Impact Zone

Breaking everything with Fritz Chesnut.

Light / Dark

While racing a Venice Beach closeout in 2016, artist Fritz Chesnut—a seasoned surfer raised on the pointbreaks of Santa Barbara—dove off the front  of his board and bashed his skull into a shallow sandbar.  His neck broke. 

Dazed but conscious, he pulled himself together, got to a lifeguard tower, and blacked out. He was swiftly transported to a hospital in Marina del Rey, where the final diagnosis was made: fractures in both the first and second vertebrae of the cervical spine. 

Chesnut was lucid, comfortable, and weirdly calm. His wife, when she arrived, was shaken and frantic. In a turn that the couple found both bizarre and hilarious, the attending nurse, there to deliver the diagnosis, lost her cool completely and became hysterical. Through a fit of tears, she shared the news about the smashed bones. An odd moment: Miraculously, Chesnut’s fractures were of a compressive nature. Though there was some nerve damage and he was unmistakably in deep shit, he was stable and his future looked stiff and bruisey, not paralyzed. 

Fast-forward to 2023. Chesnut and I are talking in his LA studio about the process of a type of anti-painting that he’s currently investigating. This enduring effort is another stark break for him. There was a time when he was making photorealistic oil paintings—expertly copying pictures he’d taken of ecstatic faces in game-show audiences and other crowds where some type of euphoric epiphany was manifesting. This while living in New York City, fresh from graduate school and aware of the budding Brooklyn surf scene, but avoiding it in order to stay focused on the workings of the downtown art world. 

Those early paintings—staid, traditional, accurate—were made the old-fashioned way. It’s easy to imagine nice brushes, fancy European paint tubes, linseed oil, and the quiet, dutiful rendering that photo-precise content demands. In some measure, his conceptual focus at the time was indeed a search for transcendent sublimity, albeit on the faces of strangers. But the format and the process itself were contained, and containing.

The notion of transcendent euphoria would remain in his practice, but the exhaustive labor of those paintings wore him out. Fissures in his routine outside the studio started materializing too, with an awakening to the passionate surf community taking shape in the boroughs. Before long, Chesnut got to know the vibrant scene of greater NYC and witnessed the fitful perfection of Rockaway barrels. Though he maintains a deep affection for that community and its surf, a bigger rupture—in both his work and his bones—was coming when he and his young family moved to Los Angeles.

The notion of the anti-painting painting, as it arises in my studio conversation with Chesnut, has a complex associative potential. Obviously, gone are the brushes, the easels, the linseed oil. Gone is the picture: no faces, no drawing, no identifiable content. Gone is the traditional methodology and expectation of painting. All of those ties are broken. 

Looking around the studio, most of the tools Chesnut uses for his work are meant for home construction. He’s got various grout combs, for example—and while they’re designed to level and striate tiling paste, here they are employed to cut grooves through skeins of soggy house paint. Clearly, Chesnut’s new work has required alternative instruments. 

In 1917, French artist Marcel Duchamp shook the world when he began destroying the limitations of what art could be by presenting ordinary objects—a drying rack and, most famously, a urinal (an actual urinal, not a sculpture of a urinal)—for exhibition. These offensives changed art construction forever. Employing ready-made objects for art-making became key to redefining what an art product might look like, and what the process of making it could be. 

These lessons are not lost on Chesnut. His rejection of traditional painting techniques smacks of it. His strategies for work are decidedly ambitious and opposite the conventional formulae for canvas painting. He breaks everything  in sight. 

Many of the paintings look touchless somehow and present like artifacts jettisoned from an explosion. It’s hard to trace the presence of the hand in much of the work, since what is left behind looks more like overlapping dried stains—or discovered panels, where generations of watery sediment have collected. 

The canvases are square and rectangular, but the compositions seem almost arbitrary and antithetical to the organized reading another painter would labor to make clear. Put frankly, these paintings look accidental instead of intentional. Some pictures do indeed have obvious evidence of the hand—grids, lines, angles, elements typifying human control over nature—but inevitably these tactics are gleefully undermined as the grids and lines begin to flutter, crack, and separate, like calving ice floes. 

NIGHT SWIMMING, 2020, acrylic and enamel on canvas  over panel, 20 × 16 inches 

Chesnut is really deep into process. A barren canvas gets a pour of house paint. He’ll then take hold of its edge and lift it gently, making the paint lurch, smear, and run to the opposite side. A shake here and there, another pour, more wiggling, and organic shapes emerge, fusing cells. A layer of cakey paint is notch-troweled over a lake of wet underpainting and shot from the side with aerosol black enamel. The thick paint splits along the lines carved by the trowel and the dusting of spray paint catches the relief of the material, like ash blown onto a snowdrift. 

It’s a messy, calamitous type of dance. The work is intentional, cruel, and permissive. Images that would come into focus as having a type of canonical modernist logic are fleeting and sometimes welcome, sometimes not, and the carnage goes on. Death and rebirth all over the place. It’s a tricky act, bordering on the hapless languor of Sisyphus. Make, destroy, repeat. Break, fix, break, repeat. Many of these actions occur above the canvas, not on the canvas, where gravity has now become the arbiter of composition. 

Using a ready-made sheet of Home Depot pegboard as a type of industrial sieve, Chesnut sends paint through the holes to drop to the canvas below. The physics of the body engagement and the dance above the canvas, with no brush or other point of contact, is reminiscent of Jackson Pollock, the first major American artist to open this line of inquiry when he famously poured his paint onto raw cotton duck canvas spread across a barn floor. Working in the liminal space between thought, expression, artifact, and medium, this act of dancing with the slush beneath is deeply poetic and personal. It is also familiar to us because it’s surfing. Where else is the act of engagement so dire, ephemeral, and fleeting? I can’t help but wonder if it all isn’t related to that terrible smack against the bottom: the crack-flash of the universe behind the eyes. On a molecular level, water is the ultimate generator and defiler of the work. Chesnut is there too, of course, trowel and spray can in hand, but he positions himself as both a director of and an observer to the process. On a deeper, intuitive level, the paintings are subtly cued to the mind of a surfer. 

Surfers stare at waves. Our eyes are spectacularly trained to investigate the ocean from shore, from trough, from beneath the surface, from above by cliff or drone or helicopter, by satellite even. Always looking, always exploring. Our ocular relationship with the sea blends science and faith, examining the movement and the forces at play for something closer to a relationship than an understanding. Films of blood cells pulsing with energy and scurrying down venous pathways look weirdly similar to visions of meteorological events shot from space. There’s a type of choreographed similitude going on in the micro and the macroscopic views of the natural world. Patterns of hurricanes swirling, or sea currents nuzzling, resemble the flow of peptides through arteries. Everywhere is the crashing ebb and flow of forces knocking against each other and responding, mixing, separating, and combining. 

Painting as an act is weirdly first and third person: You “work” the materials around on the canvas with a determination that is linear and constructive while, at the same time, the brain is busy rushing ahead to an unknown destination, creating and erasing the maps to this place of achievement. In Chesnut’s hands, the buildup of the material is doomed from the outset. He corrals his pictures to recognizable ends: grids, blocks, lines, and common geometry. It feels organized and familiar—then the water comes in terms both physical and psychological. 

By flooding his picture plane, Chesnut deploys a tsunami upon the tender acreage he’s composed. As surfers, the effect that water has on us is the whole story. It’s no coincidence that many of his paintings appear to have a topographical quality. Topography is carved and determined—designed, really—by the effect of water on land: where it runs, where it evaporates, and where it collects. Chesnut’s singular paintings often seem to tell a similar,  if hastened, evolutionary story. 

Perfectly titled, Expanding Frame (2021) presents a dense lattice of vertical white lines traversing a black field from top to bottom. This would be a striped painting: white bars on a black field. But somewhere in the middle, things get weird. The white lines lose traction on their way across the black ground and start to swerve. 

As they bend, they get bunched up and closer together. Consequently, their shape and proximity has the visual effect of defining contour and movement. Peter Saville’s iconic cover design for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures comes to mind as the painting begins to suggest a type of graph. Of brain waves? Of lies recorded to a polygraph machine? Admired as a horizontal picture, winter swells approaching Ocean Beach, San Francisco, immediately spring into view. 

CLOSER, 2019, acrylic and enamel on canvas, 60 × 48 inches

Despite the modest two colors (black and white) and one visual device (lines), the painting is rich with content.  In addition to the organic wavelengths they suggest, the lines also function as a type of framing device for the black ground of the underpainting. When the white lines bend and tweak, however, their framing control fumbles and they begin to look like prison bars pried open. Like the fleeing prisoner, the eye wanders through the gaps and into the painting’s expanded landscape. 

Another piece, Spit Rocker (2021), could be the view  behind your eyes when you close them, mid–duck dive, and feel the entire weight of the sea detonate across your shoulders. It’s a vision of simultaneous bliss and horror, the Big Bang of collision, birthing form. The painting has a tumbling mass and swirl of colors that are vaguely biomorphic. Like lava barfing into the sea, the picture suggests fluid articulation—of things about to congeal into stark permanence. 

Meanwhile, in Closer (2019), two billowing and shadowy forms commingle sensually, but with some measure of implicit violence. Both forms are gridded with small, circular shapes suggestive of pores, of eyes, of some type of armor.  At the top and bottom edges of the canvas, the circles organize into a tight crossword-style matrix, while in the center of the picture, the circles arc and wander. The painting is somehow detaching itself, becoming aloft like air rushing into the expanding folds of a parachute. 

Installation view of TEST PATTERNS, There-There Gallery,  Los Angeles, 2019 

Looked at differently, one might read the small circles as data points on a vast map, perhaps even the satellite markers of deep-sea buoys measuring fetch and swell at Cape Horn. The two great bodies of the Pacific and Atlantic collide like sumos, becoming, momentarily, one muscling convulsion. 

Chesnut’s studio, with its trowels and buckets, is a kind of deconstruction site where paintings are simultaneously massaged and massacred into and out of existence. The whole process, dense with rigor, focus, and professional zeal, is precisely the chaos-herding surfers crave. Preparation is all around him in both pursuits: tuned boards, stretched canvases, clean leashes, and focused track lights. Everything is ready, the mind and body prepared and thrilling for the next leap into the void. 

 [Feature Image by Blake Jacobsen]