The Overlook with Matt Peiken

Catching Plein-Air | Landscape Artist Chris Jehly

March 15, 2024 Matt Peiken Episode 140
Catching Plein-Air | Landscape Artist Chris Jehly
The Overlook with Matt Peiken
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The Overlook with Matt Peiken
Catching Plein-Air | Landscape Artist Chris Jehly
Mar 15, 2024 Episode 140
Matt Peiken

LISTENERS: Have thoughts about this episode? Send them my way!

Chris Jehly says he used to mock artists who painted the natural landscape. At the time, he was a graffiti artist inspired by BMX and metal music. Since his move to Asheville, he’s become one of the artists he used to dismiss.

The plein-air paintings documenting his local hikes and other sojourns into the woods are on through the end of March at Tyger Tyger Gallery, in the River Arts District. We talk about his path from graffiti artist to plein-air landscapes and how he sees himself as documenting specific places and time.


Wake Up, Asheville! and ¡Despierta Asheville!  (in Spanish) are new morning newscast podcasts that give you all the local news you need to know in under five minutes. Both are free to subscribe/follow wherever you get your podcasts!

SPONSOR: Asheville City Soccer Club home games run through June 29 for the women's team and July 13 for the men's team at Greenwood Field on the UNC-Asheville campus.

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Listen and Subscribe: All episodes of The Overlook

The Overlook theme song, "Maker's Song," comes courtesy of the Asheville band The Resonant Rogues.

Podcast Asheville © 2023

Show Notes Transcript

LISTENERS: Have thoughts about this episode? Send them my way!

Chris Jehly says he used to mock artists who painted the natural landscape. At the time, he was a graffiti artist inspired by BMX and metal music. Since his move to Asheville, he’s become one of the artists he used to dismiss.

The plein-air paintings documenting his local hikes and other sojourns into the woods are on through the end of March at Tyger Tyger Gallery, in the River Arts District. We talk about his path from graffiti artist to plein-air landscapes and how he sees himself as documenting specific places and time.


Wake Up, Asheville! and ¡Despierta Asheville!  (in Spanish) are new morning newscast podcasts that give you all the local news you need to know in under five minutes. Both are free to subscribe/follow wherever you get your podcasts!

SPONSOR: Asheville City Soccer Club home games run through June 29 for the women's team and July 13 for the men's team at Greenwood Field on the UNC-Asheville campus.

Support the Show.

Support The Overlook by joining our Patreon campaign!

Advertise your event on The Overlook.

Instagram: AVLoverlook | Facebook: AVLoverlook | Twitter: AVLoverlook

Listen and Subscribe: All episodes of The Overlook

The Overlook theme song, "Maker's Song," comes courtesy of the Asheville band The Resonant Rogues.

Podcast Asheville © 2023

Matt Peiken:  Tell me what your work was like when you were going to school, and how your work has evolved since then.

Chris Jehly: Growing up in Sonoma County, I think I wasn't really too concerned about landscape or nature. Actually, I openly made fun of it at a young age. 

Matt Peiken: What do you mean you made fun of nature? 

Chris Jehly: I think just making fun of the idea that, oh, I'm going to go out and I'm going to paint something. I thought that it was I guess it was like this ageist sort of reaction to it. Oh no, that's what old people do. Like that's thrown in the towel. At the time I was more concerned with intaglio printmaking and graffiti. Having those sort of dualities that I was juggling and thinking about cartoons and surrealism and how visually wild I could go.

Landscape was not really in my mind as much As it is now. 

Matt Peiken: Let's back up a second. How do you go from being graffiti influenced to looking at the natural landscape? If anything, graffiti is anti natural landscape. It's mark making usually on the man made world. 

Chris Jehly: Having grown up skateboarding, BMX, graffiti, it's all about interacting with the environment and looking at the environment from a different lens separate from how everybody else does.

So for example a school is like an epicenter for BMX and skateboarding. And the ledges, the handrails, these sort of like lines that you create by interacting with the landscape and how you utilize the landscape for your interest. Graffiti would probably be about the same thing. Site specific, you're scanning and looking at the environment so differently with regards to where do I place this thing.

Which makes me fall in love with what it is that I'm doing now in plein air painting. I'm taking those sort of dialectical ideals and applying them and reacting to the environment in a way that is similar to say Oh, this is a line, this is a handrail, this is an abandoned building ideal. And reacting to the environment. The landscape with those sorts of terms in mind. 

Matt Peiken: So you were already interpreting the landscape when you were doing that kind of work, when you were graffiti influenced. Now describe for people, what's the difference between strictly watercolor painting and plein air painting? 

Chris Jehly: So I believe, just the act of plein air painting is painting out, outdoors. I think originally individuals would go out and make studies of a particular landscape, either for color or composition to go, then go back into the studio and create a larger work.

And where I think I'm at now using watercolor is like this very pared down, almost just feels very archaic and I don't have to carry a whole lot of things with me, it's brush, water, and the colors that I have and trying to. interpret a moment in its entirety as opposed to it just being a depiction of the space.

Matt Peiken: Yeah, that seems to be from what you're expressing, a connecting thread between your previous work, your past work, and what you're doing now is that you're influenced not just by what you're looking at, but by the environment in its totality. Has that always inspired your art is art for all the senses?

Chris Jehly: I think Early on when it came to some of the graffiti stuff, it became more about trying to interpret a graffiti piece in such a way that I came to a wall without any plan, and I would make it up as I went along. And the space would dictate what was being painted. I never wanted to work from a sketch.

I never wanted to do just letters. I wanted it to be this sort of Weird enigmic sort of thing that you would come across and you'd have to confront interpret. So I would say that there's definitely like A similarity that has been happening. 

Matt Peiken: How did you make that psychological shift from thinking the outdoor settings and nature settings were for old, older people to then saying, this is what I want to interpret as an artist, this is where I want to turn my artistic interests? 

Chris Jehly: I think what ended up happening was I pardon the expression, I get my head out of my ass and just try something that is outside my comfort level with very few tools as possible and after, being in the middle of New York for 11 years and now being outdoors and oh, I'm just going to try this out and see what happens it's just opened up things immensely.

And I think also having, worked at Cheap Joe's and being around that massive watercolor display and just hearing people talk about it, I was like I'll try it. Try this out and immediately it's something that I don't know where it's going and I had no intention of it going anywhere.

And it's oddly taking me places the same way that I hike and interact with the environment. So I'm just going to continue without plan or foresight and see where it leads. 

Matt Peiken: Did you come to Asheville to inspire or help steer your art? Was your art making part of your reason for moving here from Brooklyn?

Chris Jehly: No, I think it was more just my wife and I just wanted to try something out that was different. I knew some people here previously from California. We had visited here, drove the 11 hours here to stay a day and a half and come back and then decided This is what we're doing. That was also during the pandemic as well. 

Matt Peiken: So the work that's here at Tyger Tyger, has it all been created since moving to Asheville? Yes, so talk about the impact of this clearly You talk about in your artist notes that These are derived from being out on your hikes and elsewhere, and you're influenced by sound feeling in the air. How is this body of work different for you because you're in Asheville than what you were doing before you arrived? 

Chris Jehly: I think part of it is I'm not in a white cube in the studio, trying to riff off of myself and riff off of what I had been making previously. I'm not bombarded by living in the city, the white noise, the hustle and bustle of the city.

Matt Peiken: But does the subject matter change? 

Chris Jehly: The subject matter is definitely changed because I'm not personifying everything. I'm not looking at it as if it's like cartoons or like riffs off of pop culture. I'm not also bombarding myself with loud music and a studio environment.

Matt Peiken: So is that what you were doing before?

Chris Jehly: Yeah, it was very much I'm going to sit down, I'm going to put on some black metal music and I'm going to drown out the noise with the noise to create this cacophonous noise on canvas. And I think these are the signs ,of this departure. 

Matt Peiken: Departure? I would think this is a different universe that the whole Genesis of this work, the making of it. I'm a metal fan. I can't imagine listening to metal while you're painting these.

Chris Jehly: And I don't, and I haven't. I know it's going to sound funny, but these feel more metal than the other work because it interacts with nature in some of the ways that the genre talks about and it almost feels more genuine to that, but I wouldn't say that it's certainly not pertinent to it.

I don't know, there's like a funny sort of truth about it.

Matt Peiken: Yeah. I was just curious, the interpretive element you speak to, sound, other types of forces coming into play. How do you see sound being manifest in these paintings? 

Chris Jehly: I think part of that is going to be the frequency of color, the way that certain elements are more saturated than others between foreground and background, but also white space of the paper, the halos that are around everything.

So all of that is bare paper that you see in it. I think it's about managing the thinness, the thickness the stacking of things. I'm not saying that I've figured it out, but I feel like I'm exploring what the possibility of that could be. 

Matt Peiken: Yeah. I was curious about that myself, about how you interpret what your own feelings are, what your own senses are. I imagine when you're out hiking and the sounds you're hearing, they're quiet a lot of the time. If you're still, you hear a stillness. Are you trying to imbue your paintings with that stillness.

Chris Jehly: I think it really depends on the day. We could look at a painting. For example, the one that's right here. The Soil's Gaze, which is what the show is named after. I spent pretty much. About maybe two full days working on that and then finishing it up in the studio.

But during that time screaming of cicadas hawks the woodpeckers were going off. So it's all those sorts of things that all of a sudden become imbued to it. And sometimes there's just silence.

Matt Peiken: So talk about that. You said you were working on this for two days, then brought it back to the studio. So when you say you're working on it out there, you're out In that scene, you're not working from a photograph. 

Chris Jehly: No, all of these have started outside. Some have been fully finished outside and some are then finished up in the studio per, time restraints or anything of that matter. But in order for these to operate and have a sense of truth for me, they have to begin outside and then they could potentially grow in the studio a little bit. And sometimes there's a few that I had abandoned because I felt like I couldn't do anything with it. And then all of a sudden I can look at it and be like, I remember what this feeling is I can go ahead and finish it.

Matt Peiken: Yeah, that answers a question that just popped up in my head. When you bring it back to the studio, do you lose sometimes that what filled up in you when you were out there working on the piece? Is it elusive sometimes? Is that inspiration sometimes fleeting? 

Chris Jehly: It definitely can be. I think what really helps is a lot of these are all the same area too.

So, Arboretum, just outside the Arboretum, Blue Ridge Parkway, places that I've hiked over and over again and seeing them in different Stages throughout the year there all of a sudden becomes this like sense of familiarity and knowing if I come back around this time around this year, I can capture this moment.

And I think that sort of stacking of that is what I can bring back to the studio in cases where I work on some of these after the fact. 

Matt Peiken: You said something, you'll go throughout the year, you'll hike, and you'll see these places over and over again, they change throughout the seasons.

Let's say you have two different paintings here. Is one of them, let's say, springtime from that location, the other is winter or fall from that location? 

Chris Jehly: There's going to be different areas of the same area that are different points in time.

So this one over here the Soil's Gaze being October of 2023. But at the other end of that trail, which is Barricade Trail 4791 is like late November. It's like a wormhole of different experiences throughout that sort of, a smaller section of Blue Ridge.

Matt Peiken: Yeah, what's interesting to me too is you date the works, like for instance The soil piece and for barricade you don't have a date, but you have the location. What determines for you whether you're going to time stamp it or location stamp it. 

Chris Jehly: I think it's something that I decided at one point I'll try and See if this works and maybe it doesn't work. I guess I haven't really figured it out as things are still relatively young in terms of how I process them and how I want to mark them. 

Matt Peiken: I don't know if you're you might be too young to remember this but back when all Photographs were printed and it came from a shop. They might have a date on the bottom of them like in the white frame of a Polaroid. Yeah, there might be it's might say November 1967, and this kind of reminds me of that a little bit That you're trying to capture here and document a moment in time, even though it's an interpretive documentation and what's also interesting to me and the photographer Errol Morris has written quite a bit about the spaces outside the frame. 

And I'm curious what determines the frame for you? A lot of people who might work in nature might take a photo of something and then that photo Becomes how they frame the work. You're not working from that way. You're working from your own sight line Obviously your own sight line can encompass a wider more expansive view than what you have in each of these paintings. What determines for you what is falls within and outside the boundaries?

Chris Jehly: Again, I think we're getting back to the idea of what a skateboarder, a BMX rider, a graffiti rider interprets when they hone in on something. This is the thing. It's a weird sort of grasping that moment and making the best of That choice that you made for that specific space. 

Having gone through these areas maybe several times or happening upon it in a particular kind of light, I need to just go with this. I feel like there's been moments where there's hesitation that happens. And any of those sports that we're talking about or, graffiti writing, hesitation can lead to not being able to finish or being just, not fully engaged with that.

Matt Peiken: So I want to be clear here. So when you're drawing the analogy with BMX riding or mountain bike riding that it's you have to make Quick immediate decisions and you just go with it and you're doing in the same with when you bring an easel out into the landscape. 

Chris Jehly: Yeah, I Have a small like waterproof tripod and some paper that's taped down to gator board, a set of colors and a set of brushes, bringing it in my own water, bringing in my own containers full of stuff that I, so I don't leave anything behind and I take everything with me because the idea is I'm not leaving any marks. I'm taking my marks with me. 

Matt Peiken: Interesting. One of the things I also want to ask you about was your color palette. It's heavy into greens and earth tones and, but there's such subtle, nuanced changes in your colors, often within one painting. Has that taken and does it continue to take on an experimental plane for you, that every painting in a way you're experimenting with your colors?

Chris Jehly: Yeah I would say that every one of these is definitely going to be an experimentation with the color using the same palette. There's about nine or ten colors in all these paintings that I've mixed myself and tubed myself because they're based on colors that are inherent in Brevard, Mount Mitchell, Blue Ridge Parkway, Arboretum. One of them is called lichen green.

And what I love about it so much is I've mixed it with a sole purpose that it yields four to five different colors in one stroke, depending on its intensity. And that creates a layer of chaos in that way. Just that watercolor is very chaotic for me.

Matt Peiken: How do you get exacting, or maybe you don't, but you're saying you might have four or five colors in one stroke from this paint that you have created yourself, this color you have tubed. What's the process of that? 

Chris Jehly: I take a bunch of colors that I like and we'll just mix them up and see what happens.

It's not like mixing acrylic, which I'd been doing previously for a long time. And it's not mixing spray paint colors, which in the early nineties before spray paint was manufactured into a rainbow array of colors, me and a good friend Corey would force paint into cans, varying the pressures with different temperatures and create our own colors with standard rustoleum or orchard paint.

So I don't know. I think it's experimenting, seeing what it does and It just seems like there's so little at stake or so little consequence to it. So it's like, why the hell not? 

Matt Peiken: Sure. You mentioned a little bit ago that you've used to work in acrylics and sprays. Why did you go to watercolors?

Chris Jehly: I don't have to have an air compressor. I don't have to have an airbrush. I don't have to have an airbrush cleaning kit. I don't have to have a Frisket and blades and sitting there combing in the same orange for six to seven layers, the amount of time that a say a 50 inch by 50 inch acrylic painting took six months.

Sitting there looking at this thing for six months, it feels like torture. And this feels so far from that. And it still feels so new and young that I don't know what to anticipate and I love that. 

Matt Peiken: It's a less forgiving medium in some ways, isn't it? Yes. What were some of the lessons you learned in transitioning to that and realizing that it's a less forgiving medium?

Chris Jehly: When I wanted things to, feel more graphic like the paintings in terms of it's like wood blocky silk screeny printmaking sort of vibe. Knowing that like one wet color hits another, that's it. I had to devise certain ways to help keep things separated so I can maintain that graphic sort of feel which I ended up utilizing some of the techniques I would do an acrylic painting, which is leaving white canvas opened up as a means of outline using that same sort of feel in the paintings. It seemed to dialectically translate over really well, and I never would start an acrylic painting the same way and finish it the same way. And I maintain that sort of chaotic order within these paintings, too, because then that keeps things fresh and it's like, it's if then statements.

If I do this, then this, and then I can start to break that up in this sort of ludicrous quasi printmaking oh if I do it like this, I'll do it like this, I'll do it like this, and see what happens. 

Matt Peiken: I didn't even ask you, but are you from an artistic family? 

Chris Jehly: My mom did stained glass for a bit, but I think it was just kind of like, Oh well, I want to do that sort of thing. My dad he knew how to draw, but he just didn't do it as much. He's a mechanic, but he is somebody that can look at something, figure out how to fix it.

My grandma would do crafts and she would take a look at an object and turn it into something, so Taking a muscle shell and turning it into a seal with felt flippers and googly eyes. My other grandparents would collect shells and then paint on them. 

Matt Peiken: So there's some history. Did your family support your full pursuit in the arts? 

Chris Jehly: believe so. I think there's certain moments where it's like, when it came to the spray paint stuff, more than likely not.

Matt Peiken: What do you mean more than likely? You never heard? You just suspect? 

Chris Jehly: I think I had a pretty good idea that they didn't, so just wouldn't necessarily talk about it so much. And I think there would be times, why don't you paint a landscape? Why don't you paint such and such's barn? And at that time, hell no, I'm not doing that, why don't you paint 

Matt Peiken: this person's barn? Yeah I know that's a thing, but that's funny that your parents would say that's a more honorable pursuit.

Chris Jehly: Yeah or like, why don't do this, that, or the other, and it's no I'm doing this other thing, and So I would say like definitely yes, but I think they've definitely seen the trials and tribulations of what art making is and how it operates.

And I think they were more concerned, maybe can I live on it or not, et cetera. 

Matt Peiken: Yeah. Is this your first solo show since you've been in Asheville? 

Chris Jehly: This is the first solo show I've had in Asheville and, to my knowledge, I think being in a designated gallery space.

Matt Peiken: So this is your first real solo show. 

Chris Jehly: Yeah. And it's with work that I had no anticipation of ever showing. When I started making watercolors, it was more like, I need something to do when I go camping. And then all of a sudden, it just oh, I get to be outside more, I get to be outside more, I get to interact with. 

Matt Peiken: You had no inclination to show this work. How did Mira Gerard find you and find this work? 

Chris Jehly: I think I found out that she had been following me on Instagram for quite some time.

And I had no idea, but I had been to about four or five shows here since back Moving here to Asheville and I knew immediately I would love to show some work here and it just it just happened. I didn't pursue it in any way, shape or form. And Just manifested on its own.

Matt Peiken: You didn't intend for this work to be shown. It all captures moments in time. Do you know where your moments in time are taking you artistically? Where is your artwork headed? 

Chris Jehly: That's what I don't know. And I like not knowing just like making a graffiti piece out of nothing, just like the paintings never had sketches.

It would start with one particular thing that would then grow into something else that had more a kinship to printmaking or even collage mentality than actual start to finish painting. And these still operate in that sort of same way.

I'm doing one larger studio watercolor right now. The idea is that I'm want to go larger and see where that sort of goes. And then I don't know. I think that's the next step is if I go bigger, then what does that mean for the imagery itself and how I react to that environment. 

Matt Peiken: Are your parents coming in for this show? 

Chris Jehly: I don't believe my parents are going to be coming in for the show, but I think that I'll be sending them some photographs and videos and stuff like that.

Matt Peiken: I was just asking about your parents because it would be a like a real validation Look, look mom. Look dad. Look what's arrived. Look what I've done. 

Chris Jehly: I think the last show that they actually went to See was my graduate school when I was graduating Columbia.

Matt Peiken: The work has changed a lot since then.

Chris Jehly: Yeah, so it's constantly evolving and don't know, I guess I'm just excited to see where it takes me, but having no anticipations, less roadblocks.

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