Chaz Guest returns to New York with a show featuring Michael K. Williams

Figurative painter Chaz Guest has fans in high places. Collectors of his work include the Obamas – who displayed his portrait of Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice, at the White House – and Oprah Winfrey.

Angelina Jolie, a friend who also owns her job, was eager to share her thoughts on Guest. “His work conveys such a depth of emotion,” she said in an email. “It’s masculine and moving, and all the more inspiring because it’s entirely self-taught.”

But the artist, who is based in Los Angeles, hasn’t had a solo show in New York for more than 25 years, a streak interrupted by the current show at Vito Schnabel Gallery, “Memories of Warriors.” On view until March 19. .

Returning to downtown Manhattan – as a young man he lived in SoHo, not too far from Schnabel’s gallery, and taught himself to paint – is a personal step.

“I feel like this is where I can take a deep breath and start my life at 60,” said Guest, sitting in the gallery and surrounded by the works the first time he saw them hung together. Japanophile who has traveled extensively in this country, he was dressed in a kimono as usual – he paints in one too.

The eight works, mainly battle scenes and portraits animated by thickly painted flat tints, are based on a palette of black, a gray-blue and a dirty orange, colors that Guest imagines and mixes himself, avoiding usually assistants. They represent the Buffalo Soldiers, the all-black U.S. Army regiments that served on the Western Frontier after the Civil War and got their nickname from the native tribes they frequently fought against. That two marginalized groups clashed, Guest said, was a painful irony for him.

For some high-profile TV fans, part of the show’s thrill may be that the role model for the characters in the works was the much-mourned, Emmy-nominated actor Michael K. Williams, most famous for his role. of Omar in “The Wire”. who sat for Guest in late August and died about two weeks later of an overdose. (On Wednesday, Manhattan authorities announced the arrest of four men accused of selling heroin containing fentanyl to Williams.)

Guest’s interest in the Buffalo Soldiers also led him to create a graphic novel about a superhero called Buffalo Warrior; the rights to the character have been acquired by Meridian Pictures and a film is in development.

The seed for the series was planted eight years ago, when one of his two sons was 10 and frustrated that a store was running out of his favorite action figures. The guest recalled, “He asked me, ‘Why don’t you make a superhero, daddy? “”

The guest added, “Now I have a mission not just for young African American boys, but for all Americans, to truly understand one race of people, African Americans.” Despite slavery, Jim Crow laws and the wide span of US history, black people “not only survived, but did well,” he said.

Big statements from the heart come naturally to Guest. “I’m a very intense person,” he said.

As fellow Los Angeles painter Henry Taylor said, “He goes all out.” Taylor recently painted a portrait of a bespectacled Guest, and he adds that Guest’s early stints doing illustrations gave him a crucial drawing grounding. “When you do that, you get chops,” Taylor said.

The popularity of Guest’s works, whose price in the gallery exhibition ranges from $50,000 to $120,000, reflects some of the currents in the contemporary art scene. Beth Rudin DeWoody, an avid collector who created The Bunker Artspace in West Palm Beach, Florida to display some of her treasure, owns four works by Guest.

“Things are going back to figurative art after everyone’s done abstract work,” DeWoody said. “You’re seeing a lot of great stories right now, especially from African and African American artists.”

Ksenya Gurshtein, curator of modern and contemporary art at Wichita State University’s Ulrich Museum of Art, said the museum’s board is considering approving the donation of a guest painting, which it says she would enrich the institution.

“There’s a big demand now for figurative works that tell underrepresented stories,” she said.

In Gurshtein’s opinion, the purely emotional nature of the works – a far cry from the cool, conceptual trend of some contemporary art – is a plus. “He’s shamelessly trying to bring out those big feelings,” she said.

Franklin Sirmans, director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami, agreed. “There’s a heroism and a romanticism to his expressionism that many of us in the art world sometimes like to avoid,” said Sirmans, who has known Guest for more than a decade.

He added that given his star-studded collector base, Guest “didn’t need the art world to tell him he’s a celebrity.”

Born in Niagara Falls, NY, and raised there until the family moved to Philadelphia when he was 10, Guest was a college gymnast at Southern Connecticut State University.

“I really didn’t know how to find my life after gymnastics,” he said. “But I knew it was going to be in the arts. And I imagined being a fashion designer. Guest tried out the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, but said he “didn’t have what it takes.”

A chance encounter with fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez led him to try his hand at this field, eventually settling in Paris and illustrating the cover of Joyce magazine. He met designer Christian Lacroix, who admired his covers. “We just connected,” Guest said. “He thought I had talent, but he suggested I start painting.”

By 1988 Guest was back in New York and, following Lacroix’s advice, purchasing materials from Pearl Paint like many aspiring painters before him. Doing illustrations to earn money when needed was Guest’s favorite way to survive.

“I had one job in my life, for a day, as a busboy,” he recalls, admitting he wasn’t sure what the job entailed at first. “They fired me. They asked me to clean the table and I said, “Damn no”.

By the mid-90s, Guest was selling his art and showing it, but he moved to Los Angeles after the birth of his first son. The relationships he developed over the years eventually led him to meet Williams, who visited the studio and saw Guest’s artwork of the Buffalo Warrior character.

The guest recalled, “He said, ‘Man, can I be in this movie somehow? And so I said, ‘Well, maybe I can paint you and see where this all falls.'”

When Williams returned to sit for Guest, the session had its awkward moments. “He started using the N-word,” Guest said. “And I said, ‘Michael, you can’t use that word in my studio. You can look around and see how much I love our ancestors. It’s insulting to me.

This brought Williams to tears and he issued an apology. The two bonded, later having a video call with Williams’ elderly mother. Guest marveled at the “innocence, the pain, the beauty” of Williams’ face, which he tried to convey most notably in the close-up portrait “Michael K. Soldier” (2021).

The loss of Williams added a layer of grief to Guest’s works and gave the show’s title a double meaning. Guest said he didn’t know Williams was struggling with addiction: “I was shocked to hear that. That’s the other reason why the name of this exhibit is ‘Memories of Warriors,’ because he waged the War on Drugs.”

memories of warriors

Until March 19, Vito Schnabel Gallery, 43 Clarkson Street, Manhattan; 646-386-2246; vitoschnabel.com.

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