Celeste Chandler: An Art Beyond the End of Art.

Simon Marsh, Published 20 March 2014.

A fearless and at times brutal re-imagining of the act of contemporary figurative painting, the artwork of Celeste Chandler unmistakably engages with the development of a new set of strategic maneuvers in her reconfiguration of a visual lexicon with which to communicate ideas.

They look back instead in order to perceive anew a future that was lost from sight. [1]

This was clearly evidenced and importantly felt in her most recent solo exhibition The Embarrassment of Sincerity: The Changing State of Contemporary Figurative Painting, shown at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery Melbourne. The unmitigated import of Chandler’s visual grammar of potentiality surrounds an artistic economy of sensation mediated by the inherent instability of an ambiguous perception.

What we very quickly ascertain when viewing Chandler’s oeuvre is the patent unverifiability of the underlying sentiments of production being seamlessly mapped onto that of the reception of the work. In fact what becomes very clear is that sentiments informing the reception of Chandlers art – one might say the dominant assumptions – are in fact in a constant state of subjective flux and importantly sit comfortably within their purview of being fundamentally unverifiable. [2] Which immediately brings to mind Ad Reinhardt’s infamous aphorism:  

Art is Art. Everything else is Everything else. Art-as-Art. Art from Art. Art on Art and Art of Art. [3]

The fact remains, that it is a constancy of an oscillation between elements of the sublime and beautiful that undoubtedly lend the work its power. The pictorial problem solving that Chandler successfully negotiates is the overriding mobility and fluidity of the human sensorium that refuses to be fixed by any literal pictorial narrative and the acute employment of painterly techniques of negation that privilege and thereby intensify certain features of the subject. Coupled with the exceptional phenomenological qualities of tactility and finally the inhabiting of a rarefied space that exists between and beyond the space of a postmodern conceptualism and the representational space of some surface orientated trite photo-realistic knockoff, that begins to affirm the configuration of Chandler’s output toward a formal discernment of the metamodern “which has come to dominate the cultural imagination over the last few years”. [4]

Metamodern neoromanticism should not merely be understood as re-appropriation: it is the re-signification of the commonplace with significance, the ordinary with mystery, the familiar with the seemliness of the unfamiliar and the finite with the semblance of the infinite. Indeed, it should be interpreted as the opening up of new lands in situ of the old. [5] 

Metamodernism is a progressive invitation for debate surrounding artistic inclinations that are representative of an uber-contemporary neoromantic sensibility: an intuitiveness that is finding its place within the aesthetic configuration of a European artistic zeitgeist. Whilst developing the metamodern construct from May 2009, Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker convincingly advanced this heuristic ism in their 2010 article Notes on Metamodernism published in the journal Aesthetics and Culture. In short metamodernism can be seen as a bridge that negotiates over, through and beyond the extreme detachments that exist between the fidelity of neoromanticism, the utopian construct of Modernism and the weighted irony of postmodern pastiche in its reconstruction of an artistic knowingness. Importantly though it must be seen to exist in a state of constant oscillation between, through and indeed beyond these heterogeneous artistic constructs. [6]

In conversation with the artist, one becomes exceedingly aware that the innate technical sophistication of Chandler’s facture is steeped in an intimate knowledge of the canonical history of figurative painting, in particular, the neoromantic, though some have convincingly argued the proto Modernist Gustave Courbet. The intrinsic purity and sensuality of Courbet’s brushwork and warmth of palette immediately brings to mind the corporeal Venetian school of lyrical artists encompassing Correggio, Veronese and Titian: the later of which Courbet claimed a contested direct decendancy. [7] However by 1866 Courbet acquitted a private commission with his intrepid rendering of L’Origine du Monde (Origin of the World) and in so doing created a new language that can be seen to circumscribe to – and strategically well beyond – the many underlying principles of romanticism and in particular neoromanticism, including:  

unity and multiplicity…fidelity to the particular…and also mysterious tantalizing vagueness of outline. It is beauty and ugliness. It is art for art’s sake, and art as instrument of social salvation. It is strength and weakness, individualism and collectivism, purity and corruption, revolution and reaction, peace and war, love of life and love of death. [8]  

When we view Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde – which entered the collection of the Musee d’Orsay in 1995 at which time it was housed in the collection of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan [9] – alongside Chandler’s I Feel for You 3 (2014), we are able to discern an overt similarity of sensibilities. These include elements of negation, the oscillation between the sublime and beautiful, the indisputable authenticity toward specifics and amongst others, mystery, ambiguity and the unmistakable warmth and flesh like qualities of the artist’s palette. Importantly though, it is we the viewer who is manifestly forced into a position of reading these images predominantly based on the orientation of our mind and body. The resulting constancy of oscillation between intuitive degrees of sensualities provides us with a key that opens Chandler’s art onto a vista of crucial uncertainty, an ultimately unverifiable, non-literal, subjective space of receptivity. 

Art then is the votive offering the soul makes to escape death, which is promised by the sensible, while celebrating within this very sensible what has torn the soul from non-existence. [10] 

Essentially every human endeavor can be seen to seed itself in the imagination, with the source of human sensuality taking root in and essentially being nurtured through the human imagination. As has been formulated by Nietzsche this process transforms into a unity of the sensual and intelligible ideals. When viewing the art of Chandler “sensuality finds a springboard in the imagination by which the sensible uncovers a means to exceed itself.” [11] Now whereas Lyotard views this moment as a clash of ideals resulting in the violent deposition of the sensible, regardless, for Chandler’s aesthetic of a distinctly heightened sensuality – where our perception is phenomenologically enlivened by a distinctly embodied supersensual experience – simply demands that our senses operate at an intense responsiveness in a purely subjective engagement with paint on canvas. Most importantly, Chandler provides us with this essential artistic scaffolding, the foundation from which we can begin to construct a subjective economy of empathetic rationalisations. The paradox being that empathy is and remains an unverifiable, invisible force. 

Now whilst this empathetic paradox can be seen as the underlying brilliance and overt strategic universality of Chandler’s oeuvre, accompanied by an unremitting aesthetic assault commandeering our sensible ideal of self: whilst we entertain cross disciplinary notions of psychology, philosophy, neuroscience and colour theory in admitting an evocation of the extreme corporeal relationship between the exhibited subject and self: whilst the oscillation between the sensations of touch, weight, lightness, heat, a cool detachment, texture and ambiguous transformations predominate, as they maneuver throughout our conscious perception jostling for a rationalised acceptance: whilst ideas of human identity are configured as being phenomena that exist in a constant state of flux, reliant on our subjective, psychological and emotional positioning in the formulation of events as they are felt, perceived and then imagined, and whilst it is easily accomplished to solely entertain these predominantly metaphysical suppositions the fact remains that we will always be drawn back to the surface brilliance of Chandler’s brushwork, pausing for breath, in the realisation that what we are looking at are consummately constructed objects of art. 

I don’t mind having that little tangible reminder of the brush that made the mark…my eyes do not focus on the surface when I’m working but focus within the pictorial space. It’s certainly very important to me that you can see the painting process and even decipher how one mark was placed over another. It’s the space between this awareness (of the surface) and the perception of the human subject that is important. [12] 

This dedication to the indomitable artistic exploration of internal landscapes – a common sensualised human thread of feelings that oftentimes facilitates our worldview – can be seen as the psychological prime mover that elongates Chandler’s aesthetic moment. Analogous to a self-perpetuating loop of unverifiable empathetic, sensual potentiality – commencing with the extreme ambiguity of the unknown substance strategically revealing and concealing aspects of the subject’s face. This overall ambiguity is highlighted by the interaction of colour and the points of transition elicited by the edges of the work: a space that in effect allows us to enter the work. It is these points of transition where the logic of the sensible self is hijacked and deposed, invoking a myriad of extremely subjective, sensual possibilities. This coupled with Chandler’s carefully constructed choreography of paint that conveys the viewer back to the surface of her signature style – an artistic process of mark making – before the sensible ideal is once again corrupted by the sensual and we find ourselves re-emerging toward the aesthetic of a plurality of psychologies that seemingly underpin the universality of human affect. This is the unverifiable space of empathy that can be felt to exist between the surface space of ambiguous knowingness and the phenomenological tactility of the artistic object. It is the opening up and unashamed exploration of this invisible landscape, this intrinsically human space that sits between the tangible spaces of a constructed object that Chandler stretches to maximum effect. The sheer potency of this ever (r) evolving aesthetic brilliance inhabits a space that simply becomes increasingly difficult to detach from.  

By the 1940’s Clement Greenberg arrived at the position that to establish excellence within the arts required an exploration of arts own limits. As an arts writer he firmly believed that “all paintings of quality ask to be looked at rather than read.” He firmly held the belief that “the interaction of words with vision to develop or disseminate meaning could only lower the aesthetic quality of the result.” [13] Looking at Chandler’s supremely intelligible re-signification of the state of contemporary figurative painting, it is difficult to negate the sensation of having captured a dominant player in the act of producing a distinctly metamodern artistic lexicon with which to convey an intimacy of engagement. When viewing Chandler’s oeuvre, the fact remains, that the artist’s ambiguous economy of unverifiable empathic currency – whilst stretching and indeed exploring the known borders of an artistically liminal space – psychologically positions an audience to adequately resolve the constancy of a purely subjective oscillation between the sublime and beautiful, thereby reinforcing the supersensual ideals of human imagining. 

Born in Hobart Tasmania [1977], Celeste Chandler attended the University of Tasmania [UTAS], graduating with a Bachelor in Fine Art [Painting, 1998]. She attained first class honors [2000-UTAS] and a Masters in Fine Art [2003-UTAS] and is currently near the completion of a PhD at the Victorian College of Arts [VCA]. Having achieved her doctorate, she is currently the Breadth Coordinator and Lecturer in Art at the VCA. From 1997, Chandler has held nine solo exhibitions culminating in The Embarrassment of Sincerity: The Changing State of Contemporary Figurative Painting, shown at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Melbourne [2014]. Her works are held in the collections of the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane [GOMA], the University of Queensland, the Redcliffe City Gallery and the Maroondah Art Gallery Victoria, as well as in many private collections including Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart. Chandler’s work has been shown in numerous group shows including, Open Studios, McCulloch Studio, Cité International des Art Paris (1999). She was awarded the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Scholarship, Quebec, Canada [2004] and worked as artist in residence, teaching and painting at the School of Art, Australian National University Canberra (2004). Celeste received the People’s Choice, Metro 5 Award, Melbourne [2007]. Major portrait commissions include Dr Maureen Aitken, principal for The Women’s College, University of Queensland [2009]. 

Header Image courtesy Celeste Chandler: Lovesick 5, oil on linen, 81×76 cm, 2012. Music Courtesy: Raphaella Smits, Elegie, Johann Kaspar Mertz.

[1] Vermeulen, Timotheus and Akker, Robin van den. Notes on Metamodernism, Aesthetics and Culture, vol 2, p12 (2010).

[2] Verwoert, Jan. Why are Conceptual Artists Painting Again? Because they think it’s a Good Idea. A lecture presented on 16 April 2010 in collaboration with the University of Glasgow and the Association of Art Historians as part of the 36th Association of Art Historians Society conference. 

On the dense subject of intentionalism you may also find of interest a book by Harold Rosenberg. In The American Action Painters, 1952, Rosenberg states that it remains the act itself – of laying paint on canvas – that is the actual object of intention and not the finished object of art. This in effect surrounds his idea that the object of art is in fact a ghost, a vehicle that allows artists to transcend consciousness. Rosenberg held the view that it was simply the latency of language that refused the formulation of the act of painting itself as the appropriate object of intentionality. However the aesthetic moment intimates that this transcendence of consciousness must transfer to the viewer in their reception of artistic production. 

When we talk about Intention in art, it is important to look toward Stanley Cavell’s thesis Must We Mean What We Say? New York: Scribner (1969). Cavell addresses thoughts of fraudulence, inauthenticity, insincerity, indeterminacy and an artistic deceptiveness arriving at an artistic insincerity when talking about the production and reception of art. 

Jan Verwoert however matter-of-factly dismisses both of these premises as an ultimately unverifiable fact. In effect, whilst the under laying sensibility of production can be divined, so to speak, to then seamlessly map this artistic methodology onto the reception of a work of art – without taking into account the ultimate subjectivity of empathetic recall – is verging on being disingenuous. 

[3] Gibson, Ann. Abstract Expressionism’s Evasion of Language. Art Journal, 47.3, 1998. pp 208-214. 

[4] Above n1. 

[5] Ibid. 

[6] Above n1. 


[8] Berlin, Isaiah. The Roots of Romanticism. Princeton University Press, 2001. p 18. 

[9] Above n7. 

[10] Aylesworth, Gary E. Lyotard, Gadamer, and The Relation Between Ethics and Aesthetics: (III) Lyotard and The Sublime. ‘Lyotard Philosophy, Politics and The Sublime’. Edited by Hugh J. Silverman. Routledge, New York, 2002. pp 92-99. 

[11] Scribner, F. S. Masochism and the Modern Ethical Ideal (1788-1877): Between Literary and Scientific Visibility. Literature and Psychology 48.1-2, 2002. pp 65-88. 

[12] In conversation with the artist, 7 February 2014. 

[13] Above n3. 

Whilst a great debt must be acknowledged to the thoughts of Vermeulen and Akker in their formulation of the metamodern, the aforementioned acknowledgement must also be extended to the art historical formulations of Jan Verwoert. In particular Breaking The Chain, Thoughts on Trauma and Transference, a public lecture sponsored by the Monash University Museum of Art as part of their MUMA Boiler Room Lecture Series.