Bernard Chaet: When More is More

LewAllen Contemporary’s exhibition of paintings by American artist Bernard Chaet (b. 1924) features work from the 1960’s to the present. Keeping with LewAllen Contemporary’s penchant for expressive painters, this work is very formal and concerned almost exclusively with the materiality of paint on a surface. Known best for his landscape paintings, the subject matter of Chaet’s work at the gallery includes beaches, sea bathers, rocky coves, harbors clogged with boats, stormy horizons and a smattering of still lifes. His work challenges and celebrates the representational power of paint. A gushy slab of burnt sienna is a cloud on the sea’s horizon. Oblong slathers of cadmium orange are rocks on a shore. - Jenni Higginbotham, Sante Fe Contributor

Bernard Chaet | Rocky Shore, 2006, oil on canvas, 32 x 32 inches, Courtesy LewAllen Contemporary

For over 60 years Chaet has pushed the traditional logic of representational painting. He allows himself to smush around too much white—muddy the colors and mix paint directly on the canvas. Some of his recently completed paintings were begun in the 90’s, so conventional wisdom such as “don’t overwork it” have little clout with Chaet. His paintings have a sort of sophisticated clumsiness to them with thick outlines and bloated forms (imagine Philip Guston painting a J.M.W. Turner seascape). Their surfaces are substantially built with gobs of oil paint whipped up like cake batter.

Bernard Chaet | The Sun, detail, oil on canvas, 32 x 38 inches

One particularly successful work is Burnt Sienna Sky. It is a simple image of the sea with a billowing burnt sienna and yellow ocher storm cloud at the horizon. A few chunky rocks lend visual weight to the bottom of the canvas. Despite the numerous layers of paint, Burnt Sienna Sky has a sense of immediacy that belies the time taken to produce it. In fact, it took him seven years to finish (1999-2006). Taking a long time to capture a fleeting moment is not unknown to most oil painters, but Chaet might take it to levels seldom reached. We can only guess how he knows when he’s finished a painting.

Bernard Chaet | Burnt Sienna Sky, 1999-06, oil on canvas, 30 x 37.75 inches, Courtesy LewAllen Contemporary

Bernard Chaet | Burnt Sienna Sky, detail, 1999-06, oil on canvas, 30 x 37.75 inches

Another particularly commanding piece is a small oil painting titled 3 Bathers. A testament to Chaet’s long-term love affair with the ocean and its paraphernalia, this painting was made in 1988. This painting is  selective compared to the excess of most of his work. The thickness of paint is fairly insubstantial by comparison. The bathers are awkwardly perched side by side (sardine style) on what appears to be a tilting chunk of concrete, the horizon of the sea just beyond them. The bathers are painted in varying shades of yellow ocher with odd raw sienna and pthalo blue shadows. If you try to bring realistic notions of gravity to the image, the block of concrete appears as if it might slide backward at any moment, taking the poor bathers with it. However, the awkwardness of the composition is as important to the image as the bathers are.

Bernard Chaet | 3 Bathers, 1988, oil on canvas, 14 x 8 inches, Courtesy LewAllen Contemporary

Chaet doesn’t concern himself with representing this world in all its weight and texture. He represents paint through the subject matter. Representation is an excuse to arrange paint in a particular way. The beach scenes and landscapes are appealing in a rather generic way, but the paint quality is irreverent and indulgent. What keeps these paintings from being run-of-the-mill is the earnest and unapologetic way Chaet deviates from the physical reality of his subjects. The subject is the starting point, and the painting becomes increasingly self-referential thereafter.

Bernard Chaet | FROM LEFT: Beach Party, 2006, oil on canvas, 8 x10 inches | Provincetown, 2008, oil on canvas, 8 x10 inches | 3 Bathers, 1988, oil on canvas, 14 x 8 inches | Bather, 1968, oil on canvas, 8 x 10 inches | Bather II, 2004-05, oil on canvas, 8  x 10 inches

View more of Bernard Chaet’s oil paintings here.


Jenni Higginbotham is an artist and blogger working out of Santa Fe, New Mexico. She makes graphite and charcoal drawings as well as prints, oil paintings and mixed media illustrations. She has a Bachelor of Arts in painting and printmaking with a minor in art history, and a Master of Fine Arts in studio art.

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