Oil Painting: Chantal Wnuk’s life inspires her use of the human body to create visual art
by Angelica Smith-Williams, Professional Writing Intern at Urban Arts Space
Chantal Wnuk is one of the artists from this year’s Ohio State Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Thesis Cohort featured in Big Cloud at Urban Arts Space from February 14–March 18, 2023.
- What inspired your creative choice to have your art be centered on the human body?
I use the gestures, scale, and density of the figures in my paintings to translate the simultaneous weakness and power that I feel in my body every day. I have a lifelong illness, its diagnosis and treatment act as a constant pressure or gravity on my body and mind. In the paintings, however, the more the body is pushed, crunched, or bent, the bigger it can be.
- How did you decide on the poses these figures are taking?
The slumped or bent-over pose originated from a series of monotype prints—a process that I have been using as an alternative drawing method in my practice for the past year. Through repetition of this gesture, I noticed that just a slight change in the position of a foot or the tension of an arm could drastically shift the figure's body language. One would seem strong and sturdy like a football player; the next would feel dejected or melancholy; and another would look as if she was being pulled into the sky by a cosmic force. The pose often alludes to a determination to move forward and show strength but the persistent inability to get up and move freely—a visualization that mirrors my experience of advanced cancer.
- What significance do these backgrounds have to your artwork? Is there a certain place that influenced the backgrounds of these figures?
The sun, moon, and environment are symbols, a reflection of passing time, and a source of color schemes and light. Some symbols are quite cheesy: a sunset as an ending or a bright sky as hopeful. In the monotype prints, the sun/moon bounces around, hinting at a consistency of the bent-over feeling. In the paintings, the celestial body acts more like a ping-pong ball or a lightbulb. The sun/moon interacts with the figures closely as they’re held within the crook of an arm or act as the focus of a determined gaze. In all my work, the boundary between the figure and the environment is porous: the atmosphere soaks into the skin, the water makes hands or feet more transparent, or the light shifts the opacity of the skin.
I grew up near the Gulf of Mexico in Houston and lived in San Diego for many years. Prior works relied solely on my current environment, and I fully thought moving to Ohio would result in more gray or pastoral scenes. After my diagnosis, however, remembered ocean locations became an important tool for processing trauma and manipulating the perceived scale of the body.
- What inspired these pieces to go in this direction? Is there any artist you admire or who influences your artwork?
All the work is in response to my relatively new identity as a cancer patient. I love painting and art history, however, and mine images of pain or bizarre bodies from bleeding Medieval statues, Baroque paintings of angels that look like they’re made of concrete, and distortions of German Expressionism.
- What’s your favorite music genre/artist/playlist?
I make rotating and wide-ranging playlists that I pair with ’90s comfort tunes, like Third Eye Blind.
- What’s the best thing about the Columbus art scene right now?
It’s accessible in size and support but still has variety. Small artist-run spaces like Dream Clinic paired with a commercial gallery like No Place brings in artists from outside of Columbus. The Wexner Center for the Arts is an incredible space with exciting exhibitions and programming. Going to film screenings at The Wex has been one of my favorite parts of living here.
- If there is anything else that is important to know about you or your work?
I love using paint as a material and really try to push what the oil can do on the surface of each canvas. The paint application is inherently tied to the concepts of the works and is so much better in person. If you come to the show, I invite you to get close and enjoy the painted surface as well as the overall imagery.
Big Cloud offers an inspiring look at a diverse group of emerging artists from The Ohio State University Department of Art. See the exhibition at Urban Arts Space from February 14–March 18, 2023.