from popular religious books, starting with Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking (1951); Peale influenced Robert Schuller, who mentored Chase’s pastor, Bill Hybels of Willow Creek fame, in the pre-megachurch phase of the seeker-sensitive movement. (Later in life, Chase found a church home at House of Mercy in Saint Paul.) The drollery of the interaction between the page headers and the stark visual elements Chase adds never seems to end. He interrupts the original text with different excerpts, in different fonts. He reshapes pages into iconic formats from religious art, such as diptychs or triptychs, and here and there in ragged lead he scrawls what seem to be casual afterthoughts, but turn out to be his most significant concerns. In Annunciation (1985), he manipulated pages from The Psychology of Religious Meditation on a photocopier, creating wavy, lurching, hallucinogenic lines of text [see Plate 2]. His handwritten clue, “Annunciation,” hovers over three impenetrable arches drawn in layers of graphite pencil, so thickly applied that it gleams metallically. Psychology alone cannot grant entry to the greatest wisdom, Chase seems to imply. Smudges and fingerprints circulate busily around the margins, intruding rudely upon the pristine blocks of the author’s text.
In Break the Worry Habit, Chase interrupts blithe sentiments on the static printed page with violent strokes that create blocks of solid graphite; in The Nervous Breakdown: Effects of Inadequate Reinforcement, his own face appears on the page spread, mashed forcefully onto a photocopier plate, the image darkly overlapping the type margins. Try Prayer Power: How to Create Your Own Happiness and Stop Fuming and Fretting receive latex, pencil, gilded, and painted interventions, offering dialectical interplays between image and word that are both obvious and arcane. Attention to the format of the book spread eventually resulted in All the Highlights and Just the Highlights (1997), inspired by Chase’s rediscovery of a Bible from his undergrad days at Bethel. To commemorate the ritualistic excess of his youthful color-coded highlighting, Chase completely excised the text, leaving only blocks of Day-Glo color in the shapes of verses, commentaries, and footnotes, replicated in gouache. Like a trick of fading memory, the words and their intended meanings have evaporated, but the signs of their impact remain.
Subversion and obsession both contribute significantly to Chase’s series of legal-pad and ledger-sheet paintings from the 1980s and 1990s. Like a medieval monk pricking guidelines in a parchment, Chase prepared each work by penciling in exacting, perfectly proportioned blue lines and double-lined red margins, then meticulously filled the rows and boxes with strokes of seamlessly matched yellow or light ledger-green gouache. The familiar form prepares us for mass-produced smoothness, but when we step closer, the dense opacity, reflective finish, and matte texture of gouache, which tends to clump slightly on the edges of the stroke, create the surprise of depth. You think you know what these are, but they turn out to be something completely different. They are transformed by Chase’s conceptual alchemy.
Untitled (legal diptych with apparition) features mirror images of the familiar yellow-lined page, their red margins angled to meet in a heavenward point—like a stylized Gothic arch or an icon niche. Untitled (tablet for a new law) overlaps two legal-pad pages with a gauzy transparency and alters the usual format by moving the red margin to the middle of the page—stripping Christianity’s most powerful symbol down to its barest form [see Plate 3]. An inexplicable, ragged notch irrupts into Jonathan Edwards’s Notepad, barging into the rectilinear order of the page, perhaps signaling the entrance of an indescribable numinous encounter. Misfit presents the plight of a legal-sized piece of paper haplessly paired with a letter-sized folder.
After exhausting the legal pad motif, at least for a time, in the late 1980s, Chase began experimenting with paintings of ledger pages in the 1990s. This evolution eventually inspired Untitled (ledger for multiple adjustments), which explores the way our lives might measure up or be found wanting in the final tally [see Plate 4]. To achieve a state of grace, we will all need the mercy of multiple adjustments on the complicated balance sheets of our lives. In Chase’s work, the result is an accountant’s nightmare, a battle royal between right and left brain. We are conditioned to expect information from these formats, but our expectations are frustrated. Spaces are left blank, perhaps to be filled out with greater wisdom in the future. Chase transformed them from empty voids into openings for divine mercy and forgiveness.
Juxtapositions like these offer a window into the artist himself: he sought the numinous within the normal; he deeply appreciated that the power of God can enter life in surprising ways. He understood the clichéd and the real meanings of the cross; he at times felt like a disempowered misfit, both as an artist in a pragmatic society, and a Christian in the art world. And he was painfully aware that despite his best efforts, under divine scrutiny his balance sheet would show discrepancies.
Although many of his works are untitled, Chase usually offered the viewer a clue in the form of a subtitle. While he sometimes hesitated to freight his works with actual titles, he obviously delighted in playing with language, and did it well. His works are language propositions as well as concrete objects—all part and parcel of the enterprise of conceptual art. The absence of a true title seems to open a portal to the mysteries of chance, or even divinity; the subtitles whisper asides in lowercase, like glosses for exegetical novices. This tension plays to one of the major debates in later twentieth-century art, when many argued that a cumbersome or pretentious title could skew a work’s meaning. At the opposite extreme, during Chase’s formative years in the 1970s, some Christian art commentators argued that any work whose content and subject were not patently obvious discredited God’s image as communicator. (In the meantime, many Christian critics have shifted away from this view, and are more accepting of art that leaves things unsaid, especially when it comes to representations of the ineffable.) Perhaps this titling format is Chase’s attempt to balance the warring worlds of the implied and stated, the sacred and profane, the ethereal and real. In any case, the titles usually provide just the right amount of information.
Untitled (gray field) is one of dozens of Chase’s works based on the humble paint-by-number kit, which he discovered with his daughter at the kitchen table [see Plate 5]. Painting by numbers is faultlessly democratic, easy to do, and satisfying. It’s fun for children, but also for those vicarious adult artists who lack the talent and discipline to generate their own stuff. Chase was tantalized by its theoretical possibilities: the kits eliminate the need for any of the tiresome decisions that the actual discipline of painting demands. They specify subject matter, composition, materials, and a palette of premixed colors guaranteed to get the job done. They distill art-making to the pure action of painting. Honed by untold hours of obsessive mark making, Chase gleefully began subverting the format.
He diligently used all the paints in each kit, arranging the colors by their abstracted numbering system around the margins of the pre-printed image, as a separate component of the final artwork, or by the amount of paint covering the surface (greatest to least). In gray field, numerically ordered bars of color frame an interior composed of a deep gray produced by mixing all the remaining paint. However, Chase scrupulously painted around the timid blue numbers that indicate color placement and are obscured in the normal process. In essence, this monumentalizes and dignifies the kit’s most service-oriented element. Slightly altering his methodologies produced a cavalcade of variations: in Deluge (1990) Chase isolated the figure of Noah, overwhelmed in a gray, featureless field swarming with tiny blue numbers; a solitary duck escapes from the gray in Color Blind (1990). Untitled (stripes and horses) [see front cover] and Untitled (stripes and ducks) (1990) each take care not to obscure the blue lines delineating the scene, although stripes of numerically arranged colors obliterate its components. Blue Jay Installation (1991) exhibits a single color on each of ten paperboards. On each board, naked pale-blue outlines barely reveal the subject matter. Breaking through his own strictures, Chase returned to the kits in 1999 with a series called Actual Things with Their Own Color. Isolating pieces of the composition, he enlarged precise replicas of the shapes of tiny color details to over a foot in length, in matching oil paint on Masonite, building up the medium to create a sculptural effect of bulging, glossy edges. For a 2004 exhibit called RealismPlus, he enlarged details to nine-by-seven-inch panels with titles like Ear of Buck Poised amidst Giant Rack. Throughout the paint-by-number series, conceptual play is paramount, and far exceeds the visual impact of the finished works—unless you know how to read them.
While working at these repetitive tasks, Chase tried to remain mindful before making each stroke. His patently obsessive approach converted the act of painting into a devotional practice, one with its own moral codes of transgression and transformation. Given the way he viewed his method, a slip in concentration, such as painting across a line, amounted to a sin. Likewise, lapses in conceptual consistency were a sign of compromised listening skills, of not being fully tuned in to God. Penance required redress and re-centering, ratcheting the attentiveness knob higher.
In the 1990s, Chase developed a series based on the projection screens at Greenville College, a modest liberal arts campus in Illinois where he taught art history. The pearly, pull-down screen in his classroom was marred by a distracting, peeling seam, and Chase fretted whimsically that his students might not be able to appreciate actual artworks in museum contexts without this feature. In a resulting series, the diligently reconfigured screens were sometimes purely sculptural constructions, featuring intentional bulges or hardware that tautly pushed or stretched them away from the wall. Other screens set up a dialogue between art history and the fading, discolored slides and tatty, distressed screens charged with transmitting its masterpieces. Screen for the Careless Art Historian is dominated by huge, skewed fingerprints in iridescent white paints and a tear down the center of the picture plane. The graphically accurate prints flicker as one passes by, briefly drawing attention but delivering no real content.
On the one hand, projection screens are portals to knowledge; on the other, they can be veils that impede its pursuit. In Angels (1992), Chase altered Gustave Courbet’s iconic work The Stonebreakers, a keystone of nineteenth-century realism [see Plate 6]. Courbet’s painting provoked a scandal in 1850 because the artist had elevated inglorious everyday subjects to a status previously reserved only for “important” figures and scenes from history, as in Paris’s Beaux Arts salons. Over thin layers of white iridescent paint, Chase traced Courbet’s painting in pencil outlines at nearly its original size, then filled each segment with pearlescent hatched lines at different angles. The result shimmers and scintillates as the viewer moves, but virtually disappears when the viewer stands still. Bethel art historian Wayne Roosa suggests that Chase’s ghost image prefigures the art movement that followed Courbet—Impressionism—by literally dematerializing realism. Chase’s flickering image memorializes Courbet’s painting, lost in the 1945 firebombing of Dresden, as an afterimage left in the minds of innumerable students of art history. In effect, Chase injects transcendence into Courbet’s dry-eyed realism, and as Roosa suggests, offers a response to Courbet’s famous empiricist retort that he would have painted angels, had he ever seen one. Chase doesn’t depict angels in his version either, but they are present in the title—a linguistic proposition that he never resolves.
Another diligent replication commemorates Kazimir Malevich’s tilted square on square, Suprematist Composition: White on White (1918), the first all-white painting in western art. To signal the work’s unique status, Chase enlarged the skewed square so that it spills off the boundaries of the projection screen onto the wall. Emphatic brushstrokes deliberately expose his intervention into Malevich’s Suprematist agenda, which was meant to model an intellectual ideal of pure abstraction. Malevich paid dearly when the Russian avant-garde fell victim to Stalin—a fate hinted at by Chase’s funereal black margins. Perhaps the commemorative borders also refer to a time when art became relegated to the margins of society.
As a matter of course, Chase sought relentlessly for the conceptual synchronicities that animate his works so elegantly, but he never forced connections. His process involved a relatively helpless state of waiting, a kind of “practice of the presence of God,” as Brother Lawrence called it. By his own admission Chase was neither patient by nature, nor particularly good at being focused or quiet, and so this was a demanding discipline. Sculptor Ted Prescott, one of his most reliable sounding boards over the years, has said that Chase’s intense work habits reminded him of the figure of Saint Matthew in the ninth-century Ebbo Gospels, scribing so furiously at the prompt of divine inspiration that he is practically falling off his stool, and wrinkling the landscape with frenetic, God-whipped energy.
While Chase’s devotion to God was quickly evident to those who knew him, when asked about his devotion to process, he would cite Marcia Hafif’s essay “Beginning Again,” published in Artforum in 1978. Hafif, a monochrome painter from California featured in international exhibits since 1964, wrote a rebuttal to critics who were drubbing paint as a “used-up” medium that had exhausted all its possibilities after New York School abstractions like Pollock, Newman, and Rothko. Hafif insisted that monochrome paintings did not necessarily have to be minimalist in meaning. This piqued Chase’s interest in the uncluttered simplicity of the monochromatic approach, inspiring the largely yellow legal tablet images and a series of grid paintings that flirted with formalism. Hafif’s suggestion for resolving the impasse exhorted artists to focus on process. To regain its conceptual viability, she wrote, art had to connect somehow with real life, to tell stories, to “relate”—a prescient nod to postmodernism. Hafif warned that antiseptic, formal arrays of artifacts lacking a connection to life would continue to erode the credibility of paint as a transcendent medium. Rooting the concept in life would revivify it. The task of determining, then applying materials and technique in a rigorous, consistent manner provided the operating rules, the means as well as the ends. With this kind of painting, Hafif predicted, “even the smallest decisions take on great importance.” Chase’s adherence to the disciplines of process yielded the “interrelated consistency” that Hafif hoped for, an approach that not only makes his works comprehensible, but also makes them humane.
In person, Chase’s earthy humanity was evident within a few minutes of conversation. A baby boomer born two miles from the spanking-new Disneyland in Anaheim, he migrated to Bethel College in Minnesota during the seventies, with plans to become a minister. The art professors won him over, remonstrating against overt biblical references and religious cliché just as Christian kitsch began to find its market (think decoupage plaques, scripture-embossed toilet seats, and Precious Moments figurines). But these professors also laid hands on canvases, stretchers, and paint, earnestly praying with their students for each day’s inspiration. Chase graduated sure of his artistic calling, and after a few years began graduate studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—a move that was both unusual for a Christian at the time and impressive, given SAIC’s competitive reputation. Studio critiques in the late seventies mercilessly targeted the inauthentic blot or drip, on one hand, and the dryness of formulaic approaches on the other. Chase became conversant with the “end of art” and “death-of-the-avant-garde” discourses of late-twentieth-century theory—but opportunities for religious or spiritual discussions of the same intensity were meager.
During the confused and conceptually prodigious 1970s and 1980s, Christians discussed and composed earnest manifestos on art, parsing the differences between “Christian” art, “Christian art,” and “art by Christians,” while commentators, mostly from the Reformed milieu, gamely attempted to locate a unified Christian aesthetic. Artists of faith who pursued abstraction and conceptualism nervously danced with the intense rhetoric of Hans Rookmaaker, Cal Seerveld, and Nicholas Wolterstorff; found no rest in Schaeffer Senior or Junior’s misfired moral critiques of twentieth-century art; extrapolated nuggets from Léon Bloy, Jacques Maritain, Jacques Ellul, and the French Sacred Arts movement; or flung themselves helplessly upon the few directly applicable morsels from C.S. Lewis or Flannery O’Connor. Meanwhile, language itself was being mercilessly interrogated. Students of the Logos wrangled with Saussure, Lyotard, Jameson, Fish, Derrida, and Foucault, trying to unscramble critiques of language that attempted to explain why meaning was meaningless.
No working artists of faith seemed able, at the time, to battle the reigning anti-Christian attitude in the Euro-American art world. Other than John and Jane Dillenberger at Berkeley, who focused on the modernist narrative about locating the cosmic and universal in art, few art historians of note publicly affirmed any conventional tenets of faith.
In this context, Chase was finding his way as an artist.
During that time, groups of artists identifying as Christians began meeting in art centers like London, New York, Boston, Sydney, Barcelona, and Johannesburg. Surviving on pennies and donated mimeograph machines, a small archipelago of organizations struggled to support artists of faith. Many Christians interrogated their calling to the arts, feeling isolated and pinched between the rock of churches that questioned the validity of art and the hard place of a gallery scene where any art with a scintilla of conventional religious content was rejected out of hand. Arts groups pondered what viable contribution Christians would be allowed to make, in any way, to the larger culture. The mood was not triumphalistic. While the postmodernist bent towards diversity began relaxing these strictures in the eighties, art that is too stridently Christian still tends to be relegated to the margins of the gallery and academic scene.
When Chase began connecting with groups like Christians in the Visual Arts in the early eighties, he realized that he wanted to figure out how to express his faith in his art, but the prospect initially unnerved him—until he found mentors and peers like Ted and Cathy Prescott, Don and Christi Forsythe, Ed Knippers, Christine Anderson, Steve Heilmer, and others who had found their voices as believing artists.
In the retrospective catalogue, Chase’s work is considered alongside that of Ad Reinhardt, Richard Tuttle, Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin, Brice Marden, Jasper Johns, and other luminaries—all artists to whom Chase openly pays homage. In fact, he wrote his 1980 MFA thesis on Reinhardt, the abstractionist known for his minimalist black or “ultimate” compositions, which Reinhardt considered the last paintings anyone could possibly make. Comparison is the stock in trade of critics, but as Chase said, artists “are never sitting there trying to be someone else; in the best case scenario, they are being who they are, and someone else may have gotten there first.” In the world of conceptual art, where “getting there first” is all, Chase’s work consistently maintains its originality. He nevertheless tends to be overlooked by mainstream critics, perhaps because, despite his Chicago degree, he taught for decades at Christian colleges.
Always searching for the flashpoint between waiting and acting, like an Apollo rocket hovering over the launch pad as it tries to escape gravity, Chase realized that a big part of the art-making process, for him, was simply “getting out of the way”—a theology he ascribed partly to Charles Williams’s Descent of the Dove. For years, Chase pondered how to pare away the nonessential, how to make “let go and let God” into an aesthetic discipline. “I would work, concentrate, pay attention, be available, see what happened,” he said, taking pains to “make sure that I wasn’t imposing my own will…my own content or imagery. I tried to work with givens, use what was inherent in the media.”
For Chase, what was inherent in the media went beyond physical material, as illustrated by the 2009 series Must Love Life [see Plate 7]. Single after decades of marriage, Chase reluctantly began sifting through online dating sites. Soon, the profiles’ conventions began to pique his natural skepticism. He noticed, for example, that “honesty” featured frequently as a desirable trait, but he wondered how honest a one-paragraph bio and a thumbnail snapshot could be as indicators of anyone’s identity. He enlarged thumbnail headshots to fifteen inches high, fracturing and exaggerating their pixilated palettes, and matched them to the corresponding bios. Merging both components on craft paper with high-resolution printers, he then constructed seventy-one shopping bags, laboriously affixing 142 jute handles to the printed craft paper templates. As Ted Prescott notes, the way that Chase manipulated the images and text prevents them from truly being seen together, except in the mind. The headshots blur when you stand close enough to read the texts, but the texts become illegible when you stand far enough back to see the images. For those who have dealt with the humiliations of “shopping around,” Must Love Life provides a wry commentary on the strange business of marketing ourselves for love. At first it seems far more invasive and scattershot than marketing oneself in the art world. But then again, maybe not.
Critical responses to his work invariably provoked a slight grimace—or a lopsided grin—from Chase. He would hunker down, shrug a little, and avoid eye contact for a few moments. He was used to the fact that few people would “get” his work, and he cherished exchanges with those who did. This was not hubris or affectation. For him, creativity was a kind of burden. He was willing to talk about art in terms of truth, beauty, and goodness—but more specifically, his work shows an abiding respect for consistency, rigor, and authenticity. We anticipate consistency in truth; we expect that rigor will produce beauty; we cherish even the smallest glimpse of integrity or authenticity—the intrusion of what is good—in the chaos of contemporary culture.
In 1995, a decade after I first encountered Untitled (40,000 times, counted) and experienced the epiphanic high of truly “getting” conceptual art by a peer and a friend, I found out that the chair of the art department where I was teaching owned it. I would periodically implore him to retrieve it from a flat file, where it lay wrapped in its plastic shroud, so I could indulge in private devotions over its simple beauty.
Since then, 40,000 times, counted has gone missing, like some sacred relic. All we have is a blurry, dust-spotted transparency and a digital file—neither of which transmits the power and presence of the real thing. And Guy Chase himself is gone, too, suddenly taken away in his fifties by cancer. Just as we long for a work of art that cannot be replaced or duplicated, those of us who knew him will miss his presence in the dialogue of art, and life. His passing extinguished a fiercely intelligent standout—a bright skeptic of earnest faith who surrendered his wit only to God’s wisdom. We will miss the rest of the art hidden in Guy Chase’s pockets.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.