By searching my gmail account, I can pinpoint that we first began hearing from and about Stephanie Chefas around 2012, and to be honest, it was a bit confusing to keep track of who she was, at first. For the most part, the sort of emails and press releases that we receive regarding visual art are typically directly from galleries, and/or whoever is handling their publicity; occasionally, even from artists themselves. Maybe that has more to do with where we lean, specifically, and the fact that, if we are dealing with visual art, it’s more often than not that we’re posting a collection of preview images and information for an upcoming exhibit; this post itself, being a primary example. It’s pretty much the inverse of what we deal with in the music world, the equivalent of a venue promoting a series of upcoming shows, rather than hearing from publicists handling a roster of clients and talent. An email with Chefas‘s name in it, however, was entirely different, without any consistent or central tie to one particular gallery, artist, or anything other than herself.
We’d receive something about an upcoming exhibit at Modern Eden gallery and the minute that I’d begin to associate the venue with her, and vice versa, we’d receive something about a show in an entirely different city. I’d realize that she was the founder of the Platinum Cheese art blog, only to then realize that Platinum Cheese was also the name under which she handled publicity and marketing for visual artists. Then, after receiving an email about a specific artist, something else would arrive about a group show that she was curating. “Hmm… this is for a show in Pomona. Wasn’t she handling a gallery in North Hollywood, before… or maybe even San Francisco? Or, wait… I think Stephanie was actually the one curating those exhibits, or sending us samples of work from artists not connected to any upcoming event whatsoever, just to put them on our radar.” I was always convinced that I was mixing something up, or simply misremembering the details, accepting whatever was at hand, while assuming I must have been mistaken. The truth, of course, is that she wasn’t one person or the other, but all of these people, and simply had her hands in so many different aspects in a way that most others don’t. There’s a very good reason that her emails began coming through credited collectively to “Stephanie Chefas Projects” and that, once she relocated to Portland to open her own gallery space, it took on that exact same title.
With a history in curation and recognizing up-and-coming talent, with a genuine desire to provide them with a platform and increased visibility for their work, it’s great to see attention paid to an area like the Northwest, which is outside of the more prominent greater Los Angeles and Bay Area art worlds that Chefas spent over a decade working in. I’m convinced that it must have been through the Stephanie Chefas Projects instagram account that I first discovered the work of Portland illustrator and paper cutout wizard, Nathan McKee who has a terrific new solo show opening at her gallery this Friday, August 4th. In turn, it was through McKee‘s account that I have watched in fascination, over the last couple of months, as the artist has meticulously cut and pasted construction paper to craft one pop culture figure from his childhood after another in its preparation.
As the press release explains, I Don’t Want To Grow Up is an exhibit featuring “classic images of legendary athletes,hip hop stars and skate/surf culture demigods,” or, more specifically, “WWF wrestling, Wheaties athletes, larger than life action movies, skateboard heroes and a full spectrum of innovative music.” But while the subject matter and imagery may be classic, the aesthetic that McKee has honed for himself is both unmistakable and all his own. In this day and age, creating pop-culture related art may seem like an easy way out, but the truth is that, with a topic that has been mined to death as much as this one has, it can actually prove much riskier to approach and more impressive when it’s pulled off successfully. As with so many things that we choose to weigh in on, the most important question that I have to ask myself is whether or not I believe the artist and their work. With McKee, I do. It would be irresponsible of me to pretend as if growing up during the same era and having so many similar reference points for my own nostalgia doesn’t play a heavy role in my appreciation of his work, but that doesn’t mean that I still don’t get a sense a genuine passion behind the creation of these pieces.
Sure, I’ve seen the same endless array of “artists” tapping similar veins, whipping up detailed renderings of Transformers or Star Wars imagery with the understanding that they look kind of cool, already have an established market, and it’s easy money, as we all have, but so much of the time, these prints and paintings register as cold and soulless, as if they were illustrated on a treadmill constructed out of melba toast. There’s a reason that nostalgic pop culture-based artwork found such a fervent consumer base in the first place — it can possess and emotional appeal — but it’s a resource that has been abused; a well that has been packed with sand and approached too often without any sort of delicacy or reverence. What’s most impressive to me about the work in I Don’t Want To Grow Up is the fact that, by taking an incredibly straight forward approach to an incredibly straight forward inspiration, while using imagery visually simple enough to be written off by those who, inevitably, won’t fully appreciate the technique, Nathan McKee has actually manifested images that are full of character and life. At a time when the demand and praise for photo realism really seems to be at an all time high, it’s important to remember that detail doesn’t necessarily equate to being more substantial, and that simple doesn’t equal lack of depth. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve fallen victim to the hypnotic, siren-esque allure of the 20-minute prog-rock epic in my day, as much as anyone, but I’ve also learned that it is generally a lot more difficult a task to write a more sparse and “simple” song that is still genuinely affecting and allows room for the listener to have some emotional interaction with the material, than strictly shoving a dozen different complex changes and time signature into a relatively small space. With very basic lines and a tool kit of items that can be easily located in any pre-school, McKee manages to fully encapsulate the essence of his subjects. The “simple” nature is actually what makes them so impressive. Plus, I’m at a point in my life where I want to experience something beyond just an intellectual appreciation when I look at art, and seeing construction paper interpretations of subjects like Axel Foley, Nikolai Volkoff, or Bruce Lee, Clark W Griswold, and George The Animal Steel, just makes me happy. If you can generate emotion from me, then I have no choice but to give you props. If you can generate a positive one… I guess that’s even better.
I Don’t Want to Grow Up isn’t a representation of ignorant art or strictly a lazy decision to fall back on a child’s medium, it is the utilization of the most effective materials and approach available to enhance the subject matter. This isn’t another situation of charging in aggressively, technique first, and hoping that approach alone will be enough to bring some sort of life into the work, after the fact, if it’s just rendered technically proficient enough. What this show reads to me as is nothing more than the utilization of the emotional core as the foundation to manifest into something more tangible that represents it and, in turn, relays that emotion back on its viewer when experienced. And in it’s most basic definition, that’s exactly what art is supposed to be.
If you’re going to be in the Portland area this month, we definitely recommend trying to pop in and catch this one in person. As the event details explain, “To complement and fulfill the nostalgic trip, the gallery itself will be transformed into a slacker wonderland complete with vintage TVs, a basement sofa and wrestling posters.” This should be a good one
Check out a selection of preview images below, after the following event details.
I Don’t Want To Grow Up
Friday, August 4th, 2017
Stephanie Chefas Projects –
305 SE 3rd Ave #202
Portland, OR 97214
Opening is free and all ages
Exhibit runs until Friday, August 25th
Gallery hours: Wed. – Sat. 1 – 6pm
Facebook event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1945708375714657/