Amir Chasson treats the art critic of the Evening Standard’s lacerating comment about his paintings at the Saatchi Gallery as a triumph. ‘When I knew I was going to be in that Saatchi exhibition, I assumed Brian Sewell would review it and I was worried I wouldn’t be mentioned. He said that my work looked like a Sunday painter’s, an amateur from Ponder’s End. That was great. I didn’t get enough bad reviews. Sewell giving me a bad review is a great accolade. A lot of artists don’t get reviews good or bad, none at all. Indifference is what’s painful. No reaction is what hurts. A bad review is as good as a good review.’ Chasson’s response to such a potentially demoralising comment in print is surprising and almost incredible but he is defiant, translating adversity into advantage, displaying some of Andy Warhol’s inverted logic.
What riled Sewell are Chasson’s imaginary portraits resembling caricatures or cartoons. Exhibited in a show called ‘New Order: British Art Today’, Chasson aligns these exaggerated faces beside diagrams of indeterminate graphs, maps and bar charts. Eyes are lopsided and noses curve out of perspective. They begin to resemble those Victorian heads illustrating the science of phrenology that attempted to reveal intelligence or degeneracy in the shape of a skull. These faces are discomforting in their collapsing details. The simulated diagrams allude to rationality but are paradoxical fictions awkwardly meeting in paint. Chasson seems drawn to that friction between our faith in concrete information and the subjectivity of both making and looking at a painting.
Chasson greets me at his studio in a building run by Acme, offering warm and affordable space to artists, so different from the romantic myth of ramshackle attics. The studio is surprisingly tidy even though he shares it with another artist. Large canvases from past exhibitions are rolled up inside tubes and several unfinished paintings are hung along the walls. Wearing a pair of modish glasses he has the appearance of an educated, urban professional. He is on a roll now, on the cusp of wider recognition and new opportunities, positioned where every ‘emerging’ artist wants to be, showing work in exhibitions, being reviewed and finding recognition.
Chasson remembers the process of entering the notorious Saatchi Collection as rather impersonal and never discussed the sale with his influential patron. The ICA, then hosting ‘New Contemporaries’, simply called him and said ‘off the record’ that ‘Charles’ was interested in buying the paintings and would he mind? Being bought and exhibited by Britain’s leading collector of contemporary art, Charles Saatchi, might represent a defining moment in an artist’s career. Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin are proof of that. Amir Chasson demurs but concedes that it’s helpful in getting noticed and reviewed. ‘I don’t know how valuable it is. My initial response was, oh great, I’m going to make some money from that show. I didn’t even know he would show the pictures. I swear I didn’t even look at the Saatchi website. You don’t do that as an artist, you just don’t. You have to keep thinking about the next painting. You can’t keep thinking about what you did before. Your reference points are your friends and colleagues, people you studied with, those you look up to.’ He seems grounded enough not to get carried away by this lucky break, but confesses ambivalence about the process. ‘Sometimes I get this feeling it’s not prestigious anymore to be in the Saatchi, but of course I would be happy to sell more paintings to him.’
This begs the question how comfortable he is with success and what really drives him. He offers that ‘it’s very hard being an artist in London,’ which seems a truism and I press him to elaborate. Does he mean financially, professionally? ‘Yes, of course, all of that. Financially, you can deal with it by freelancing, sharing a studio, by working from home. The greatest difficulty is the intellectual, psychological challenge of who am I in this crazy, insane, saturated, money-driven world. All the other things, health, money, wellbeing comes later, if at all. Because when you make artwork, all that goes out of the window, none of that matters. When you are in the ‘zone’, finally in the studio and have ideas and are executing them, then it’s a high, a sort of happiness, it’s where you need to be like being in the womb.’
He talks with animated conviction while his hands appear still and controlled.
After many years working as a graphic designer and teacher in Tel Aviv, he seems to have found his direction and a professional integrity by his mid-40s . Compelled to take an MA in design by the college that employed him, he researched Hebrew typography by distributing questionnaires in the street. Surely, it had a practical application for communications? ‘I hated every minute of it and decided it was pointless but somehow they liked it. It was the equivalent of why English readers might prefer the fonts, Times New Roman or Helvetica.’
Chasson is a curious iconoclast, teasing established orthodoxies from masculinity to the art world itself. He recounts persistent alterations of any commercial brief or syllabus. ‘I have always had a subversive streak like Marcel Duchamp, one of my heroes at school like many artists nowadays. I was always attracted to how he makes fun of science and makes science ridicule itself.’ In early, animated films, made in Israel, which he now calls ‘a bit silly’, he took risks by satirising military heroes or putting Arab lettering over posters celebrating the anniversary of Israeli independence. Even more provocative was the use of Palestinian propaganda. ‘Guy, my partner and a journalist, used to travel to the West Bank and bring back little postcards that showed ‘shaheeds’ or heroes, which will probably be shocking for some Israelis. They did some horrible things obviously like exploding themselves on buses. But that’s an example of the source material I was using.’ Machismo remains an enduring interest. During his residency in Rome, he made a very large painting merging images of a heavy marble head in the Capitoline museum with muscular actors posing as gladiators outside the Colosseum and young Romans sweating inside Goth clothing on the street.
But how did his finally find his groove and ideas that could engage him? He credits his testing training at Goldsmith’s College, which helped him find a subject and a method, despite his initial fears that the course was too pretentious and reliant on theory. On this point he is emphatic. ‘It was amazing. Studying there put everything in context. I know it sounds ridiculous. But there’s no way you can become an artist without going through an education. Painting at Goldsmiths, the year I was there, was a no-go zone. To use a politically incorrect term, it was ‘retarded’.’ So there was no respect for your roots in drawing or what he wanted to do? ‘I loved being there with all my heart but the approach was to tear down all you knew and build you up by starting again. When I started I was 39 but most were in their twenties. I needed to be more stubborn. Then some drawings got accepted by the Jerwood Prize and Bloomberg New Contemporaries in 2009, which was the biggest ‘fuck you’. I had made a massive drawing called ‘Piss Pants’, a figure with a big stain on a pair of jeans. I was thinking about when people actually piss themselves, when they’re drunk or scared. The tutors gave me an ‘unsatisfactory’ grade. That was good, it pushed me and I started making videos. I resisted but they pushed me really hard and it worked.’
How Chasson arrived at making the Saatchi series illustrates the role of chance that characterises any artistic career. Having tried to isolate single words like ‘sameness’ or ‘prolix’ he kept running into the challenge of making a painting that held the viewer’s interest. ‘I thought that people are really indifferent to those words, nobody cares or gets it. Then I realised one of the most attractive things for people that makes them stop is a portrait. The human face is like the colour red, it gets your attention. I thought that’s a great tool for waving the cheese in front of the mouse. I had never painted a portrait before. Then I heard the name ‘Ipswich’ on the radio and not being from this country it sounded ridiculous and I copied a Picasso pencil portrait, as I wasn’t confident enough to work from life. It’s a big responsibility to work with a live model. I put the word Ipswich around it and I knew immediately that it was working. ‘
Later, he would use the same strategy of sampling found images, attributing the portraits to ‘composites like police software faces. I go through magazines or online images. One of the Saatchi paintings has the hair of a pop star, the shirt of a rugby player and one has the face of an Ingres woman. There’s no real balance. God forbid it’s balanced. The dissonance is what I’m after.’ To heighten the alienating effect of these portraits he often introduces the hint of a skin condition. More recently, in a large installation he painted a fictional group of oil and gas executives, suggested by corporate prospectuses of large multinationals. ‘Corporate people sometimes look crazy – it’s more intense because it’s not normal for them to be in front of the camera, they are usually behind the scenes. They are putting themselves out there.’
This unconventional streak still persists in the artist’s attitude to the art market, which he describes as having become an industry. He shows me a limited edition he made for an exhibition in Norwich made from a cereal packet which unfurls, like a crack in a door, to reveal a middle aged man turning around to admire the back and buttocks of an anonymous, naked man. I glance at the price and see ‘£299’ which seems reasonable. I squint again at the small print and see that each piece actually sold for £2.99 despite the gallery’s misgivings that art was almost being given away for free. Ever the maverick, Chasson insisted that this witty collaging of found material should sell at the cost price of the original cereal on a supermarket shelf.
He makes several references to critical theorists like Derrida and Baudrillard as sources of inspiration but acknowledges that he doesn’t take them too seriously, merely using them as starting points for ideas that he incorporates into artworks. Does the viewer also need the same kind of education in theory to understand much of contemporary art? ‘No, not necessarily, if the work needs theory from outset then there’s a problem. But if it succeeds then an artwork can sit on a pile of theory without there being a problem. Peter Doig makes good eye candy, it’s great but if you discover there are ideas behind it, what’s wrong with that? The Desmoisselles d’Avignon by Picasso is so brilliant because his process was so random. Most art arrives out of random processes. This is what artists are supposed to do. Picasso creates a picture like a poster, addressing life, death and sex and he needs ambiguity otherwise it becomes like propaganda. Popular culture doesn’t have ambiguity. That’s why I failed as a commercial artist. You’re supposed to feed people a message.’
Possibly breaking the conventions on good journalism, I ask if I could buy a painting. I point enthusiastically to his latest project, an unfinished double panel painting on which the word ‘Gene’ is spelled out in a confectionary colours and bubbles. Gene Clark from the Byrds is placed inexplicably opposite a dinner party hosted by the German revolutionary, Rosa Luxembourg. Chasson starts to shift in his seat and look uneasy for the first time. He doesn’t want to disappoint me. ‘Right now, I need it for some new exhibition proposals. I will keep you in mind.’ I’ve introduced the subject of value into Chasson’s sanctuary, the place where he finds his ‘zone’. Gradually the tension dispels as he shows me other examples of his work in the studio. If paintings don’t sell, he will simply paint over it. Again, it seems rather defiant and practical at the same time.
Before I leave, he offers me shortbread from an unopened packet on the table. ‘I bought it especially for you,’ he says with a smile as I hold the cellophane wrap and feel the sticks inside. I hesitate as I explain that I’ve given up eating wheat but relent to avoid appearing faddish or churlish. Tentatively, I snap off a piece to nibble. He smiles solicitously, eager that I should enjoy myself. I feel naughty breaking the discipline of my diet but fully appreciate the sweet, buttery biscuit. Amir Chasson seems to make breaking rules rewarding and even necessary.
‘New Order: British Art Today’ runs until January 16, 2014 at the Saatchi Gallery, London.