Kelly Chorpening—artist, writer and educator, now the Chair of Art, Art History and Design at UNR—came to Reno from London in 2022. An exhibition of her drawings, Art of Looking, is currently on display at the Tahoe Gallery at UNR at Lake Tahoe. I talked to Chorpening about the show, and the way her new environment here has influenced her perception and her work. Moving from the intensely urban setting of London has allowed for encounters with “nature” that are also—ironically if inevitably—encounters with trash.
“I don’t think it’s a big surprise to be aware of environmental issues more now that I’m out of the city and in the countryside and apparently in the ‘wilderness,'” she said. “It doesn’t take a lot of looking to find a lot of trash—and to feel a kind of heightened awareness. It’s sitting side by side with everything in the landscape—and in our bloodstreams.”
These impressions are surfaced in her drawing “Old friends and plastic,” made in Nevada this past summer. It’s a drawing of an assemblage of two bits of wood (one probably an abbreviated branch, the other looking like a piece of a trunk that had split off), a coiled strip of paper with a graphite line running down its middle, as though it had been used to test the darkness of a pencil lead, and a ribbon of red plastic, attenuated down to a snaking thread at one end where it had presumably been torn off, stretching and compressing the way plastic does when it’s stressed past the point of integrity. All of it has been worked over with painstaking care.
The branch is shot through with lengthwise cracks, with subtle flaking-off layers, as if caught in the act of shedding its skin. The trunk fragment is defined by exposed grain, stripped of bark, giving the impression that driftwood sometimes does of being flayed—the sweep and swoop of layers like the striated musculature of a frozen wave. The strips of paper and plastic coil or curve over the wood, luxuriating in their decorative gravity. The strip of paper recursively uses smears of graphite to illustrate smears of graphite. The strip of plastic has been rendered solely using red pencil, in contrast to the grey graphite employed in the rest of the drawing. The wrinkled, synthetic shimmer registers as a kind of shock to the drawing—a lightning bolt from some other sky.
Chorpening fashioned this still life out of what was readily available to her: “That drawing came after a really kind of uncomfortable period of not having time to make work, and I didn’t want to overcomplicate it,” she said. “It’s hard when you’ve had a gap. You can think ‘What’s the right thing to be doing right now?’ And instead I just decided to do something really plainly obvious. I’m going to go for a walk, look around, see what’s on the ground, collect a few things and make a drawing because I miss drawing. And those objects become a vehicle to simply enjoy the process of making the drawing.”
Simplicity as an entry point into complication is something of a method in her work. “I’m always interested in ideas that aren’t that sophisticated, but it’s in how you execute the interpretation of that slightly stupid idea they become profound.”
Making a drawing of an ordinary thing, with a genuine sense of fidelity—a kind of pledge to reality—becomes complicated very quickly. “I’m interested in all the fantasy, that everyday world of images that people live in. … I was re-reading an article yesterday, saying that we’re already in the metaverse. It didn’t need to be invented by Facebook. The insistence upon looking at something that’s right in front of your eyes and not applying any fantasy to it whatsoever—just trying to look at it for a really long time—is something kind of radical that I’m trying to hold on to. In contrast to the metaverse that we’re living in, where everyone in Walmart is in Halloween costumes starting October 1st, filling the shelves with Christmas things. It’s just like—come on people, be in the moment!”
An earlier set of drawings, begun in London, is built around a series of textual suggestions or commands. Brief words—“Look,” “Read,” “See”—are made out of, or inscribed upon, intensely textured and tactile materials. “Read,” for instance, assembles its four letters from rocks and bits of wood, arranged like the rudiments of an alphabet (chalk marks on the surfaces help transmute the forms into font). There’s a tension in the drawing between the material reality of the world, and our impulse to convert it into reproducible signs—the way language can flatten out the world, pare down its infinitude of detail into a manageable luggage of thought. A mountainside filled with trees is a pleasure to behold—but if we were compelled to account for every single tree, and every branch on every tree, and every needle on every branch, our mind would unwind itself.
These drawings are rooted partly in Chorpening’s experience of Covid in the UK. The words written in the road to direct one’s safe crossing of the street seemed more weighted to her then: “We were being told what to do in every respect, and then we looked down and it says, ‘look right.’” Public signage became suffused with notions of influence, safety, persuasion, obedience and order.
The shift from London to a place that operates on a much smaller scale has been profound, but Chorpening is alert to significances that can be found in the margins, off from the centers of attention and power. “I keep saying to people who are apologetic about being in a small place that I think the ‘art world,’ whatever that is—certainly the commercially driven art world—is just mirroring the gross inequities in society.”
And issues of power are hardly invisible here: “I’ve come to Nevada, I now understand that the green light has been given to create a lithium mine in Thacker Pass on Indigenous land, and everybody’s celebrating it as a great move for green energy. And it’s astonishing to be aware of how much water will have to be pumped to do that mining. It doesn’t feel like a victory at all. What artists could tell that story?
“Reality might start driving art, in terms of who’s commenting on the most pertinent issues in the world today. The biggest lithium mine in North America being in Northern Nevada—this should be the center of the universe right now, in some respects, of debates about what are we going to do. There’s an inferiority complex when you’re in a smaller place, and I’m trying to say if you could talk about these things with real confidence—it’s important.”
Important as a flag of red plastic snagged in the brush by the side of a trail.
Kelly Chorpening’s solo exhibition, Art of Looking is on view in the Tahoe Gallery in the Prim Library at UNR at Lake Tahoe in Incline Village through Nov. 27. The reception will be at 5 p.m. Oct. 19 with an artists talk at 5:30.
Images courtesy of Kelly Chorpening