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Visiting Lux Artist Paints In The Dark

Video by Angela Carone

One of James Chronister's forest paintings, on view at Lux Art Institute in Encinitas.

There won't be much sun and surf for visiting artist James Chronister.

The San Francisco-based artist will be spending most of his artist residency at the Lux Art Institute in a dark, curtained-off corner of the gallery.

Chronister paints in the dark. The resulting black and white images could easily be mistaken as photographs or silkscreens. Chronister places thousands of little black marks on a canvas, similar to how a computer creates pixels that add up to a composite image. In this analogy, Chronister is the computer.

The results are detailed images of dense forests and elaborate interiors. His large, 60x60 pieces, take two months of full-time studio work to complete.

Chronister looks for an image he wants to paint in old books. His latest series features ornate, unpopulated rooms inside palaces. If you've been watching Downton Abbey (PBS plug!) with its velvet-draped sitting rooms, you get the idea.

Chronister creates a grid on the image with tape. He then grids off a corresponding square on the canvas. He projects the image onto a white canvas and turns off the lights.

Perched as closely as possible, Chronister makes small black marks on the canvas guided by the projected image. But he paints in such small detail, he doesn’t always know where he’s at in the image.

"Half the time, I don’t know what I’m painting. It could be a chair leg obscured in shadow and I don’t know which is the shadow and which is the chair leg," said Chronister.

A handful of Chronister's paintings are on view in the Lux gallery. Those who visit on certain days during his residency (through mid-April) can meet Chronister and watch him paint. On the day I was there, school children in matching tie-dye t-shirts were inspecting his paintings closely.

"The program here at Lux takes the cloak off the artist process," said Chronister. "Having kids or adults come in and rap with the artist and ask them how they do it is unique. I wish I did things like that when I was a kid!"

As a kid, Chronister spent a lot of time walking in the forest that butts up against his childhood home in Helena, Montana. He would wander among the trees listening to music through his headphones. Each venture was like a mini-adventure. Chronister was a fan of the Led Zeppelin concert film "The Song Remains the Same," which featured dream sequences for each band member. His favorite dream sequence was that of Zeppelin's guitar player, Jimmy Page.

"He was meandering through this darkened forest, scaling a rock, and grasping up at a wizard waving a psychedelic wand," laughed Chronister. "I guess I kind of wanted to find that wizard."

Chronister visits the forest again and again in his work. Some paintings feature snow-covered forests, others are thickets of branches.

Chronister's painting of a photograph of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards.

He’s also created paintings of iconic rock musicians. In fact, music is what influences Chronister most. "The thing that I most want to replicate is the space found within music," said Chronister.

He cites the music of LA-based musician Ariel Pink as an example. Pink's early albums have a DIY sound Chronister admires. Pink recorded himself playing many of the instruments on old analog equipment. Chronister tries to emulate that sensibility in his paintings. "I try to have that feel of them being analog. They’re not a photograph, they’re not digital, they’re not made on the computer. They’re handmade."

Chronister has been perfecting his painting style for almost 15 years. He’s hoping to get pretty far on a new palace painting while working at Lux. "These things aren’t easy to make and I’m away from my wife and my cat. But I feel really supported. It's really great to be here."

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