The Devil on the boards: In conversation with Chris Capoyianes

A horned figure with menacing grin and pronged tail struts and preens upon a stage. A snake slithers through the boughs of an apple tree. Two hounds guard a threshold. Tales of yore yield rich subject matter for Chicago-based artist Chris Capoyianes. God, the Devil and the characters from Holy Scriptures are common figures in his artworks. Chris revisits the stories from his Catholic youth, not without a sardonic sense of humour, to plumb the metaphorical scope of these archetypes for today’s world. Chris often locates these figures within carnivalesque settings, heightening the drama of the scenes but also calling attention to the performativity of narrative and the interplay between real and imagined. Working primarily in monochrome, his work has a strong graphic quality that plays into the seeming duality of the subject matter: light, dark, good, evil, foreground, shadow.  

Chris is a recent-ish graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His process of working relies on sketching, more sketching and then sketching some more. Through this Chris refines his ideas and compositions, which when satisfactory, he then commits to painting or drawing. We caught up with Chris to find out more about his moody and mysterious artworks and chat about life after art school.  

AMM: Hi Chris! You graduated three years ago. What has been your experience starting out in the art world post art school? Are there things you wished you’d learned?

CC: The post-grad art world has been fun, boring, lovely and dreadful. You have to learn to make ends meet in places that have nothing to do with your interests. Perhaps you could find something interesting enough, but either way, it is hard to work on things that aren’t your things. That’s an especially tough pill to swallow after living in the freedom that art school provides. At SAIC I had this wonderful freedom. When you’re going to art school, you’re leading this privileged life, and every day, more or less, you get to be doing just about whatever it is you want to be doing. Even if you’re working hard, you’re working hard on your own stuff.

It sounds great, and it was – but at times it encouraged a pessimistic attitude when it came to thoughts of what my future holds as an art school graduate. I keep working, and will not ever stop, but since graduating it’s a pretty fierce stubbornness fighting that pessimism. Making art isn’t just this pure love it once was for me. It still is, it’s just a shittier tasting candy bar at times. I think that is the most important lesson I’ve learned – that I have to hang on as time moves on and life gets more complex and I mature as a person and an artist. I learned that you really have to work hard to keep that part of yourself alive and to keep things pure. The stubbornness really bugs me. I never want to make something just to prove something. To myself or whoever. I just want to make art because that’s what I love to do. I’m lucky that I’ve had opportunities come my way and that I’ve always been able to make the time to be creating new work. I’m always ready and excited for the next thing.

Traveling Through Time, graphite, 11.5 x 9.5 inches

AMM: What ideas or themes are you exploring in your current work?

CC: My current work is exploring religion through metaphor using theme parks and theaters. Combining these two things just made sense to me. They’re both daunting and powerful. Both very bright and loud and loopy and twisting. Both command lots of attention. I was raised Catholic so a lot of those feelings are coming from an 8 year old me. I look back and it really did feel that way. Now I get to approach all of those stories and characters as an adult with a slightly sardonic tone. It’s been fun to draw an audience hypnotized by my interpretation of The Holy Ghost. I usually start with an idea from the Bible, and then imagine it at the carnival, or in front of a big theater crowd. For some works I’ll substitute a story from the Bible with a personal anecdote or use those characters instead of real people. The Devil, God, these are characters you can associate with people in the real world. Sometimes yourself. When something happens to you, your narcissism sets in and you’re on stage. The story is always bigger than what it was. You become just as big and dramatic as one of those stories [laughs]. I think anyone who rejects religion is still captivated by it, and there exists a line between sincerity and mockery. The approach to my work walks this line.

AMM: Some of your new paintings and drawings seem to engage with carnivalesque themes. What ideas or concepts were you exploring?

CC: I think the carnival theme in my work also came from my time working behind a bar and watching people act so goofy throughout the night. My last body of work was pretty much all about that. Late nights, and dancing, and luck and superstition. It’s really all in that same vein, the stuff I’m doing now, but getting a bit tighter.

AMM: You favour working in monotone or primary colours. Please tell us more about these aesthetic decisions.

CC: Growing up I collected music posters and comic books. I loved the graphic quality of them and how that catches your eye so quickly. Charles Burns’ Black Hole in particular made an impression. Raymond Pettibon’s work too. These influences really resonated with me and in looking through their work I saw that there is already so much you could accomplish in using only one or two colors. I just got this book of Francis Picabia drawings he did for a journal in the 1920s – they’re all black ink on paper. He plays with positive and negative space a lot in them and I do in my work as well. It’s easier to get more complex in doing that when you’re using a limited palette.

All In A Life’s Work, graphite, 11.5 x 9.5 inches

AMM: How do you use foreshortened perspective in your compositions and to what end?

CC: That depends of course. In some cases we are viewing the audience watching whatever it is on the stage. So, we are the furthest thing from the light source in the drawing. In this instance, it gets darker the further you are from the show. The crowd is drawn with a 9B pencil. In other cases, we are not watching the audience as onlookers, but we are the audience. The lights on the border of the drawings help sink the image away from us a bit, just as if you were watching something on stage at a play. In the Adam and Eve Drawing, it’s the exact opposite of what I’m saying – the darkest areas of that drawing are the deepest and furthest away.

AMM: What is your process of working and how do you know when a work is complete?

CC: I once peed next to Paul McCarthy in the bathroom at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles before I saw him give a talk. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something to the effect of feeling exhausted or maybe even a little bitter when he’s finished with a piece. Like he’s been wrestling with this thing for so long and once it’s finished, it feels like throwing in the towel. I thought that was such a genuine and real thing to say. Especially coming from someone of his caliber. It was refreshing. He got a big laugh after he said that, and I imagine it’s because there were many artists in the crowd that were familiar with that exact feeling. It’s never this brilliant “ah-ha! I’ve finished this piece exactly how I imagined to from start to finish!”

I usually think of an idea, and then make sure I draw a quick sketch of it right away on the first thing I can so I don’t forget. I’ll make a little drawing and then write a few notes, maybe a title. Once I have that, I’ll leave it some place where I can see it every day. I take that little drawing or title and make a ton more that are little versions of the original. Sometimes I make so many it looks completely different and then that spawns more ideas for other future drawings or paintings. Any finished painting or drawing I’ve ever made has probably like, 50 preliminary sketches. I try to repeat this every day. When I’m pleased with one of those final sketches, I use that as a reference to make the final image. I need a better filing system. I have little drawings and notes all over the place.

AMM: Can you tell us a little about the mediums you use and what appeals to you about them?

CC: Yes. I love graphite. It has this great quality of presenting a moment in the past. It just immediately looks old to me and I really like that. It reminds me of old film and that sound of clicks from a movie projector. Or a loony tunes intro. I also use ink, acrylic, and oil paint too. Water and ink can be so soft and delicate and I like the poetry in that – I’ve been using it more and more lately.

The Holy Ghost, graphite, 11.5 x 9.5 inches

AMM: What does your typical day in the studio look like?

CC: I have two pretty distinct areas in the studio – one messy and one clean. The messy half is where I’ll stretch canvas and keep extra materials lying around. The other half is set up with whatever it is I’ll be using to work on something new. If I don’t feel like getting to work right away I’ll stretch some more canvas or do some priming or organize as much as I can. There’s always music or a podcast playing. Sometimes Netflix on my laptop but if it’s on while I’m working it has to be something I’ve already seen plenty of times like Twin Peaks or Arrested Development.

AMM: What inspires you?

CC: SAIC was attached to the Art Institute of Chicago, and any other building on campus was only a short walk away to the museum. What’s more inspiring to an art student than that? And when you see all of the shows and collections in that museum, you can’t help but think of how much more there is that you haven’t yet seen. It inspires travel and curiosity. So since graduating, I’ve made it a point to do exactly that. I wholeheartedly believe that traveling and staying curious is most important. I want to see more and participate more. People inspire me. Life can get so dark. And people just keep on moving.

AMM: What are you watching, reading, listening to right now?

CC: I can’t get enough of Barry on HBO. Russian Doll was also very good. I miss Atlanta – that Teddy Perkins episode was fucking chilling. Our Planet just got released so I intend to watch that soon too. Long live Sir David Attenborough. I just re-read Charles Burns’ Black Hole. That makes like, 3 times. It’s fun, and fast and just excellent. Also a Franz Kafka book of short stories which I bought because I really liked the cover. A lot of Kafka books have these great covers. As for listening, it’s always a wide net of things. I’m seeing Father John Misty in June.

AMM: Are there any young artists that you’re particularly excited about right now?

CC: Cheyenne Julien is making incredible work – It’s powerful the second you see it. I love the way she uses light too. I also really like Tanya Merrill’s paintings – they’re gestural and illustrative and painterly all at once.

AMM: Do you have any exciting projects coming up? What’s next for you?

CC: I’m very excited to announce that a lot of my recent drawings are part of a bigger project that I’ve been working on for nearly 5 months now. I’m making a book of drawings that has a loose but linear storyline for all these drawings to live in the same scary, goofy world. The date is still TBD, but it’s coming. Also, I am very honored and excited about being in the ArtMaze Spring Edition for 2019. It is my second publication with ArtMaze and I can’t say enough about the magazine – it’s really great. Thanks for having me.

Find out more about the artist: www.chriscapoy.com

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

Paradise Lost, oil and acrylic paint, 24 x 30 inches