Janet Chaffee’s paintings arouse the senses and tease the mind. Her work exudes a sensuality and serenity and invites an inquiry into a deeper part of self. Chaffee’s current visual narrative at Mighty Fine Arts, “Underneath and In-Between” charts an internal landscape. Although she works with precise memories, materials and dimension, she greets chance in her process. Chaffee fuses the tenderness of lace and science of form into one. The eye finds solace and space for private discourse in her elaborate cuttings, her encaustic paintings, and most recent spatial explorations. There is a delicacy in her hand and subtlety, as if leaning into the ear to whisper. Even her encaustic pieces hold a silent strength and thickness of marrow.
She took time to visit with me this week at the Mighty Fine Arts gallery in Oak Cliff.
Tina Aguilar: The word playful comes to mind when I see this piece climbing the wall. This extension looks like velvet, and the other strand conjures up Corten steel for me. Tell me about it.
Janet Chaffee: This piece is called Prussian Blue and originates from a Jasper Johns show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Jasper Johns: Gray,” that I had seen in New York with catenary lines (tethers hanging from two different points not in a straight line) in them. Sometimes it is painted or printed, and in other paintings there is an actual string with a board that is angled away from the painting. This influenced me, and I thought “why not try that with lace.” These paintings seemed so structural or architectural. I wanted to play with the idea of a feminine looking catenary line as well as the structure and connections within community. It is about play – play with formal design.
T.A.: How do you feel about the engagement between your work and the viewer?
J.C.: I want the viewer to want to touch it really bad. I like the illusion of the paper looking like metal, because it kind of tricks people.
T.A.: This other form has an ethereal quality to it with the haze of film borne out of your flocking process.
J.C.: The “Magpie” series includes different pieces, and this is the most recent. I flocked it and used orange India ink to pull it away (from itself). The light in the gallery right now works with it, and I enjoy the different shadows that emerge. Even at night, the way the lights work seem to offer a new viewing.
T.A.: Why Magpies?
J.C.: Magpies came about simply, because I found the lace image. I am sure I was attracted to it, because I have done several early paintings containing birds. The birds were often used in place of the figure sometimes standing in for myself or other significant people in my life.
T.A.: You started working with your lace influences in 2005. What was the first lace pattern or piece that you used or can remember using?
J.C.: The first lace I used was some that my children’s great grandmother had given to me. She purchased it in Europe as the wife of a missionary. I don’t know what country, I can’t remember. I still have the paintings it was embedded in.
T.A.: I sense your whimsy, and these pieces make me smile. How does your work come together?
J.C.: With the namesake of the show, “Underneath and In-Between,” all the marks that you see, all that are shown here, are meant to be there. I guess one of the things that’s the most fun is the idea and the excitement of, “Oh, I need to try this and see what happens” or the “what if’s?” There’s a freedom and liberty to my gestures. I like to see where my hand or my arm has been. I really like the recording of my moves.
T.A.: To see the visual reminder or see what you have created must have an impact on you, an inspiration. How do you let your art out of your studio?
J.C.: Some of these pieces have been in my studio for a long time, and the right time for them to be seen was now. I do surround myself with my work, my pieces, and objects that hold meaning for me. I need to remember, to see what I did a month ago. It helps build my vocabulary. I like to look, and there’s something inspiring about those contours we experience in creating and living.
T.A.: What about the creation of your encaustic pieces?
J.C.: Through my experiences with my mom dealing with cancer twice, I noticed the intensity of her scar. I started playing with this image of skin and stitching. The encaustic process is a skin of sorts that happens with wax and dry pigment. Then I thought about adding oil. Biomedical technologies fascinate me, and the idea of how a scar could be made attractive.
T.A.: Where are you with your recent paintings?
J.C.: I am deconstructing my work and considering how I can take it apart. Like in In between, where the oil painting has led me to where I am now – somewhat more of a minimal approach. I am trained as a painter, and I like to repurpose with my layers and extractions of my older pieces. This process allows a reality that I could never construct, and my recent work deals with connectors. It is reductive, and I learn how far back I can go or not.
T.A.: How does your work trickle to students?
J.C.: I am able to work with the conceptual process with my students and introduce this idea of sewing to them. The conceptual process is a higher level of critical thinking skills. For example, if you have a box full of tools, you can use it to solve questions with it and in different ways. When I am teaching, I want them to create something in both a reductive and additive manner. I want them to be able to choose.
T.A.: Do you listen to music while you paint?
J.C.: Yes, I listened to a lot of Lucinda Williams for some of these works and, lately, Van Morrison has been really good to me.
“Underneath and In-Between” can be seen, in addition to the MFA Project Room exhibit by Heidi Lingamfelter, at Mighty Fine Arts gallery in Oak Cliff through May 9. Janet continues to teach as an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas at Arlington.