On 10 September 2020 we opened Chris Denovan’s solo exhibition ‘Happy To See You’ at StateoftheART Gallery in Cape Town. This was our first physical exhibition since lock-down measures were implemented - and the title is apt: we were very happy to see you and to welcome visitors to StateoftheART once again.
In lieu of a physical opening, we hosted a Q&A with Chris live on Zoom and Instagram. Read the full interview with Jennifer Reynolds from StateoftheART below, or watch our video with highlights and a glimpse of the exhibition at the Gallery.
The exhibition is on show until 26 September. Experience the virtual 3D viewing room here.
Jennifer Reynolds: Hello, everyone. Welcome to StateoftheART. I'm joined this evening by Chris Denovan, whose solo exhibition ‘Happy To See You’ opened earlier today. And the title is very apt, because this is the first exhibition we've been able to install in the gallery since we went into lockdown in March. But exhibitions aren't the only issue - artists have had problems too with cancellations. Tell me about yours?
Chris Denovan: Yeah, so I think not only artists, but I think everyone around the world had big plans - or small plans - for 2020. And it was a bit of a shock, at least for me, but I'm sure for other people too, that everything was wiped off the board. So yeah, that was a bit scary. I actually had a lot going for 2020, it was going to be one of the busiest years that I think I've ever had. And one of the reasons why it was so busy was because I had a residency planned for Spain. For three months, I was going to live in Spain and that was going to be working towards a solo show, as well. There was a lot of planning, there was a lot going on with that and it took a long time. And it was very sad, I guess I could say, when we realised that it had to be cancelled. Spain was hit very badly by COVID sadly, so there was just no way that we could do it. And I think, and I'm sure people can relate, that was a big trip travelling overseas, so that was very disheartening for me and I felt very down. Coupled with just the scariness of COVID and the unknown - really not knowing what's going on, what's legal, what's not legal, all these new rules coming in. And mainly being separated from the people we love, our family members and our friends. So that was a very sad period for me and I've learned now from talking with other people, that that was quite sad for them too.
JR: Well, you know Valencia’s loss was Cape Town's gain. I was so very, very pleased when I suggested that we hold the show for you to fill the gap, that you were happy to do so!
CD: Well, it was that moment that actually lifted me out of that depression that I was having because of COVID and gave me another deadline - or a new deadline - to work towards and to just fill my life with art, which is the one thing- or one of the things I should say - that makes me happy. It was just a great thing for you to come up with, because I was just floundering at that time. And the fact that the solo show that's happening here was on the same day as it was going to happen in Spain, it was really coincidental and felt right. It sort of felt like I was making up for what was lost, I suppose.
JR: This is your 8th solo exhibition, and second with StateoftheART. This exhibition feels very different to ‘Body Plants’, your previous solo this year. This one feels more intimate…
CD: Well, with my last show - and I guess my last three shows - there are certainly story arcs that I was exploring there, that I probably always will be exploring, but that are different to the storyline I'm following here. In terms of being in lockdown, being isolated, being separated, there was a call for me to to be closer and be more intimate with, I guess, people. I'm quite a social person, I like to be around people, I like to have fun and to chat and to have a good time. I also like to be alone but I'm alone a lot in my studio. So being with people was something I really missed. And when I was in lockdown I didn't have a space where I could splash around a lot of paint like I normally do, so I just had a pencil and it was very hard and I think it was also a building up of that feeling of sadness that I was having. Then I started to relax into lockdown, and start to draw. I was just drawing all sorts of different things with a pencil and paper, very basic squiggles while I'm watching TV. And then I started to draw faces again and I started to realise, Wow, I'm actually drawing people and I'm getting closer to people that way. That started to make me feel good and I realised there's actually something in here that's going to uplift me from this sad COVID feeling. So then I started drawing and cutting up pieces of paper and moving them apart and putting them together. And having a really great time that way was kind of the first step for me to pull myself out of that artistic rut which it was becoming.
JR: Is that how you faced the challenge of working in isolation? Because I can imagine it must be so hard for you - for a lot of artists - to carry on creating, when you don't have access to your materials.
CD: Yeah, yeah, and I think you could go a bit crazy because art is such a therapy for a lot of people, and for me, but there was a lot of also sitting and thinking which was nice. That period where you can just sit and think about what you're making and how that process needs to go forward or what's the next steps to make what you want. You don't normally have the time to do that. So the lockdown was me drawing, but also thinking about work and about the future, but also thinking about the past. I was just thinking about everything. And you know, as I say, just drawing the faces up close and getting intimate was such a relaxing, happy feeling. For me to do that, and to get closer with people, even though they weren't really there, and to make portraits or something I'm familiar with. I know my way around a face! So that feeling was so great to bring that out again. And so it felt right in so many different ways.
With all my work, I'm always focusing on the human form and on people. But when you paint a painting of just a face, you're dealing with a composition of eyes, nose, mouth, ears, which is such a wonderful composition because you can add in all these different things in other corners, and you can really understand or get a feeling of what your sitter or character is thinking or feeling. That’s what was important to me for lockdown because that was that missing of the social engagement with people and what people are thinking. An up close portrait can bring out a lot of emotions in people and in myself.
JR: And there's also that angst of not being able to get close to people you love. I mean, I have my family living in Swellendam and not being able to visit them. The feeling of not being able to connect and being scared and worried about them at the same time. And I guess you must have had the same.
CD: Yes, I mean, I was also worried about family members for sure. And for me at that time I was trying to move away from worrying about stuff. The art is such a great way for me to be uplifted and to make me feel better.
And I think, you know, that's one of the reasons why the title of the show ‘Happy To See You’ was such a happy, nice thing that we all want. And we want that now.
JR: And it’s been commented on by people walking past the Gallery - they look at the title on the window and they wave and say - ‘happy to see you too!’.
CD: The title actually came from… I was looking on the internet for just different things, I can't even remember what I was looking at. I think it was also forums about COVID and people just chatting about it. And somewhere someone had written something about ‘happy to see you’ and that just really stuck with me because we weren't seeing people and we weren't necessarily very happy. So I was like, well, thats what I want to make with my art - the happy thing, the real thing.
JR: Apart from making work for this exhibition, you've also had quite a lot of upheaval because you've moved studio and I know you're renovating your house.
CD: Well, I guess we did a bit of maintenance on the house. And I think a lot of people have been doing that, because you're in your house. I've been hearing that a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, I need to spruce this up, or I need to fix that crack… or buy an artwork’ because they are just sort of staring at blank walls. And a lot of people were saying that to me, and I was like, ‘Well, I hope that's the case!’.
And yeah, so there was the maintenance on the house, but then also a studio move. There's just been a lot of change. And I felt like in the art world – or maybe just in South Africa - there's been such a shuffle, it feels like the game Tetris where things are falling and then they just change and then they move and there was such a shuffle of artists moving from their studios here and going there and moving out and moving away. And the one studio that I heard about that I had known about became available. I never thought it would be available, I love the studio. It became available and I just pounced on it. And I think there was this feeling of change - there’s a feeling of change everywhere, and it felt right. I'd been in my old studio for three years, and it was just the right timing and so happened that it fell in between making the show, which was quite stressful to do both of those things.
JR: Moving to a different studio - how does that impact your work? Is there a different energy, or a different vibe? Does it affect you?
CD: I think it definitely does. So, interesting story about the studio is that I have actually moved back, I used to have a studio in the same building. It's not the same studio, it's an upgrade. And that's, I think, a really telling thing for me to move back to the same building. I loved that time I was there, and I met such amazing people, people that are still my friends today and that I am still experiencing and my life's being changed by them still today. So there was something about that building, it's an old building and it's a beautiful building. And it sort of reminds me a little bit of the reason why I ended up choosing my art college. Because Ruth Prouse School of Art, where I went to study art was at the time - it's now been renovated - but it was at the time also a very old building. And it had this history and there's something about that history that appeals hugely to me. It feels like there's a story, like there's inspiration that I can get from there.
So it's the old projector room of a 1920s cinema. I mean, how much better can you get than that?
JR: Some works you created in your old studio and some have been created in your new studio, has this impacted the work in any way?
CD: No, I sort of knew where I was going with the work, so I think the work just moved and it was only near the end part of the preparation for the show that I'd moved to the new space. So I'd really conceived a lot of what I was doing already.
JR: Do you have a favourite piece?
CD: Oh, I love all the work. I really do. I think it's a really great collection of work and that if I look back on the pieces I was making five years ago, I feel like there is a maturity to the way that I've applied paint and to the way I've captured the essence of the sitter or the character in the paintings. But if I had to choose one, I don't know why I want to gravitate towards ‘Emerald Pulse’, because that was a painting, that it just felt right while making it. It's actually sometimes not about the way the painting looks, its kind of how I made it - the process can play a huge part in the way I feel about the painting at the end. It just rolled off, it felt like we were friends right from the beginning. And yeah, it was a painting that I very much like the look of at the end.
JR: It's very encouraging that art collectors are still buying art, they might not be able to go to physical spaces, but they are still buying. The recent Art Basel report says that online sales are up 37%, which is phenomenal. So people are still looking, and buying art for comfort, even though there are lockdowns around the world. What is your experience? We've created a 3D exhibition for you - I mean nothing is going to replace seeing an artwork in reality - but how do you feel about the advances and seeing so many galleries now go online? For me I think it's great for a collector because they can see so much, and there's reference and research there which you don't normally get.
CD: I think we're at the tip of the iceberg with this because I think 3D art and 3D virtual worlds are going to become so much more a part of our lives. So I think that there is an initial - I don't know what the word is - but we don't want to interact with that. But I think, especially in the art world, you're going to see it come more and more and more, in so many different ways. All artists are taking 3D and pushing it into their art. But in terms of buyers and sellers, I think that with COVID, and kind of what I was mentioning earlier about just being in isolation in your space, and sort of looking around saying I want to uplift the space that I'm in. And I think that in terms of interacting with a show virtually, this is a thing of now and the future. I mean, and its not just art, but there's so many things that are going to happen because of COVID. I think a lot of people are saying that it's becoming a cashless world now, you don't have much cash anymore. Or just Zoom meetings, I suppose.
JR: How are you embracing digital in your own practice?
CD: Well I mean I studied 3D computer animation for a bit. I've lost track of a lot of the programmes because they're changing all the time, but for me, my heart is still in it. And I feel like there's such a future there that I haven't explored. So every time I see anything to do with 3D, and especially having this 3D exhibition - the first 3D exhibition of mine - I just get really excited, I don't quite know why. But it is this feeling of entering into a new world where the possibilities are kind of endless, and that is exciting for me. I'm looking forward to pushing the envelope on that subject, I don't know where that's going to go, I don't know how I'm gonna do it, It's gonna take a lot of work.
JR: With social media, are you interacting on social media? I know a lot of artists are doing that - they're putting their work out there and collectors are using tools like Instagram to find work that they wouldn't normally see.
CD: Yes, Instagram has blown up and it's an interesting place. Because I guess it's a sword with two edges, you don't want to end up getting too sucked in. But sometimes I feel like it is a great platform where I can get other people's feelings about my work when I put it out there. So that's important. It's a place where I kind of feel like I'm documenting things.
JR: We’ve had several artists who came in to the exhibition today who had seen your work on Instagram and came in to see it for themselves.
CD: Well, that's lovely to hear that, because I don't get that information, except if you tell me so. So that is really good to hear. I can really only comment in terms of what I'm getting from it, and I guess that word documenting is really nice to me, because I can go back and see it. What my work back then was like and for me to play around. I think I look at my own Instagram more than I do anyone else's. Because that's kind of an artwork for me, just to look at it in terms of the whole look of it is important for what I'm doing because what I do is visual. So when I see that visual story there, that adds another meaning or gives me another perspective of what I'm making. Yeah, so it’s very useful for me that way.
JR: Well, I would just like to say congratulations, it's a fantastic show, it really is. Not to be missed by art lovers living in Cape Town, so please pop into the gallery, we're open during the week between 10 and 4pm, and Saturdays until 1pm. Come in and have a look at Chris' work.
If you're unable to visit us you can still see the show online - head over to our website at stateoftheart-gallery.com. You'll find the 3D exhibition, as well as a bonus haiku that Chris has written for each of his artworks, content that you won't find anywhere else - don't miss it. Thank you for joining us this evening.