Chad Gauthier: On ghostly portraits, defragmentation and losing sleep

Photo by Lexiquette

Photo by Lexiquette

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of paying a - much too early for a Sunday - visit to Toronto-based painter Chad Gauthier at his studio in the Junction. Gauthier is a member of OKAY Collective and recently had a series up at Project Gallery. His work explores ghostly themes of the mundane and is constantly experimenting with and challenging the defragmentation of figurative portraits. Between coffee and cigarettes, we discussed everything from his process and discipline to collective critique to his thoughts on Drake and Nouvelle Vague films. Read below.

What’s your first memory related to art?

When I was super young I was a pretty weird kid. I liked playing with Sailor Moon dolls and my mom used to draw these individual Sailor Moon characters for me which I thought was the coolest thing ever

Seems like from an early age you were already drawn to figurative.

I think I just find people so interesting. I’m especially drawn to the human figure and how you can abstract it but it still remains familiar, it’s still recognizable.

Your latest work has a very dreamlike component, that space when you’re waking up but still in the dream.

My thesis was actually about defragmenting the human figure and portraying it in an introspective way, so there’s definitely a dreamy landscape. It’s disassociated from reality but you can still find comfort in it.

It can be kind of haunting at times as well, because the portraits lack a clear identity.

My paintings are very broad and take out certain elements. I find it easier for people to relate to them when there’s no definitive character. And it’s crazy how one line can change the whole mood of the face. You raise an eyebrow slightly and suddenly the portrait changes into Bill Murray.

You’re very drawn to the female face specifically. Why?

I can’t draw male haircuts. (laughs)

Photo by Lexiquette

Photo by Lexiquette

Do you remember a specific moment in which you realized you wanted to pursue art?

I didn’t really excel at anything when I was a kid. My hobby was skateboarding and all I would do was go to the skate park. Everyone in my social circle was very athletic and I wasn’t, so I kind of just strung along… I think seeing trains was when I really got into art. I’ve been painting low key for over a decade now, but I remember first seeing the graffiti and getting really excited. I didn’t know anything about art and then I came to OCAD and this whole world I didn’t know existed just kind of showed itself to me. I was so far behind at first, because I had come from a small high school in a small town that didn’t really have an art program.

Was school a positive experience?

Totally. I’ve met more people in the past four years than I have in my whole life. In terms of cons, losing sleep over projects is definitely up there. It all payed off though, you can see it’s all building up to something. Sometimes I still stay up all night, even if I don’t have anything due for school anymore. I get in this zone where I can’t stop until I’m satisfied with what I have. And when I go to bed at like 9 am, it’s the best sleep ever.

Do you get that momentum often?

I find it’s not that hard for me to get started. Sometimes I’m in this state of complete complacency, comfortable, but if I start something I have to finish something. I can’t walk away and have to do it. I don’t leave anything unfinished. Except for my sketches. I’ll start drawing and then I have this cascade of ideas that stem from what I’m doing so I flip the page and start a new sketch and when I want to go back like five pages later, it’s too late (laughs).

What would be a reason for not completing a piece?

Not liking the direction it’s going in. But even then, if I know something is turning out terrible I use it as an excuse to experiment. Even if it turns out bad, I’ll still take something away from it.

Photo by Lexiquette

Photo by Lexiquette

What’s your portrait process like? Do you paint from life, from memory?

For a long time, the inspiration came from film stills, especially french nouvelle vague films. Stuff by Jean Luc Godard, the compositions and color schemes are so interesting so I’d take them and draw over them, abstract them, cut them up and reassemble them, print them out and paint over them… I feel like every still on those films can work on their own, they’re very strong in themselves.

Post graduation, do you find yourself influenced by your Toronto peers?

There are a lot of artists in Toronto that are doing great things and it’s very inspiring to see the city growing so rapidly but I’m mostly inspired by the people around me, like in our collective. Everyone who is in OK Collective has been killing it lately and it’s very inspiring to see the people you grew up with through OCAD going their own way and doing big things.

How did OK Collective come together?

It’s pretty new. It started earlier this year, 2015. We’re basically a bunch of friends that have  sort of gravitated towards each other and known each other since second year. Even if we all do very different art, we have the same mentality and the same kind of drive to continuously push ourselves and inspire each other. I think people are a little too nice sometimes and it’s very refreshing to have other people critique you, give you feedback, and call you out.

What makes a good critique?

School critiques were sometimes completely useless. ‘I like the colours… it’s very pretty’ …  Then again, I remember the first time - in second year - that I got completely torn apart by my entire class.  I remember leaving it being like ‘Yeah! This is great! I know what to do now!.’ (laughs) You can’t take it personally.

Photo by Lexiquette

Photo by Lexiquette

It’s so easy to get caught up in your own space and not strive to change or improve.

I think that part of the reason that a lot of people take it very personally is that art itself is a very personal thing. You’re opening up these ideas and thoughts that you have, and sometimes the things that we hold dearest are the hardest to say because in a way words diminish them. Putting them onto paper or releasing it through a creative medium is very personal and creates intimate stories.

What did that specific class not like about your presentation?

This was very early art world career. My work was still figurative but it was very experimental and it wasn’t representational. That specific class was very full of strong figurative artists and when I painted these sort of blobby, abstracted figures, they kind of discredited it as outside art and I was scoffed at. 

What do you think of the art scene in Toronto?

Maybe I’m not one to talk but I think Toronto is still a very young city. Internationally, it’s too small. It hasn’t been recognized yet. But I feel like it has big potential, there’s a lot of artists right now coming up and doing big things and it’s very cool to see them putting Toronto on the map. It’s like Drake. I I feel like with the whole rise of Drake he’s been putting us on the map. I’ve talked to people from the States who are like Oh, you’re from the 6? (laughs)

Photo by Lexiquette

Photo by Lexiquette

I feel like a lot of people in Toronto are focusing the city’s cultural achievements on Drake.

I actually had this conversation with a friend the other day… Drake has pushed us pretty far I think, in terms of recognizing Toronto and appointing it as the Six. I do think it’s time, though, for other people to step up. To let others know that Toronto has a lot more to offer.

Artists need to motivate themselves.

Whether you’re in school or not, your influences change, it happens. I see a lot of people who are uncomfortable or who don’t push themselves. Either artists burn out, they work so hard during school that when they graduate it’s a relief: they get comfortable, maybe move back home or get a part time job .  Or, they struggle. It’s easy to just be really hard on yourself. It takes a lot of self-discipline to keep yourself going, for sure. And if you don’t have that passion or that drive to do things, it’s hard to encourage yourself and get out of bed and paint in your studio for eight hours.

How do you balance that?

People always ask me at work why I’m so tired and I don’t know, I go to work twelve hours to support my art and then I come to the studio when most people would just go home to rest. It’s kind of absurd, sometimes I ask myself what I’m doing, why am I here, I should be sleeping but I enjoy it. It’s very satisfying. You put in the hours and it pays off in the long run. You don’t have anything to prove to anyone but yourself, as long as you keep progressing that’s all that matters.

Follow Chad Gauthier's work and progress on Instagram