Contributed by Sharon Butler / While working on “The Portrait Project” – the incisive and absorbing set of paintings depicting various artists (including me) now on display at The Painting Center – Chase Cantwell was also exploring his personal relationship to gender. Kathy Cantwell at birth, Chase had always had difficulty identifying with anything female, and for years assumed the identity of a self-described butch lesbian, working as a fixer in the male-dominated music industry and painting at night. He painted abstractly, using shape and line and especially stripes to ruminate on the mysterious notion of maleness. “Straight vertical lines became a way to deal with the external and internal roadblocks in becoming a wholly realized person,” he wrote in an early artist statement. “Where flaw meets perfection is interesting to me, because we deal with that dynamic within ourselves daily,” he continued. “I allow soft boundaries and welcome irregularities.” As progressive ideas about gender and transition gained traction, Chase switched pronouns and began identifying publicly as a man. Painting portraits after working abstractly for twenty years clearly reflects his transition as an artist. Beyond that, it may somehow echo his defining personal experience of transition.
Though certainly a bold step, “The Portrait Project” was not as quite stark a departure as it might appear. Cantwell has engaged in portraiture throughout his artistic life and did so before making his recent geometric abstractions. He felt a little “pigeonholed” in that work, too closely associated with the encaustic technique he developed and used, and became restless. As a member of The Painting Center, he has two years between solo shows there. He wanted to do something different, and painting portraits seemed like a manageable shift in that time frame. Doing them in encaustic held little appeal. “I longed to open my oils,” he recalls. Lisa Pressman, a fellow New York artist and longtime friend singularly conversant with his work, provided encouragement for his aesthetic move to representational work in general and for “The Portrait Project” in particular. Once he got going, the paintings drew favorable reactions. Thus fortified, he persevered, enriching the endeavor by choosing as his subjects artists he knew and with whom had a keen interest in forging stronger connections.
It is perhaps inevitable that Alice Neel, the groundbreaking portraitist whose big retrospective at the Met was up at the time Cantwell decided to embrace the form, was a hovering influence. He missed that exhibition, but he was “blown away” by Janice Nowinski’s 2021 figurative show at Thomas Erben Gallery, as he had been in years prior when viewing Katherine Bradford’s work at Canada Gallery. Yet, as inspirational as these painters are and as rewarding as “The Portrait Project” has been, Cantwell has not completely left abstraction behind. He plans on “toggling back and forth.” Meanwhile, one priority is to explore more deeply how his portrait work is related to his transition from she to he. He’d also like to do paintings that focus on a certain backyard in Bed-Stuy or other locations in Brooklyn during late evening that will sometimes include the figure. These will be large canvases: after working on the small portraits, he feels the need to indulge a long painting stroke. At the same time, Cantwell hopes that they too will prompt transition. As he recognizes, it would be perfectly natural for him to segue back to abstraction – and possibly all the easier having confirmed that he need not be resigned to it.
“Chase Cantwell: The Portrait Project,” The Painting Center, 547 West 27th Street, New York, NY. Through February 25, 2023.