The Dividing Line

Worldwide Protesting Culture in the Art of Lisa Chandler

An extensive and concentrated series of paintings around the subject of civil protest is the outcome of two year's work by painter Lisa Chandler. Monumental paintings and miniatures on canvas, employing various materials, collages and the newly adopted technique of trace monoprint determine this both visual attracting, outstand­ing and sociocritical oeuvre. In the monumental painting The Language of the Un­heard, painted in 2018 in Leipzig, we see an enormous battle – the battle between light and darkness, between hope and despair, between peaceful protesters and armed policemen in full protective gear. In its intensity, in its accumulation of bodies and through strong formal structures as clear diagonals, the battle painting reminds one of Picasso's Guernica(1937). In contrast to the Spanish painter, Chandler separates the two sides clearly from each other through the use of colour and the dynamics be­tween bright and dark. While we see in Picasso's masterpiece we see only the victims and their suffering, Chandler shows both sides. In her position, Picasso's light bring­ing woman formally corresponds with Chandler's policeman in the foreground.

In the structure of her picture and its genesis, Chandler worked with a detailed intel­lectual plan in mind in order to enforce the contrasts. Hate and despair are linked to chaos. While hate is defined by the feeling of intense dislike, extreme aversion and hostility, despair stands for the loss of hope. These two aspects may be united in the culminating words “welcome to hell”. In opposition, Chandler formulates the ingre­dients of hope, which are to believe, to look forward with desire, to hope for some­thing and to hold to the conviction, that events will turn out for the best. There is so much division in the world, rich and poor, blacks and whites, men and women, left and right, destruction/exploitation and protection, and, as said, hope and despair/hate, respectively. To pictorially describe these “dividing lines”, Chandler created a repeat­ing visual element of many strong diagonals and emphasized the contrast between bright and dark, black and white and the ambivalence between figuration and abstrac­tion. The diagonals consequently emerge in the form of riot sticks and shields, but also through abstract, not realistically definable elements, which reminds one of me­dieval lances in the paintings of battles by Paolo Uccello, for example.

Technically, The Language of the Unheard distinguishes itself by a totally abstract foundation, where the figures have been painted on top. Chandler works with differ­ent approaches in every painting. Sometimes she starts with the figures and creates the space around them, sometimes she paints the space first and then overpaints the figures in this space later, as described above. Generally, in her painting process she paints in a lot of details and then overpaints over and over again until she is happy with the result. Therefore, every painting contains many hidden, visible and shim­mering layers. This gives her paintings special meaningful depth and eye-catching, divergent surfaces.

The Bystander shows us a quite abstract painting, where we decipher a few figures – decipher, because they in part seem to be more hidden than visible. A standing man, possibly holding a smartphone and around him at least eight people lying on the floor. Motionless. Maybe severely wounded or even dead. We as viewers will not know, but The Bystander, obviously, is not interested in helping the victims directly. Maybe he calls for help, dialing the emergency number, or perhaps he just documents and photographs the injured persons, as it often happens nowadays. It seems, as if people struggle with the differentiation of reality and filmed reality on screen. The bystander as a gawper, who satisfies his curiosity?

In The Bystanderas well as in Five Minutes of FameChandler strongly refers to the French art of the 19 thcentury in a double way: formally and technically. In both paintings we see people lying dead or severely injured on the floor. This motif finds itself in a long art historical tradition of murdered victims, regardless of chronology and completeness, from Jean-Léon GérômesThe Death of Marshall Ney (1868), Edouard Manet's Civil War (1871),Guernica, to Jeff Wall's Citizen (1996), which does not necessarily show a dead person, but uses the same extreme perspective or worm-eye's perspective, respectively. Manet depict­ed a victim of the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune in a lithograph, while recurring on an earlier painting, his Dead Torero (1864/65). This again refers to Diego Velázquez' The Dead Soldier (1635–1640) and/or to an Italian painting from the 17 thcentury, too. This one looks very similar and is namedThe Dead Soldier (Orlando Muerto).1 Both latter paintings find themselves in the London National Gallery.

Why stress the link to French art of the 19 thcentury? This small, not very well known lithograph by Manet shows a scene from the Paris Commune in its last, lethal phase of the barricades. In its historical situation it may be compared to the contemporary protest­ing culture. In 1871 people in Paris took to the streets in order to found a radical so­cialist and revolutionary society. But the Paris Commune did not last long. It was suppressed by the government after only two months. During the “Bloody Week” in May 1871, barricades were built (too late). In the following days communards were cruelly massacred by the army. Hopefully and certainly, the outcome of protests nowadays will result in a peaceful modification of the global order towards more jus­tice, equality and environmental protection and towards open democracies.

Today, we have, again in France, the protest movement of the “Yellow Vests” (Gilets Jaunes) and so many other protests movements around the globe – against capitalism, neoliberalism and for more democracy, against sexism, racism, speciesism, for freedom, justice and (gender, financial) equality, and not to forget for the environment and especially the climate. Protests arise in recent years all over the world.2 Think of people like the then fifteen-year-old Swedish student and climate activist Greta Thunberg, who went for weeks on strike in front of the parliament. At the UN Climate Change Conference she said in December 2018: “We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past, and you will ignore us again. We have run out of ex­cuses, and we are running out of time. We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.“3 Thunberg raised awareness and generated other school strikes for the climate world­wide.

For her artworks, Chandler works with pictures from the media and the internet. However, she deliberately leaves the source and background of the depicted protest open. In her constantly developing art practice, Chandler recently became aware of trace monoprinting, a hybrid technique between printing (monotype) and drawing de­veloped by Paul Gauguin. The process creates a positive as well as a negative image. Chandler profits from both. The process has been described by Gauguin in March 1902 in a letter to his patron Gustave Fayet: “First you roll out printer’s ink on a sheet of paper of any sort; then lay a second sheet on top of it and draw whatever pleases you. The harder and thinner your pencil (as well as your paper), the finer will be the resulting line.”4 Lisa Chandler creates collages with the “leftovers”, with the recto of her prints respectively. The negative on brown baking paper will be pasted later as collage on paper. She employs a wide range of techniques, such as monoprint (on glass), the ghost print (second print), she scratches and cuts with a knife, uses a painter roll, pours and drips fluid acrylic on the canvas or paper, and even sprays in a graffiti manner, as is recognizable in the painting Five minutes of fame. But that is still not everything. It is not long ago that Chandler started creating her artworks with templates from a protest stencil toolkit bought online and this completes her visual language to depict the global protest movement.

Primarily, Chandler became aware of arising protest movements and therefore her new subject, through the history of Leipzig, her second city of residence and a small town in Eastern Germany. In 1989 Leipzig was the center of the peaceful revolution, which culminated in the reunification of Germany. In the last five years, protests have increased again. Worldwide. Recently “The Guardian” published an article, ti­tled: “We are living through a golden age of protest” and it described the enormous increase of protests since Donald Trump took office.5 Never before in American his­tory have so many and such large demonstrations taken place. Never. Never before. It's good! It's great! As Trump himself would put it into words, if it happened to concern another subject, of course! But what really matters: It can be proved in numbers. Women's rights (Women's March 2017 and 2018 with up to 4,600,000 participants the largest protest in US history), gun violence (March for Our Lives with up to two million participants), climate change and science (March for Science, estimated participants around one million), caused by Donald Trump administration's views on science and climate change … The increase in protests in the recent world becomes obvious through a quick Google search, where you find headlines such as “What are the meanings behind the worldwide rise in protests? What trends can we decipher when it comes to modern protests? Is there a pattern to the grievances that helps to explain the current spike in protest? (...)”6. Australia, France, Belgium … In January 2019 in India up to 200 million people took part at a two-day general strike to protest against their government and poor working conditions … In Germany, too, there were huge protests in recent times for the climate, against factory farming, against coal and for the protection of landscapes such as the Hambach Forrest. The worldwide school strikes “Friday for Future” took over and now mobilize thousands of students. Young people all over the world need to be really worried, what will their future look like.

From the beginning, Chandler always has been interested in people in urban spaces. How they change the space. This has been subject of her paintings for a number of years. In Leipzig in 2016 she accidentally got involved in a huge protest. When she entered “Kunsthalle G2” for a relaxed art opening one night, everything was quiet, but when she stepped back onto the street afterwards there was an enormous mass protest, armed policemen wore machine-guns and used pepper spray. This was a turning point in Chandler's perception of the world, of how urban space can change so quickly from everyday mundane experiences to something almost otherworldly and in her artistic career. Since then she focusses more and more on depicting “The Language of the Unheard”, the unheard, who move onto the streets and cry towards the people in power “Stop, Stop, Stop”! But Chandler constantly resists the temptation to paint pictures of a political direction of impact. She brings in an artistically convincing distance and with regard to contents a certain abstraction in her art by showing the protesting culture liberated from their concrete background. She stays true to her highly developed and recognizable visual artistic style, and does not allow her art to be used politically by any party.


© Dr. Sara Tröster Klemm, 2019