Culture Grinder of the Month: Belinda Chlouber
Table of contents for Grinder of the Month
Belinda Chlouber is a San Francisco-based artist who works with paint, encaustic wax, hand-embroidered fabrics and monoprinted images. At first glance, her textured canvases capture the viewer’s attention with large delicate patterns, but upon closer examination a complex weave of imagery and materials makes itself visible in and around the central images. Chlouber’s multimedia approach to collages mirrors the content of her work, a complex layering of ideas and relationships that give depth to each other. Chlouber’s work is typically organized around impressionistic representations of people, animals and flowers and written texts – specifically, poetry – play a prominent role in her latest series. All of the poetry comes from the recently discovered writing of her late mother and grandfather and affirms her belief that art is a form of dialogue between present entities and what has come before them or exists around them.
Finding a way to connect with her descendants through art is a significant development in Choubler’s work which has long interested itself with the interconnections between animate and inanimate things. The relationship we all share with the natural world has long been a source of inspiration for her partly from her outside exposure to Native American culture as a child in the Midwest. Stories of the great spirit, a seeming lack of desire for synthetic, unnecessary material objects and a slower, healthier way of engaging with the environment loomed large in Chlouber’s imagination as she grew as an artist. Chlouber began creating art almost as soon as she started school and was exhibiting her work frequently by the time she was in high school. She worked primarily with oils and tried to emulate the great modernist painters of the era like Matisse, Picasso and Cezzane. But when she moves to New York City years later, Chlouber refound a passion for interpreting our relationship to nature, in part because New York seemed to be such, “an environmental mess.” Her time in urban New York lead then, ironically, to a discovery of eco-conscious art in general and a deep appreciation for folk art in particular, opening up the possibility of bringing her Midwestern roots into her work. This is one of the reasons she went from working primarily with oils to using encaustics during this time.
Encaustic wax is a natural substance that has the same capabilities of paint but that also gives the artist more time to render material since it can be cooled and heated repeatedly. This allows two things to happen at once: First, more layers can be formed on top of each other indepenedently at different points in the creation; Second, it makes it easier to create visible layers underneath top layers in different forms so that an artist like Chlouber can create multiple images on a single plane instead of just next to each other as when you see shapes of people in a darker or lighter coating within a larger mass of unformed brushstrokes.
Encaustic wax is also almost always employed on natural structures like wood and clay, making it more environmentally friendly and letting the artist engage with completely natural substances while creating. As a result, in the latter half of the 20th century, contemporary encaustic artists rejected realistic representations in favor of abstract renderings that highlighted the tactile qualities of the productive materials and the expressive content over the literal subject. Chlouber’s work pays homage to this preference but also combined representational objects with abstract expressionist material within a single composition.
An example of this is the vague, spectral figures in her elongated collages, often obscured behind layers of over-painting, that beckon to us to look more closely. These pieces feature distinct human figures along the bottom fifth of the canvas only. But upon extended viewing, ghost-like figures, assorted body parts and animal shapes become noticeable in the top portions of the piece as well. The relation between the clear figures on the ground and the less visible shadows embedded in the images above them, signifies the past as ever present and the interconnectedness of disparate beings. This interplay grows stronger in her more recent work as they become a reflection of Chlouber’s interest in emotional legacies and intergenerational dialogue that is now primarily expressed through the sketches of her ancestor’s poetry within the pieces.
Along with encaustics and poetry, embroidery takes a large place within her work, a discovery that came to Chlouber after she left New York for the West Coast and had her first child. Motherhood became a frequent theme in her work at this time, perhaps an early indication of the generational themes that would haunt her later with her mother’s passing. When her daughter was in nursery school, she joined a crafts group at her daughter’s school and was amazed by the long history of embroidery and particularly moved by the fact that it was a traditional practice around which women came together and nurtured each other. She then began placing her own designed embroidery in many of her collages and mixed media paintings (some stitched by hand but many stitched by machine) reveling in the opportunity to combine an old art with new technology and adding another literal layer to her work.
Chlouber’s apt choice to work in collages and encaustics connects her art making process with its content perfectly. Due to the multiple processes that each piece undergoes before completion, the visibility of each material within the piece and its varying styles of intensity or size, the history of its creation is an integral part of the work. It exists with the piece and becomes significant as an independent subject within it. You can not view the work without having its evolution thrusting at you. At the same time, the work must be viewed broadly or the connection between the small individual pieces and the work as a temporal whole are lost as is much of the meaning and depth of the work. We are all subjected to understanding our small place in the world we inhabit, including the other beings we share space with as well as the ones who have come before us. Chlouber believes that pain can be carried on intergenerationally like anything else and in opening up communication portals and viewing the progression of a process, we may begin to unpack and understand the inscrutable parts of ourselves and our place in the universe.
You can read more about Chlouber’s current work on her site.