Understanding and Inventing: The Art of Bernard Chaet

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Bernard Chaet's painting "Big Rock," part of the List Gallery show "Seascapes" beginning September 6

Adorning the walls of the List Gallery now is a tangle of colors and thick strokes, part of the new exhibition “Bernard Chaet: Seascapes.” The images are offset by an expanse of emptiness: the wide walls that frame the piece to every side. The paintings themselves in the exhibition, too, are riddled with blank spaces amidst their bright splashes.

Just as a pause, or drop, in a piece of music can bring the noise to life, the visual silences of this exhibit serve a similar purpose. As Andrea Packard, director of the gallery and curator of the exhibit, notes, “a pause or visual rest in the arrangement of works allows us to fully experience their intensity.”

Chaet’s work was initially recommended for the gallery by Logan Gryder, assistant professor of Studio Art. Gryder attended graduate school at Yale, where Chaet had previously served as the William Leffingwell Professor of Painting. Gryder became aware of Chaet’s talent and legacy, even in the artist’s absence.  By chance, they did end up meeting once – when Chaet, in the area for a poetry reading, paid a brief visit to Gryder’s studio.

This year, Gryder suggested Chaet as an option for the List Gallery, and the idea was embraced wholeheartedly. Packard explained that Chaet’s work “spoke to all of us immediately because of its power to elicit an emotional response.” In Gryder’s case, this response comes in the form of a sense of “joy and relief looking at his paintings, witnessing someone in love with the experience of seeing.”

Many of Chaet’s landscapes are representations of Cape Cod. Chaet, Boston-born and educated, may have worked locally, but his paintings have been exhibited and lauded across the country, from New York City’s Museum of Modern Art to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. His style is a combination of many influences. Packard explains that his technique ranges from “dense and reductive” to something more “loose, gestural, and expressive.”

Stylistically, Gryder said that “[Chaet’s] paintings show a distinct nod to Marsden Hartley, Paul Cezanne, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and Pierre Bonnard,” artists that exhibit the use of bright colors, natural themes, and often impressionism.

Another professor of Studio Art, Randall Exon, describes Chaet’s technique as a balance between a modern sense of abstraction and a more observational approach. He also notices echoes of Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh, masters of impressionism and post-impressionism, respectively. Chaet is “informed by what he’s looking at,” but not limited to it.

It is Chaet’s penchant for insightful vision, for the creation of something out of nothing, out of spaces and breaks between color, that truly commands the viewer’s attention and consideration. Gryder remarks that Chaet’s seascapes in particular have “a strong interest in defining and subsequently subverting a representation of space.” In particular, his watercolors use the whiteness of the background canvas as an essential element. Chaet shows a certain “sensitivity to the paper,” as Packard puts it, letting it “breathe through the image,” almost like “embedded light.” In one particular watercolor, a dark sky of a million blues and blacks pours down on a minimalist, seemingly unfinished foreground. In another, color is concentrated in the center of the canvas, while the edges remain almost untouched.

"June Sparkle," part of the "Seascapes" exhibit, will be featured in the List Gallery through October

Packard gathered the works currently on display from a variety of sources – primarily Chaet’s family, Boston’s Alpha Gallery, and New York’s David Findlay Jr. Gallery. Together, they create what Exon describes as a “celebration of light and color,” a balanced and cohesive installation, intricate but not instructive.

Chaet, according to Gryder, paints in order to “understand and invent simultaneously.” Gryder says that Chaet’s paintings reminds him of a quote from the French poet and philosopher Paul Valery: “To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.” The viewer of Chaet’s work, and art in general, also must invent to understand, must fill in the honeycomb of blanks with their own answers. As Gryder notes, “I think each painting could be read differently and […] these interpretations of the emotional resonance will vary for different individuals.” It is the variety of possible responses that makes Chaet’s work so universally resonant.

Leaning against a wall in the List Gallery, one of Chaet’s paintings looked attractive and interesting. Raised, attached to a wide wall, surrounded by literal room for interpretation, it became art. Noting the transformation, Packard remarked that this elevation brought the piece to eye level, commanding attention almost like a human face. Like faces, the living portraits we see and engage with every day, Chaet’s paintings are nothing without the emotion and thoughts we bring to them. Like the blankness of two eyes, a nose, and a mouth that we fill every day with meaning, Chaet’s seascapes are not only his canvasses, but our own.

“Bernard Chaet: Seascapes” will open in the List Gallery on September 6, from 5:30 until 7:00 p.m. Wine, cheese, and chocolate will be served. The exhibition will be on display through October 24. For those who like to learn more about the works presented, a lunchtime gallery talk will take place on Monday, October 15th, led by the curatorial staff.

— photos by Ellen Sanchez-Huerta/The Daily Gazette 

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