On the occasion of Caroline Wells Chandler’s show at Roberto Paradise Gallery in Puerto Rico this fall, Katherine Bradford posed these questions about the show, it’s contents and possible meanings.
KATHERINE: After a sweltering summer working every day in your Queens studio crocheting each one of the characters for your installation it must have been great to finally see them up on those 17’ high walls at Roberto Paradise Gallery. Did it all look pretty much like you thought it would?
CAROLINE: I didn’t have an exact floor plan but I was told that the walls were forty feet long and originally twenty feet tall. And that really terrified me, because I never had attempted such an ambitious project. My work is heavily installation based and I tend to respond to the architectural space. Tito sent me a few photos of the gallery when they were renovating it. I juggle quite a bit because the color decision making process is extremely intuitive and that is nerve racking when you are working on a section of an installation that is composed of thirty something cowbois and you want them to make sense with the ball players and orgins. So it sort of feels like making a painting when you know red is needed and you have to have that blind touchy-feely sense developed and really trust yourself and realize when something doesn’t feel quite right and also really go for it and hope it will work when it does. For example you were the first ball player that I attempted to make and the original uniform was the wrong color blue so I had to completely start over. The hat on Hermes Trismegistus, the largest cowboi with the cacti caduci was ripped out and remade three times for the perfect color and form. When you are on a schedule that involves waking up at 5am and going to bed at 11pm working nonstop, you can’t fudge it too much. But it’s good when you do because that means you are learning. After I make the work I photograph it all and then I scale it in photoshop to get an idea of how it should look. We had to be a bit flexible because I didn’t account for the beam in the middle of each wall, but everything worked out just fine, and in fact it ended up being more dynamic.
KATHERINE: When you say it ended up being more dynamic are you referring to those cowbois doing that hootenanny dance all over the wall? And could you explain the spelling of “cowbois.”
CAROLINE: Haha! Well I’m glad you think so. Yeehaw! With the exception of the sports teams all of the characters in the worlds I create are genderqueer. One could make the argument that most artists are queer in that they tend to live non-normative lives, but I tend to think there is erasure in claiming such. For me shortly put the word queer refers to individuals who have a non-normative relationship to their body, gender, and/or sexuality. I also like that the etymology for the word queer is ‘twerkw’ which means twisted. That root is referenced in the process of crochet which involves twisting lines and in the depiction of the bodies I make which are literally twisted or contorted physically and conceptually. The first crocheted cowbois were made last spring for a show in Texas. I’m into archetypes and symbols and both of these visual literacy tools greatly inform how I make and read work. Even though historically most cowboys were African American and Latino, popular culture has presented the cowboy as the archetype for the great White hero. For this show, I thought it would be exciting to twist this hypermasculinized archetype in effort to make humans that represent me as a queer person. ‘Boi’ is a term used in the LGBTQ community that can be used in a variety of ways but I am using it in this context to refer to queer, gender nonconforming, and transgender FTM bodies.
KATHERINE: So if all the cowbois in your Roberto Paradise show are gender non-conforming how did this work itself out with the way you actually constructed them ? What were the visual decisions you made to subvert our known model of the cowboy?
CAROLINE: It probably would have been more aesthetic to make them all blonde or brunette and sun kissed, but I kept on getting this strong feeling that they needed to be orange and I had no idea what that meant or how to implement that pallet. It was probably Matisse filtered through your swimming figures that planted that seed. After about a month of mulling it over, I realized that the cowbois needed to be electric gingers with varying pink skin tones. Red hair is perfect because it is the haircolor of the most other. There is a strange Southern saying if someone is a misfit in a family that they are, ‘a red headed step child.’ That speaks to me as the sole receiver of my family’s recessive genes.
My figures are full of life, joyful, and tend to be a little bawdy. Most of them don double mastectomy FTM top surgery scars, which is a procedure that I would like to eventually have. Some of them run around without pants, are adorned with tassels, and many of them are bear like in that they enjoy assless chaps. I’m into Gnostic ideas regarding the body. They believed that our bodies were vessels of light. My figures have the full spectrum of ROYGBIV radiating out of their buttcracks. The rainbow is a pretty basic queer signifier, but I also think of things that aren’t so obvious like fringe which relates to queerness in terms of its original function in the 60’s. If you were queer you were an outsider and fringe makes me think of that. The fringe on my cowbois is self possessed and celebratory.
KATHERINE: Yes those Cowbois with their butt showing chaps both delighted and stunned me. What kinds of reactions did you get at the opening to the non normative Cowbois?
CAROLINE: I like it the most when kids see the work. There was a boy at the opening who copied the poses and had a photoshoot with his parents, miming the drawings. His favorite drawing was a player on The Dream Team, Cave Painter with Brush. I have felt at home working with Tito, because his aesthetic tastes feel kind of queer. He has several paintings by Rafael Ferrer, who often depicts the body as androgynous. Some people view the figures as something other than my intentions and that’s fine too. The work is very open to interpretation. I made this one piece titled Mr. Fisty and everyone thought it was a cowboi texting.
KATHERINE: You know I’d love to hear what you thought of that life size cowboy that Richard Prince showed at Gladstone recently or if that is too gnarly a question tell me about the bench warmer and the trolls and the all star team, in other words, the other characters that you chose to include with the cowbois?
CAROLINE: Do I detect shade? If not, I’m about to throw some. I’m not in the business of art so I have no problem sharing my views. Richard Prince is one of those artists who had one good idea and ever since then his effervescence has turned flat to perhaps putrid. The work he is making now has a diametrically opposed doe-eyed energy behind it, in that it is in service to what he sought to originally critique. His earlier work critically interfaced with the mythic, but now he pumps out empty propaganda that is misogynist, racist, and self congratulatory. That show was kind of anti-intellectual like Koons, and lacked visual seduction. I wish he would retire or work through his issues privately, because power wields and has the potential to subjugate. I guess empty people need empty art too, NOT!
I’ve always wanted to figure out how to tell stories in my work. When I first started making art, I didn’t really know what kind of stories I was interested in, because I was a character in someone else’s narrative. Right now as an artist, I’m in the stages of composing an affirmational cast of rainbow goodness. I see these crocheted figures as archetypes in which the figure is the ground and the ground is the figure. They function as self contained, autonomous, entities of joy, energy, and color.
My first representative self portrait is in the show. It is titled, Bench Warmer and it’s me in my jersey which was number eleven. Im also wearing neon yellow, but perhaps pee stained tighty-whities. It’s heroic because of size but anti heroic because of absurdity. I’m in the pose of Jordan which is the same archetypal posture of the magician. The stance suggests, ‘as above, so below.’
There are seven YMCA backup singers, one for each color of the rainbow. They are an iteration of Orgin. They exist because I don’t believe in monotheism as a viable structure. These mustachioed macho-boi’s are cheerleaders and color sound makers. Music in the form of color radiates from their core to create good vibes.
Trolls are in charge of the elves and they help make the body language. The trolls have heads and glowing butts with feet and no arms. Butts are great because they are the genital cushion that everyone posses. In the worlds I make, trolls are most revered. They are inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s monsters.
I make top ten lists of my favorite artists under different categories such as: favorite living painters, favorite dead painters, favorite sculptors, favorite all time artists, etc… These lists change over time. I was lucky to study with Jeffery Stuker at Yale. I think of him as the Santa Claus of theory because he has a gift in getting students excited about such things specific to their needs. Once I made a drawing of him as Karl Marx as Santa, which was fitting. He introduced me to the idea of building an ‘art family’ in order to foster affirmation. A lyric from Rocky Horror Picture Show in Over at the Frankenstein Place comes to mind,’In the velvet blackness of the darkest night, burning bright, there’s a shining star! No matter what or who you are!” I frankenstein art history to serve me as a maker to draft my various dream teams. This Dream Team, is composed of artists that I think about a lot. For me they serve as weights and measures. Some of them are really different aesthetically but most of these artists have a kind of feeling that their work gives off that I hope to achieve. I would have not been able to make the work for this show without having seen your work and really immerse myself in what you’ve been doing, which is why I made you MVP Draft Pick #1. You are a badass freedom painter, slam dunk to the max.
KATHERINE: Thanks for that nice compliment Chandler. Now let’s get back to you: You describe yourself as “a non transitioning queer trans man.” This is something people of my generation don’t know much about. In the 70’s, for example, women turned to lesbianism as a way to separate themselves from men and avoid having to interact with what we called “the patriarchy.” Things have changed so much in the LBGTQ world that now you are seeing benefits for yourself in identifying as male. Tell me how you got to this point.
CAROLINE: I was born into an incredibly normative and conservative culture. I was raised ‘proper.’ I went to the same school and played on the same sports teams as Pat Robertson’s grandkids. I was a debutante in two states and was a member of the most Southern belle sorority at Southern Methodist University, Kappa Kappa Gamma. I did these things to please my family. When I was in undergrad my mom was really sick and I thought if I weren’t ‘good’ she would die. She is fine now, but that trauma really stunted me from blossoming into who I am. Regardless, when your understanding of reality is radically different from every person you have ever met, and you are not only treated as pathological but also silenced when you voice dissent, you seriously begin to doubt your truth. But lucky for me, I was recruited to be an artist at a young age. That literally saved my life. I don’t know if I would have had the tools to realize what was going on with me otherwise.
I came out as trans at the end of grad school. It is my body and my choice not to fully transition, and I completely accept who I am. I’m aware that I may not necessarily pass as a man, and that I am often perceived as a queer woman with a masculine affect. I don’t really know if I see or even want to experience the benefits for identifying as male. My life changed a lot since coming out. My relationships have shifted, my financial situation has shifted, but I don’t feel like I really lost anything because I was miserable. I chose to live an authentic life because joy and happiness are important. Patriarchy is toxic for everyone. I don’t value or respect dominator cultural values. The underlining thesis of my work explores and affirms queerness as the normative state. Choosing the life affirming positive choice is radical. That’s the kind of feminism that resonates with me.
The Best Little Whore House in Texas is on view at Roberto Paradise in Puerto Rico until December 23, 2015.