Melissa Chandon | Mid-Century Memories

By Virginia Campbell


The subject matter of Melissa Chandon’s paintings is so distinctive that people who know her work often e-mail photographs to her and say, “This is a Melissa Chandon painting.” Those photographs are inevitably of stark, brightly lit buildings or vehicles in a spare landscape with a mid-20th century American look to them. If the photos include any people, it’s only by accident, because Chandon enthusiasts know perfectly well that not a single figure is going to show up in a Chandon painting.

The absence of the human figure in her paintings does not mean that her work lacks human feeling. In fact, when you hear the artist describe how she chose the structure that resulted in her 2007 painting CALISTOGA BUILDING, you begin to understand how animated her unpeopled, painted world is. “It was a small, innocuous building,” she recalls. “There was lots of other stuff around it, but still it was sitting by itself picking up its own energy. It was simple, understated, and it had a flat roofline, like it was wearing a hat.”

Once a potential subject has grabbed Chandon’s eye, its “energy” begins translating itself into as minimal an image as possible (“I see how little I can include,” the artist explains of her work), and it takes on a color intensity that both is and isn’t of the natural world. The sky is blue and the grass is green, but the hues are skewed.


Chandon’s minimalism and sophisticated color language are what make her simple subject matter suddenly complex and seductive. They are also what justify her own term for her style: “abstract realism.” You’d think these qualities, which are not uncommon in painting, would combine to create an emotional remove, a way of commenting, with irony, perhaps, or some other primarily intellectual attitude, on the subject in the paintings. But Chandon’s paintings are oddly full of heart, and, strangest of all, downright optimistic—about painting, about life, and even about the people who aren’t in them.

“People see Edward Hopper in my work, and they seem to think the paintings are about loneliness and desolation,” says Chandon. “But I’m not at all lonely.”

Chandon paintings make a statement about the American landscapes from which she draws her microcosmic imagery. “In the ’70s,” says the artist of the years when she first painted, “art seemed to be confrontational about everything. I felt I didn’t have anything like that to say as a painter. But a couple of years ago I had a major shift in vision, a desire to paint pictures that encourage people to think about where we come from. I wanted to document the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s in a way that made people want to think about what we’re doing now, what we’re building.”

If Chandon’s surface similarities to Hopper are not directed toward depicting psychological dislocation, they are still a strategy for persuading people that the rampant destruction of the recent past is a contemporary menace. The persuasion, however, is of the gentlest sort. It operates by investing emblems of the past—a factory, a VW bus, an old-fashioned gas pump—with a surreal beauty by singling them out and bathing them in the imaginary light of dream and memory. The paintings are too disciplined to be expressions of mere nostalgia, but they express affection and hope for vanishing shapes and the life they signify. “There can be a dialogue about iconic images,” Chandon observes. She leaves human beings out of the paintings so that the things she puts into them can invoke in the observer all the more human feeling.

Chandon grew up in mid-century America and traversed a good piece of it as her father, an engineer, moved from one project to another with family in tow. The oldest of five, Chandon was born in Biloxi, MS, and grew up in various parts of the Southwest, Northern California, and Minnesota. “Because there were seven of us, we carried our emotional support system with us,’” recalls Chandon. “My father was an inspirational man, and my mother was artistic and very supportive. They had met and fallen in love when they were 15 and 16, and were together until my father died 11 years ago. They loved their children and were there for us, and they gave us a lot of self-confidence.”

Some of Chandon’s strongest impressions from her childhood came from the landscape of Northern California, where her grandparents on both sides owned farms. Even stronger, perhaps, were images that she gathered from road trips that her parents took their children on in the various regions where they lived. In Chandon’s paintings you can detect a hint of the freshness of a future painter’s eye taking in the outlines of new things viewed from a car window.

“I knew from the age of three that I wanted to be a painter,” says Chandon. “There’s a photograph of me at that age standing in front of my own easel.” She began looking at art at an early age. “I always had a secret desire to live inside a painting. A Manet, or better, a Matisse,” she says. “Although my family was always supportive, it takes someone from outside your family who stops and says, ‘Wow, I love your art’ to give you real encouragement. For me that happened in freshman year of high school, when my art teacher took me aside and told me I had talent. I was stunned, and it meant a lot. It was a pivotal point.”

Chandon entered the University of Minnesota with the idea of pursuing art but found the school was too big and overwhelming. She switched to the State University of New York at Purchase to put her near the New York art world, where she could visit museums and galleries. Ultimately the best learning environment for her turned out to be back in California at a private Jesuit college, Santa Clara University, where she received a lot of attention and encouragement.

The young painter’s thriving art education came to an end when she became pregnant and decided she would have the baby and give it up for adoption, taking an instrumental role in choosing the family who would raise her child. “I had no idea how difficult that would be,” says Chandon. “It remains the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Not long after giving up her daughter, Chandon married and had another little girl. Then, in a second marriage, she set out deliberately to adopt the child of a young woman very much like the young woman she had been, and she became the mother of a baby boy.

From 1975 to 1995, Chandon did not paint. Her creativity went into raising her children, organic farming, and designing her family’s homes and gardens. “Then,” recalls the artist, “I woke up one day and decided I was going to paint again. I went out and bought several large canvases and set up a studio and began painting with no hesitation.” Two years later, a friend encouraged her to come along to a gallery and bring some paintings to show the owner. The gallery owner was impressed with her work, but ultimately he was of even greater value when he gave her advice on how to approach the painter she dreamed of studying with.

Born in 1920, Wayne Thiebaud had ascended to influential prominence painting images drawn from popular culture—confections like cakes, ice cream cones, pieces of pie, and gumball machines. This was well before the emergence of pop art and its manufactured, graphic style. Thiebaud rendered these images with vivid brushwork; his dark blue shadows on white icing recalled Hopper’s darkened eaves, and his lusciously painted still lifes carried a beautiful gravity that played against the frivolous nature of the subject matter.

Chandon loved Thiebaud’s work, and he was nearby, teaching at the University of California at Davis. “But I had no idea how to approach him,” remembers Chandon. “The gallery owner told me to dress up nicely, find out when he was teaching his class, go up to him after class and introduce myself as a painter and fan of his work.” Thiebaud graciously invited Chandon to sit in on his classes, and she ended up becoming one of the few apprentices Thiebaud takes on and devotes special energy to teaching.

“He is an honest, smart, and generous painter,” says Chandon. “He describes the thought process as well as the painting process. He shows you his process—as an apprentice you take turns painting with him on the same painting—and gives a phenomenal amount of himself. He stresses that the idea for a painting happens before you go to the canvas, and he sees painting as a way to live in the moment and enjoy the process. His critiques give you truly good, real advice.”

As important as anything else Thiebaud taught Chandon was his encouragement. “He told me that most people give up in five years, that they don’t have the tenacity and burning passion,” she says. “He presented a challenge to me, and he explained that you have to do it yourself—in your own head.”

Chandon had originally learned traditional oil painting methods, largely the Rubens school in which one begins with a wash of burnt sienna and raw umber. She worked in various genres. But about 10 years ago, as her direction became clear and she started to paint subject matter similar to what she does now, she decided brown wasn’t working for her and began to experiment. “I tried orange and a yellow, but I came to like the blatant artifice of fire-engine red. I went to the hardware store and bought red latex paint and started putting down three layers. Then I’d work out the composition with cadmium yellow, ultramarine blue, and white.”

This remains Chandon’s working method, and it is a particularly effective joining of means and ends. The red underpainting gives her canvases depth and supports a palette that feels as if it exists in a parallel universe. With red underlying everything like a lifeblood (“It tweaks the intensity of the colors and unifies them,” she explains), the act of painting shows through her surfaces and, complemented by imperfect geometry, keeps her work non-pop. Thiebaud’s still lifes of cakes in a row can take on the grandness of houses in a landscape; Chandon paints a solitary building in a landscape as if it’s a still life. Like Thiebaud’s, her painting reflects a life of looking at advertising and graphic art, but never smirks at it. Quite the opposite, it pays tribute to the power of graphic art to abstract from the chaos of imagery and to arouse feeling. The personal palette and human touch give her imagery a timelessness that necessarily bestows a degree of grandness, even to a VW bus or a gas station.

Chandon’s studio in the industrial warehouse district of Davis sits within easy hearing distance of train whistles and across the street from an old bakery that makes fresh cinnamon buns every morning. It would be hard to imagine a better working environment for creating pictures of mid-century icons. Her schooling as an apprentice of Thiebaud’s has by now more than compensated for the 20-year delay in her painting career, and her studio reflects the progress. “I feel like I’ve been on a rocket for the last year and a half,” she says. “And I owe that to Wayne Thiebaud.”

Featured in May 2008