THROWBACK THURSDAY ALERT: About a year and a half ago, I had the opportunity to do a studio visit with artist Chris Oh. I wrote this afterward, and it didn't end up getting posted anywhere besides my studio website. Now that I'm running this blog, I'll be doing a lot more of these studio visit pieces. Here's and oldie, but a goodie, for anybody who missed this the first time around.
Almost every male painter that I know in Brooklyn wears a very specific uniform. It includes a plain, white t-shirt and a pair of slightly-baggier-than-fashionable pants of the Carhartt persuasion. These pants are always rolled up so that they have cuffs, and the thighs of the pants have paint all over them so that when the painter walks into the Narrows or Alaska, the patrons think to themselves, “This guy--he’s definitely a painter.” For the painter, this is a success. His pants are signifiers, like the very marks he makes on his canvases, and they have signified that which he wished to signify. What makes him incredibly happy though is when people not only know that he is a painter, but that he is a “painter’s painter.” This means that he rips off Alex Katz and Frank Stella, but he knows that he rips them off. It is foundational to his work. He is also probably annoyed that women paint, too.
I’ve always hated the phrase “painter’s painter.” It seems nonsensical, like if I were to talk about my ride home last night as being provided by an “Uber driver’s Uber driver.” But recently I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that the phrase might actually have some weight. And I owe that to a Brooklyn-based painter named Chris Oh. Besides the fact that he paints like a fantastic maniac, one of the things that I love most about Oh is that he wears an actual apron when he paints and then removes it before going out into public because he is not batshit obsessed with making sure that everybody knows he’s a fucking painter.
The first time that I saw Oh’s work was last March in the basement of a bodega during a Ryobi Room exhibition. Ryobi Room is an ongoing series of exhibitions put on by artists B. Thom Stevenson and Philip H. Ashley. The opening was packed and my coat was too hot and it was making me sad. You couldn’t really see any of the art because everybody else was wearing big coats too and the coats were in the way of all of the art.
Side note: I have to remember to do my idea where I set up what looks like a coat check at a gallery and when people try to give me their jackets I say, “I’m sorry. This isn’t coat check. It’s coke check. You can leave your cocaine with me and I promise I won’t do any of it.” The thing is though, as soon as they walk away, I’ll do all of their drugs because it’s not like they’re gonna call the cops on me. LOL.
Anyway, so the opening was super packed and I’m sitting there thinking, “Do people who aren’t artists do this kind of bullshit ever?” Like, do bankers get together in the basement of a bodega and then show off their money to each other? I wanted to screedle out of the show and as I was just about to leave a couple of people moved for just a moment and I was suddenly staring at this outrageous, majestic image:
I was completely baffled. Why would somebody who so obviously had insane painting chops spend what had to be dozens of hours rendering something so ridiculous? I demanded to know who produced the piece, and somebody told me, “That’s Chris Oh. His paintings are insane.” Indeed. Over the last several months, I’ve had the good fortune to get to know Oh much better and he was kind enough to invite me over to his studio. We chatted over horsecocks of Tecate and I tried multiple times to get him to tell me the name of just one artist that he likes who is making work right now and he wouldn’t tell me a single one. This is kind of a boss move. Oh is a boss dude.
He works days as a painting assistant for art world star Marilyn Minter. When he gets done working at her studio, he heads to his own. I asked Oh how many hours a week he spends physically painting to which he immediately replied, “70 hours. Maybe more.” I don’t do 70 hours of anything a week and it’s why I find myself having to reexamine the concept of a “painter’s painter.” Oh fucking loves the act of painting--he’s quite literally obsessed with it. His modest-sized studio in Bushwick is filling up quickly as a result, but with good reason: he’s showing like CRAZY. For somebody I hadn’t even heard of a year ago, he’s suddenly everywhere that I look.
Every person who knows him loves him to death. They love his work, too. It’s kind of hard not to love it. Like I said earlier, his talent and technical prowess are top notch but what’s so damn charming is the images he actually chooses to paint. Tattooed aliens, toast with smiley faces on them, Philip K Dick book covers--I imagine that other painters look at Oh’s work and just go insane with jealousy at his skill while simultaneously losing their minds that he’d spend so much time rendering a piece of pumpernickel. What I respond to is how deadly serious Oh is about what might initially come across as silly work. He’s not painting aliens to be cute, he is a total science fiction fan boy who accidentally admitted to me that he really likes underground dance music culture, and that he often daydreams about all of the characters that he paints dancing at a rave together.
“I love loud, exhilarating music,” he told me without a hint of irony. “And I’ve always loved synthesizers, they were the sounds of space in the science fiction movies I grew up with, and I guess I’m still attracted to those types of sounds.” He’s learned to embrace what he cares about outside of art and made peace with the fact that his real motivation is to paint something weird that he hasn’t seen before. Until last year, he said he was “flirting” with color field painting and abstraction. Taking a look at what gets covered in contemporary art media, it makes sense. A Lucien Smith looks great above some rich screedler’s couch. Something like this might not:
“Last year I finally got a smartphone and started an Instagram account. I posted a picture of an alien I found online one day because it just cracked me up. Then I realized that this image on my Instagram was way more interesting than the art that I was making. So I just decided to change my work. I decided to make it interesting.” I’m personally glad he did just that. We don’t need any more abstract paintings this year. Somebody reading this who loves abstract painting just got butt hurt and thought to post a link to this on Facebook saying, “We don’t need any more shitty SJPC articles this year either.” Now if they do it, they’ll look like a choad.
Oh told me that he’ll think of himself as a successful painter if he can make 4,000 paintings in his lifetime. In 2015 he’s completed 40 brand new ones. I pointed out that this is only 1% of his goal. “I’m getting faster though,” he replied. The work he does for Minter, Oh said, is enjoyable and also gets him warmed up for late nights at his own studio. To relax, he’ll throw in an eight-mile run for fun. He talks about efficiency and maintenance in regards to his studio practice the same way that mechanic might an automobile. But the seriousness with which he focuses on painting is tempered by his obvious love of the medium and profound sense of humor. Stereotypical painters I described earlier are always moaning about how complicated their relationship to their work is, but Oh lights up when he talks about his work. He loves working. And the vibe in his studio is infectious as a result. Seeing Oh’s work in-person is a real trip. I get lost examining the minutiae, trying to figure out how the hell he made something so convincingly dimensional with a material as simple as acrylic paint. I wish that I’d known somebody like Oh when I was in school because it would have stopped me from constantly making fun of painters in critique. They’re just so goddamn tortured about whether or not painting is dead that it was nearly impossible not to tease them about it. I’d have loved to see the look on their faces if Oh strutted in and hung up this preposterous trompe l'oeil motherfucker on the crit wall:
I'd have been more than happy to wax poetic about this piece for a couple of hours.
Follow Oh on Instagram: @cchris.ohh