ArtWeekend

A Doodler Who Taught Himself to Paint

It’s hard not to get the feeling that Chuck Boyce is learning by doing, while, at the same time, making it up as he goes along.

Chuck Boyce, “Urb” (2016), oil on canvas, 28 x 22 inches (all images courtesy Edward Thorp Gallery, New York)

Edward Thorp has always had a knack for finding artists. He has given shows to the under-appreciated (Henri Michaux and Eugene Leroy) and to those who gained a lot of attention then and now (Eric Fischl and Katherine Bradford).

His most recent discovery is Chuck Boyce, who, according to the press release (which I suspect the artist wrote) is:

[…] a self-taught artist who began painting a decade ago, in his sixties. A dissatisfied middle-aged graduate student and a decidedly “underappreciated” poet, he found work as a free-lance writer, an assistant to a high-end antiques dealer, and (most importantly) a father. Eventually, habitual doodling in his notebooks led to a concerted drive to make, of these casual scribbles, the artifacts we know as art. Humans do this: it staves off etc. and etc., and is fun to boot.

What the press release does not mention is that this is the first time Boyce’s work has ever been exhibited. The show, Chuck Boyce: Recent Paintings in Thorp’s Project Room, is well worth visiting, particularly since the show closes today.

One other fact that I want to mention is that Boyce is the co-author of the 740-page reference book, Shakespeare A to Z (1990). Boyce may be a self-taught painter, but he definitely has absorbed a lot of art — particularly the work of Karl Wirsum, Barbara Rossi, Max Ernst, and Stuart Davis. Boyce paints in oil on modestly sized canvases that are little more than 24 inches high and 20 inches wide. He sets his flat forms (or imaginary personages) in an abstract landscape divided into two or three areas (which roughly translate into land and sky).

Chuck Boyce, “Dolly” (2015), oil on canvas, 28 x 22 inches

In “Dolly” (2015), the horizon line is diagonal, starting in the lower left quadrant and crossing to the upper right. Each outlined area is marked by a different linear pattern done in a different color. A salmon-colored sky and purple ground peers through the large openings in the multipart form. It does not take much imagination to see how Boyce moved from doodling to making paintings. And yet, despite the simplicity of what he does, each of the paintings has something particular about it.

I did get the sense that these images derived from doodling but that Boyce realized he could do more with this method of mark-making and began to paint. I would say that he is a neat, restrained doodler, and that he never fills in any one area too much in terms of pattern and color, just enough to make it distinct. It’s hard not to get the feeling that he is learning by doing, while, at the same time, making it up as he goes along.

What this show has going for it is that, while he could have, he has not become formulaic. In “Urb” (2016) his most ambitious canvas, Boyce depicts an aerial view of a street, which divides the canvas vertically, with buildings and rooftops on both sides and a skyline visible just below the painting’s top edge. Different perspectives and patterns have been joined together to form a dizzying mishmash that simultaneously evokes walking down a small town street, flying over a city in a helicopter, and looking out from an apartment window. The colors and lines are solid, forming a patchwork of shapes, which run from schematic representation to abstract patterning.

“Urb” shows Boyce wrestling with space, trying to figure out how to create it, but with little thought to consistency. The result is charming, forthright, and inventive. And while the view is not instantly decipherable, neither are city streets.

Chuck Boyce, “Morning Watch” (2016), oil on canvas, 25 x 18 inches

In “Morning Watch” (2016) — the other painting that departs from abstract figures set in a flat abstract landscape — Boyce superimposes restless, meandering blue lines over a yellow and white checkerboard pattern. Squeezed between the blue lines and the yellow and white squares is a partially obscured red circle, presumably the eponymous watch.

While the chaos of the network and the regimentation of the checkerboard offset each other, the round red outline of what is presumably a faceless pocket watch is forced between them, a hopeless mediator. The meandering blue lines cross over each other so many times, like trails made by drunken ants: they hold our attention in a slower way than the figures in the landscape do.

In each of Boyce’s paintings there is something to think about as well as look at. It may simply be the way he puts his composition together, but in the best of them, something more happens. He is a self-taught painter who is also formally inventive. That is not always the case.

Chuck Boyce: Recent Paintings continues at Edward Thorp Gallery, Project Room (531 West 26th Street, 2nd Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through today.

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