Studio Visit: Alex Chitty

Alex Chitty‘s practice is one of translation and communication. In the past she has held many different roles. She has worked in music, theater, science, and biology and she currently also works as an educator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. These are all occupations of viewing the world, interpreting it, and relaying it to an audience in a new form. In her studio practice, she does the same thing. She takes disparate aspects of things she encounters in her daily life, be they images or objects, and communicates through the composition or reinterpretation of them.

I first saw Alex Chitty’s work, previously featured on Make Space, the summer of 2011 when she was a visiting artist at Ox-Bow while I was there taking a class. At the time, she was making digital drawings on found images as well as found object sculpture. Over the past couple years, it’s been exciting to see the different steps she’s taken in her work and the process of transformation that it’s gone through. Her new work, currently on view both at Andrew Rafacz Gallery in Chicago as well as at Roots & Culture in Chicago, seems to be operating on a completely different plane. I visited her studio a few weeks ago to talk to her about her practice and how her work has developed since the slides I saw at Ox-Bow two years ago.

Studio Visit: Alex Chitty
Studio Visit: Alex Chitty

I had been trying to visit Alex in her studio for a few weeks and it took both of our busy schedules and the threat of travel plans for us to finally settle a date. When I saw her at the opening of her Roots & Culture show, we hastily agreed that the following Monday afternoon would be the day. I arrived after a hot and sweaty bike ride to the corner of Damen and Fulton and called her to let me in. She led me up a bright wooden staircase to the studio area on the second floor. As we walked through the space, I recognized the work of some of my other favorite Chicago artists in the surrounding studios. Alex’s space was in the back by a huge window which took up the better part of one of her walls. The studio seemed fairly well organized in the way that it wasn’t “clean” but everything seemed to be arranged in cohesive piles. It was filled with a variety of different fabricated or collected objects, materials, prints, and cut paper pieces.

I began by asking Alex about how she approaches dimensionality in the creation of her work. Over the last couple years her work has gone from collages and prints to flat cut paper and paper sculpturally attached to the wall to the vitrine-like sculptures at her most recent two shows. The work seems to confound the definition of what is flat and what is dimensional – a piece of paper can be a sculpture and a sculpture can collapse into a layered plane as the viewer looks through it.

Alex cited the scanner as her favorite tool for collecting images and forms. She has a portable scanner she uses to scan pages of books, objects in spacial arrangements, or textures and make collages and compositions. She mentioned residencies as an important factor in how an artist’s practice can shift. A couple years ago, she went to the ACRE residency with the intention of working on paper pieces. While she was there, she discovered latex as a tool with which she could draw and sculpt. She abandoned the paper and focused on learning new skills and techniques for the rest of the residency. Now she sees the latex as a type of scanner with which she can make three-dimensional drawings of objects by tracing around them with lines of latex. The drawing itself is flat, simple lines that follow the form of the object, but they hold themselves together as a flexible dimensional skin or ghost of the object that was traced.

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For her recent shows at Andrew Rafacz and Roots & Culture, Alex used space as a blank canvas in the same way that she would make a collage or stage a photo. At Roots & Culture, she brought collected and fabricated objects together on metal shelving units. The shelves become frames for the collection of objects which become spacial collages that a viewer can have a bodily reaction to by moving around them and bending or crouching to inspect their layers more closely. The perception of the objects, their forms, and their relationships to one another change depending on how the viewer approached the units.

Alex explained that she’s always questioning how little she has to do to something to make it become sculptural. In her show at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, she approached the vitrines like drawings through space. Tape and photographs, considered two-dimensional on their own, create compositions that build on each other through the layers of clear plastic that wrapped the wood and metal structures. The presence of a viewer adds another element to these compositions as people fill and move around the space.

Alex’s practice often works in the opposite direction as well. She is constantly collecting objects and images. The portable scanner is a way to flatten the objects she collects into images, collages, and compositions. She finds a lot of objects that she collects on the way to the train, at thrift stores, flea markets, alleyways, and beaches. She isn’t ever really looking for anything in particular, but when she sees something she either physically collects it or captures its image in a photo. “I learn to just hold onto the images that I’m attracted to, even if I don’t know why I’m attracted to them,” she explained. In a recent talk at the Lillstreet Art Center, she analyzed all of the picture she has saved on her phone and set them into different groupings. It helped her think about what she’s attracted to and why. She sees the photograph as another way to take something three-dimensional and flatten it.

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Alex’s process of collecting is not formulaic. “There are some things that I collect, that when I’m buying them or picking them up, I know that they’re not for me, I know that they’re not for my house, but there’s something about them that I’m like ‘Oh man, I have to have that…'” She isn’t sure why or what it is that makes her feel that way about an object, and sometimes the object isn’t used right away, some things stay in her studio for years until the right time comes to incorporate them into a piece. She sees putting objects together like editing a story. Though one grouping of objects in the composition may work together, if it doesn’t fit into the whole, she has to cut it out.

For Alex, the objects are not just things, and in her work they rarely serve the function that they are supposed to fulfill. She is interested in objects which have the potential to be more than what they already are or appear to be. The objects are a part of her language as an artist. “There’s a language I think that has developed in the last two years… Even with stories, if you have a book of stories by the same writer, they are going to be about completely different things and feel really different but you’ll be able to tell it’s the same writer.” Now that she’s beginning to learn her own language, she’s able to see it in objects that already exist, like recognizing the words that are in her vocabulary.

Words are groupings of agreed-upon characters that hold data based on a collective understanding of meaning. When the data is brought together it creates a cohesive narrative that can communicate to an audience. Alex sees the objects in her work the same way. They hold the information of place, history, and experience within themselves and her practice is to bring them together and translate them for an audience.

“The more I started to learn [about art history] and the more I’ve learned and the more I learn about different artists doing things it now shifts the way that I’m looking at the entire every day world. So, I’ll be highway driving and there’s a Richard Serra on the left because they’ve torn down a building and there’s a bunch of things leaning against a wall and there’s a Eva Hesse, because they have this netting up around their garden . And it’s just totally shifted and elevated the way I interpret the world, I think in a way that is awesome for me, because it makes everything a lot richer than it was…It’s these little niches that allow you to see more than just the thing that’s there.”

Alex Chitty is currently included in two exhibitions. Her solo show at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, The Way They Wanted To Sleep, runs through this Thursday, July 25 2013. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday, 11am-6pm. Ella Hatchet, a duo show of work by Alex Chitty and Alice Tippet at Roots & Culture, runs until Saturday, July 27, 2013. Gallery hours are Saturday 12pm-6pm or by appointment.