San Francisco native Lenore Chinn, who’s been exhibiting her photorealistic acrylic portraits locally and nationally since 1977, has described her work as “fusing an Asian aesthetic of sparseness and clarity with visual narratives” that veer away from stereotypical depictions of gender, race and sexual orientation.
Recently, Chinn’s work appeared in the remarkable exhibit, “We Were There: The Lesbian Response to the Early AIDS Epidemic among Gay Men,” at San Francisco’s African American Art & Culture Complex. Amid the mostly black-and-white photography and ephemera, Chinn’s paintings of her gay male friends, many of whom succumbed to AIDS-related illness in the eighties, stood out as indelibly warm in both color and emotional content.
Based primarily on the photographs she takes herself, Chinn’s paintings are so detailed that the viewer can see the grain in a hardwood floor, the headlines on a newspaper, the stitching on a pair of jeans, and—most compellingly—the emotional truth of their human subjects. Every shared look between lovers, every pensive solitary gaze, every proud stare into the lens of the camera, is captured affectionately and meticulously.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Chinn about the paintings in the “We Were There” exhibit, as well as her work as a whole.
Lenore Chinn: The immediacy of an image is very powerful. Once an image is seen it cannot easily be dismissed. In that sense I do view my work as a form of activism and that is a conscious choice.
I view my work as a catalyst for change, for creating an environment in which the viewing public might rethink how art is defined, viewed and considered. Art is a powerful tool in the social justice movement though not everyone has that perspective–yet.
What early experiences influenced your philosophy and approach to your art?
What I believe greatly affected me was the times in which I came of age as a young artist. I went to San Francisco State when … the country was in the throes of the Vietnam War. Civil Rights issues were front-page news and ethnic studies was a burgeoning concept. Women’s studies came later….I still have black and white photos (pre-digital of course) taken of the SFPD on campus with full riot gear, mounted on horses and motorcycles, marching through campus. It was the time of the Kent State student deaths by National Guardsmen; college campuses were sites of resistance and national student strikes.
How did you start using photography in your work?
Photography was a tool from my early years of painting and I have always carried a camera with me wherever I went. It used to be a 35mm camera (Minolta or my dad’s Pentax), now it’s an Olympus digital. I learned to view through the lens and my photographs became my source for drafting works on canvas….I shoot a lot of photos wherever I go, sometimes documenting events or people, and whether I intend for something to end up on canvas or not, I know when something might have potential.
Although your paintings are based on photos, they reflect conscious choices about factors like color scheme and light and shadow. How do you determine what changes you will make in taking your images from film to canvas?
I work with texture, color and light to bring out the most effective image I can convey. Sometimes my photos are not shot under the most ideal lighting conditions or there are extraneous things that don’t lend themselves to the strength of a composition. So I do make choices and adjustments where I find it will create a more focused image.
My friends had always been intricately involved in my work, both as subjects and as supporters of my work. They were often artists and we supported each other’s aspirations. So they did figure prominently in my paintings.
When I started college as a young art student some of my closest friends in the arts were young gay men. Through one of them….I became acquainted with a core group of gay Latino friends who would become extended familia. Then I got to know all of their partners over a period of many years. Almost all of them died of AIDS or AIDS-related complications between 1984 and 1990.
In the past my work had been viewed in the context of documenting a gay, LGBT or queer community but that was not my intention when I painted each subject. They happened to be largely people I knew, often good friends, or I was commemorating a relationship. So in that sense it became a visual journey of our history as a community and some of that was a painful episode in our collective histories.
Your work as a whole conveys the importance of representing women and people of color. How do your portraits of gay men fit (or not fit) within your oeuvre?
The twin friends [in “Son Cuates”] identified themselves as Mexican American but their father was white. John, in “The Family,” is half Puerto Rican. My friend “Robaire” in “Departure” is also of mixed heritage, French-Moroccan Sephardic and Jewish. Others are Cuban American. I think my work reflects the complexity of our country’s tapestry of people.
Do you think audiences for your work are more savvy about the sexual, racial, and cultural aspects of your work today than they were in the eighties, or less so?
Whether audiences are more savvy now or then I cannot say. But I do feel that those who see themselves in my work or can identify with a life experience in my canvases come away with a positive affirmation and this is something that is not so common in the fine arts. By my approach I make our existence visible. We count.
For more information on Lenore Chinn visit www.lenorechinn.com
Brent Calderwood is a San Francisco-based writer and activist. His essays, reviews, and
poetry have appeared widely, including in A&U. His Web site is www.brentcalderwood.com.