My friend Cham Hendon died last month. He was a dedicated color renegade, a cool old dude who was easy to be with. In social situations he had a gentle voice and a peaceful demeanour, but his eyes were always quick. With a few sharp words and a mischievous grin he could cut through the bullshit. I’m so lucky to have known him.
I’m not gonna belabour the point, but I do need to say that this jpeg, a fine jpeg, doesn’t even come close to capturing the hallucinogenic hum of his painting. The actual piece trembles with a thousand tiny lights. It is quite glossy, and the surface ripples in every which way, but it’s not the track lighting I’m picking up on, there’s something else, something animalistic at play: hordes of airborne insects getting gooey in acid-enhanced abandon. You know that feeling on a summer day, when the sun is raking across your face, there isn’t the slightest breeze, your shirt is starting to cling, the tree frogs are feeling it, and the atmosphere is a roar with life? This painting’s got it. Or at least the middle third of the painting has it, there’s conflicting information elsewhere.
I’ve seen this piece on a couple different occasions, and my eyes always lock on that hot valley. I love it there beside the chalet, the weight of July perched upon Monet’s bridge… or is it precarious, wobbly upon a scale? Cham flanked this heat with swirling grays above and nervous blues below. It’s a gorgeous uneven embrace. Wander those borderlines and check out all the moments of cross-contamination, of porous influence, of impingement.
And what is it we’re actually looking at here? The valley creek motif may have been lifted from a calendar, or a coloring book. Cham had a great sense of humour, and this Pop strategy of low-brow appropriation was his ticket to explore: portraits of pigs, motel interiors, Mayor Koch. Physically, the painting is acrylic and Rhoplex, poured out with a shaky hand. He’d pencil in the composition and lay his canvas flat. The colors were mixed in countless little paper cups, then swirled gently, until they attained an Aquafresh twirl. This gluey mixture would seep slightly as it hit the canvas, but not much. Part of Cham’s working process was to cordon off zones with sticky little walls, then let it rip on the inside – marbleized mayhem.
His paintings weren’t always made in this manner, and those that are tend not to be uniform. I’ve seen pieces of his that are veiled in spray paint, others built with gold leaf. He would frequently scratch through wet swirls for strong linear structure. Each piece has unexpected schisms, broken rules, escape routes. This painting’s foreground fence, a nasty ultramarine / baby poo combo, is the most rudimentary stain. It’s brazenly exposed underpainting, and a hurdle. I like thinking of this entire composition residing in the mind of someone jumping hurdles.
There are so many peculiarities: the architectural shadows on the left have a curious cake-like quality, the foreignness of a matte asteroid riddled with bubbles… the windows along that edge seem not to reflect diagonal logic, but act as portals into pure geometry… the cabin’s front edge, seemingly in shadow, flops abruptly into grey collusion with the heavens above. This painting gives me an early Renaissance rush. It has the color-separation clarity of Jean Fouquet: his chiseled carmine robes, his distant turquoise hills, his joyously-off perspective.
These countless ecstatic rivulets have a funny suspension, a waterbed jiggle. I don’t believe in the gravity rendered, it’s the outward seep of every little shape that is most palpable. Every sliver is expanding, each tone is crowding in on its neighbour. Pick any shape… that nice little indigo hook at the center of the hedge… what did it do to deserve such touchy company? The whole shrub is a cuddle puddle of churning worms.
And my favorite part of the picture: a small zone of intensity right below the grey peaks, an area of focus different from the rest, an area of structural compression ill at ease. It always calls out to me from across the room; up close, it’s a moment of obvious revision. Cham scraped something out, perhaps small swirls too similar to the nearest peak. He decided the distant foothills needed to be solid, blocky, large marks. It’s an irrational scale shift that draws attention to itself, hooks you in. It harkens back to the medieval – scale and significance dancing in lock step. That passage, out of which bright lemon and glacier blue fingers ooze, has a history. The surface there is abused, gouged away. It’s fraught in ways that the rest of the painting isn’t. The bugs in the air are particularly fierce up there. As I hurdle the fence, it’s my finish-line.
Zachary Keeting, April (2), 2013, Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 54 inches