Mud & Honey: The Art of Janet Chaffee

Mud & Honey: The Art of Janet Chaffee

By Kevin Bouchard

There is a kind of art, particular to painting that is anchored in raw Shamanistic interactions with material; relying on mineral rather than color, on weight rather than illusion. The arrangement of these materials reveals artistic intention, while the specific gravity of each pigment, each element, resonates independently. Janet Chaffee makes this kind of art.

Lace, beeswax, mica, iron, copper, zinc, calcium carbonate….these are some of her ingredients. She embeds them, pours them, relying on their weight to steer them, building object/images that conjure primordial oozing and solidifying. The translucent skin of beeswax functions much the way amber does in suspending insects and pollen. This imparts a specimen-like quality that acts as a counterpoint to the seductive warmth of the surface. It is easy to imagine the paintings as huge enlargements of thinly sliced organisms seen through a high powered microscope. But there is also a Eucharistic implication in the fleshy wax. This is an association Chaffee embraces and it reveals a deeply personal dimension in the way she creates an object. The following passage comes to mind:

“This is what I mean when I say I would like to swim against the stream of time: I would like to erase the consequences of certain events and restore an initial condition. But every moment of my life brings with it an accumulation of new facts, and each of these new facts bring with it consequences; so the more I seek to return to the zero moment from which I set out, the further I move away from it. . . .”  Italo Calvino, If On a Winter’s Night, A Traveler 

Calvino’s observation voices a conundrum some artists work within: the desire to reveal something essential, maybe timeless, inside a cultural context that by its nature is doggedly self-referential. In other words, they want to make something new while cooking with left-overs. Chaffee negotiates this dilemma by making her work appear as if it were extracted from nature intact. Her hand is veiled.

And yet lace is the ultimate manifestation of hand work. In Chaffee’s paintings lace takes on multiple identities. Sometimes lace looks like fishermen’s nets, spider webs, or cell structures. In the painting Cirque CaCO3 (Calcium Carbonate) lace pieces form a large open circle on a field of pale wax. The composition evokes memories of Celtic stone carving, cross-sections of cellulose, and even the yoke from Vermeer’s The Lacemaker. The painting also looks like a softly polished slab of yellow onyx. Perhaps it is the open circle that makes it feel quiet and receptive.

Discussing influences is tricky and usually misleading. But many of us come upon works of art that cause a kind of tectonic shift within us. To simply say we connect with them is inadequate. This was true when Chaffee encountered Jasper Johns’s Catenary paintings as well as Brice Marden’s Cold Mountain paintings. There are no stylistic similarities but there are essential shared qualities. The paintings are tactile, often sensuous, reserved and discrete. They are simultaneously simple and intricate. Many of these paintings seem to be parleys between nature and the artist. Such negotiations are consistently apparent in Chaffee’s work; sometimes an agreement, sometimes a truce, but always the source of palpable resonance. In the end we are left with the work itself doing that which language only hints at.

Kevin Bouchard is a writer and object maker. He has written for Art Lies, The Gallery at UTA and other obscure venues. He may be contacted at kevinleebouchard@gmail.com