Thursday, February 18, 2010


MYARTSPACE Art Scholarship, Undergraduate Division, Second Place Award Winner is CHRIS WILLCOX

The Second Place MYARTSPACE Art Scholarship 2009, undergraduate division, award goes to Chris Willcox, Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. He will receive a $2,000 cash award from

Chris Willcox's philosophical contemplation of his artistic ideals about politics and corporate lobbying takes the viewer through his diabolical journey in search of “The American Dream.”

See more of his artwork on

The clashes of conflicting worlds in Chris’s paintings bring about an uncomfortable feeling of duality.

Questions and Answers:

Q. How does it feel to win Second place in the MYARTSPACE ART Scholarship?

A. I'm excited and humbled. It's an honor to have my work shown alongside the other winners, from both this and previous years. I remember entering the competition last year and not being selected; after that I set it as a goal, and to have achieved that goal is really a remarkable feeling. Positive reinforcement is often left out of art school. The talking points in critiques are more often about what isn't working than what is. In light of that, this recognition is quite a nice breath of fresh air. Yet, critical feedback is a necessary part of any artistic education; a lot of what goes into becoming a better artist is learning from your mistakes, so one of the things I hope to get out the exposure generated by this award is more feedback from members who aren't necessarily art students, to hear how my work is seen in a larger context.

I'm very grateful to Catherine McCormack-Skiba and Brian Skiba for establishing and sponsoring such a remarkable scholarship that attracts applicants from all over the world, and I am honored to receive an award of such a prestige.

Q. Your creative images are so original what inspires you?

A. I'm constantly pillaging images from where ever I can find them. Anytime I go somewhere new I try to soak up the visual material around me, which I then squeeze back into the paintings. I relate to the Francis Bacon, where he talks about how everything he sees gets ground up very fine and mixed into his paint, and as a result it's impossible to tell where the images in his paintings come from. So while I employ a number of found images in my process, the paintings I create are always original. I think what's most important about using photographs as source material is that the work is honest, that the painting doesn't pretend to be something it isn't. It seems inappropriate to call Richter's Baader-Meinhof paintings plagiarism, but that's not the case with everything that's derived from photos – there's a real difference between a painted facsimile of a recognizable photograph and one-off out of a fashion magazine. Like Richter, I often overtly reference other images, but that reference is part of the work itself. Right now I'm working on a series based on the images from the Abu Ghraib prison controversy, but I would never claim those images to be my own. In fact the series is based on the very assumption that the viewer will be able to recognize these images, and the awkward tension that results from their recount extalization.

Not all of my images reference photographs sometimes the roots are found images as well, usually several. If I'm going to claim what I produce as my own, however; it's crucial that there be some essential difference between the source and the painting, some contextual or formal severing from the root to the fruit. So while aspects of my paintings often rely on appropriated images, the end result is always original.

Q. Can we talk about the piece “How Much Does Jesus Love You?”

A. What drove me to make this painting is a line of questions surrounding a personal struggle to remain optimistic.
If you read the newspaper, every day you're put face to face with an inconceivable amount of tragedy; more news of victims, more news of environmental crisis, of political corruption, of recession, of misguided fundamentalism. At a certain point I stopped asking questions about fixing injustice, and started asking about whether justice was even viable to begin with? In spite of all these horrific pictures, people keep moving through their lives more or less uninterrupted. I'm interested in what exactly it means to do that, what it takes to do that. If we are to accept tragedy writ large, what sort of value changes do we need to make to our worldview in order to keep optimism afloat? What sorts of attitudes are necessary to inoculate these painful and ubiquitous images pervading our daily media? How can we get over it?

Something about this painting, I want to mention, that doesn't come across in the digital image is how every inch of the canvas is covered in glitter, three different kinds of glitter. I direct a very strong light toward the painting, and as a result the glitter, which is this thing we think of as fun and cute, becomes abrasive textural visual sandpaper, as alluring as it is painful. So the whole image is wrought with this fierce anxiety, both formally and conceptually, which is very exciting to me.

Q. What is the foundation for the work “Golden Jenna?”

A. My generation is the first to grow up with the internet, and as a result the first to grow up with direct and unrestricted access to internet pornography. As much as we might not want to talk about our influences, images like “Golden Jenna” have been a pervasive feature throughout our journey through the awkward teenage years into adulthood. Even if we don't watch porn, the sheer accessibility and quantity of it has had a visible impact on a lot of what may be described as the “cultural norms” we've grown into, which is mirrored by the increasing presence of pornographic tropes across television, film, music, and almost any other facet of pop culture.
What I'm trying to do with this painting is raise a question. I think a lot of guys my age are asking themselves: why are images like this the norm and what does it mean to be a spectator of them? Figures like Jenna Jameson, whom the painting is based on, are simultaneously worshiped and defaced, putting them in a very complex moral space which I want to investigate. What does it mean to have these two seemingly mutually exclusive attitudes towards someone? And how did we become so comfortable with this sort of depiction? What does it mean when this sort of practice becomes orthodox? Ultimately I feel very uneasy with the ubiquity of these images, and this painting is an investigation into the cultural norms that bring about that discomfort.

Q. Can you give us a little insight to the painting “oneadays?”

A. I can never decide which I think is more interesting: medicine that looks like candy or candy that looks like medicine. I heard that the machines used to make the first Lifesavers candy were originally used to press pills. It's this terrific analogy, something as wholesome and banal as candy being placed alongside something with serious life and death consequences like medicine. At the time, I was looking critically at the images the pharmaceutical industry was putting out in advertising, and the promises they were making, so I thought I'd try and make a painting about it. I wanted the pills to be everything these ads present them as: wholesome, tasty, bright, full of the promise of a healthier, happier, medicated life. So I put the paint on like I was applying frosting to a cupcake, I used these great bright colors; I let the background take on all of the luscious qualities of a Gainsborough skyline. And, at the time, part of me really believed in this image; the box on the far left of the image was a box of Tamiflu, which I had just taken to get over Swine Flu and honestly believed was God's gift to humanity. At the same time, I knew a lot of the drugs people take every day are shown to be ineffective, often toxic. Antidepressants are a good example of this. I read that the placebos out-performed the drugs in over half of the clinical trials used to approve the six leading antidepressants. And yet people continue to take them, once a day, hoping that there might really be something to the lofty promises made by drug companies. Are they good? Are they bad? I'm not sure it's really clear, and that ambiguity is expressed in the painting.

Q Does “Saturday in the park” reflect a specific event?

A. I've got a big collection of airline safety cards. I think they're the most fascinating objects; perfect examples of how the right type of design can take one of our most ineffable fears and re brand it as something ordinary, logical, and even friendly. “In case of a water evacuation, please remove the floatation device stored underneath your seat and proceed to the nearest exit.” And it's as simple as that, as harmless as that. I suppose that's the power of images, how you can change what color shirt you're wearing and feel completely different about yourself. This is also more of an autobiographical picture than the others in the gallery. Just prior to its making I was on a plane that nearly crashed over Pittsburgh, which was the second time in under a year I'd been involved in that type of experience. So the fear is a very real thing to me, and as I made this image I was trying, rather earnestly, to figure out exactly what those fear meant why it existed, and how it is dealt with?

I've got a lot of questions about the ways difficult images are made more palatable, what sort of pictorial devices artists and designers employ to do that, and what contexts these devices can exist in.

Q. What sort of duality does “But not forgotten” depict?
A. This one of the earliest paintings we've looked at. When I made it I was just beginning to explore working with a combined sense of attraction and repulsion.

Q: To me part of my interpretation of the title leads me to say “gone.”

A. Titles are something I think a lot about, and I think this is a good example of that. The title, like the painting, has a lot of implications that are left up to the viewer; the fact that the first half of the title is only implied begins to call into question whether or not the figure really is “gone,” or whether the new, shorter phrase means something entirely new. What exactly is it that's not forgotten? What is gone? I'm not sure I've got it fully figured out.

Q. Are you a Conceptual Artist?

A. What the phrase Conceptual Art means to me is a particular movement from the 1970s centered on Joseph Kosuth, John Baldessari and others. I look at a lot of these artists with a great deal of respect, even admiration, but while my work may have similar ends in mind, I don't share their reactionary hostility towards images, emotions, or sentimentality; rather, these are the very sorts’ devices I use to arrive at the concepts I want to discuss. I don't want to put any restrictions on what types of objects bring the viewer to the idea, even if that means making a figurative oil painting. One of the things Conceptual Art seemed to be after was to replace art-for-art's-sake with art-for-ideology's sake, and while this may have been a noble gesture at the time, I'm unable to commit myself to either way of making.

Q: So you’re at Washington University in St. Louis, how’s that working out for you?

A. Washington University is one of the few universities in the country that has both a top 25 liberal arts school and a top 25 arts school. The two of these coalesce into a unique interdisciplinary experience. As research is a pretty big part of my studio practice, having a great liberal arts college at my fingertips has allowed me to investigate a number of different fields at a close range, the results of which are then filtered back into my painting. I am working on a double major, Bachelor’s of Arts in Fine Art and one in Philosophy. I have studied psychology, neuroscience, creative writing, and a smattering of other liberal arts topics. I've been a bit of Nietzsche fan since high school, so being able to study his writing in an academic setting has been a huge influences on me and in turn my art.

The painting department has a pretty rich history as well; previous members of the faculty include figures like Max Beckmann and Phillip Guston. Wash U is also unique in the university world in how it's made its art school a high priority focusing on Fine Art. We've just got a new dean, Buzz Spector, who is a progressive educator and seems to be moving the school in a good direction. I think ultimately what I'm most grateful for was the flexibility the school has, I was able to study a variety of subjects, get a second major, and create my own study abroad program at the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland, all while still getting out in four years. This sort of education is a real luxury that isn't available to a lot of young artists, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have had it, and I'm grateful for scholarships like this one from that help lessen the financial burden.

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