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Documents Northwest: C.T.Chew

Seattle Art Museum

April 1988

The Study of the Curious: The Art of C. T. Chew

by Patterson Sims

This survey of the art of C. T. Chew reviews his consistency, fecundity, and wit. The fifteen years of restless and expansive creativity gathered here have required a mastery of printmaking, painting, sculpture, drawing, installation, video, performance, and Xerox and computer technology. The multiple results of these explorations mix an irreverent and populist accessibility with erudite references to art history, science, and sociology. Chew's art is intended to be read as much as seen. Privately coded parody, pun-filled narratives, and characters and incidents worthy of Charles Dickens or Robertson Davies enliven his work. just as he now employs a personal computer with the facility and devotion of a Microsoft executive, Chew routinely adopts innovative means to realize his multifaceted ideas.


The son of research ecologists and a student of zoology until his mid-twenties, Chew has a strong predilection for cataloguing and classification. He has consistently created interlocking groups of works. These series range from his first print editions to a succession of simulated postage stamps to his recent production of rugs, embroidery, and wood carvings. Chew has chosen not to earn a living through teaching, grants, or reliance upon art galleries. Instead, as he develops each series, he also evolves innovative strategies for its distribution and sale.

Chew's prints of the early and mid-1970s are his first mature work. His training in printmaking at the University of Washington with the influential teacher Bill H. Ritchie provided a basis for exploratory collagraphs, which used Elmer's glue as a medium. One example, Red Message (1976), is an abstracted homage to the Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung (a figure Chew no longer considers a hero). The color Xerox print Video Faces (1976) commemorates a staged archaeological dig of the previous year, done near Seattle on Vashon Island, in which he elaborately enacted the future discovery of video art. The high technology he was then using in video tapes (produced with several other University of Washington graduates) and in computer- assisted imagemaking is sardonically viewed as quaintly archaic. These early semi-abstracted images soon gave way to illustrative representation and pictorial tales.


A collector and creator of postage stamps since childhood, in 1975 Chew placed himself among a global group of artists who concoct their own postage stamps. While their objectives are varied, all create miniature art that both mocks and replicates the world's most ubiquitous means of printed communication I . Chew's diminutive, serial works of art incorporate such philatelic conventions as souvenir sheets, first-day issues, and stamp sets. They cover a variety of topics and obsessions interconnected by dry, humorous narratives. Released from 1975 to 1986, Chew's perforated stamp editions were incited by breakthroughs in copying technology. He adapted a three-pass color Xerox process to reproduce in various hues painted, collaged, and later, computer-based original graphic work. Issued individually or in sheets of four to thirty, the stamps were sold by subscription. The original art for Chew's stamps is secure in a Seattle bank safe-deposit box; it is publicly exhibited for the first time now. While these stamps remain the work for which Chew is most widely known, they are only one aspect of his varied oeuvre.


Near the end of the 1970s Chew turned to a new format, the table- and desk-top still life. Recreated from his immediate working environments, these simulations of work areas range from full-scale assemblages such as Desk for the Study of the Curious (1979) to recent mixed media drawings such as How to Make Up Your Mind (1987). His Desk for the Study of the Curious was titled in response to his uncertainty about the zoological identity of the animals to the right of the desk. Chew's creative process and his multiple sources of inspiration are the ultimate subject of all these cluttered arrangements. Essaying a staple subject of art, Chew's stilllifes indicate the particular influence of two artistic mentors, New Yorker magazine cartoonist/artist Saul Steinberg and California draftsman, painter, and sculptor William T. Wiley. Chew dates the specific emergence of his table-top scenes to a visit to the 1979 Steinberg retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. But Wiley's work, which has influenced a large number of West Coast pictorial punsters, was even more revelatory for Chew. All Chew's still-life compositions, whether inspired by Steinberg's desk-top views or Wiley's wordy watercolors of crowded studio spaces, base artistic inspiration on straightforward observation and representation.


Chew's first forays into still life were followed in 1980 and 1981 by a series of well-designed, poster format collages dealing with the unlikely topic of torture. With an imagery that parlayed personal pain and masochistic guilt into art, these works documented a depressing period of marital difficulty for Chew. While he was given several opportunities to show his work during this time, he had achieved little economic success. However, his next major sculptural object, Ralph Doid, City Planner (1981), restored his art to a more cheerful and clearly comical intent. The work was commissioned for the offices of the Seattle Arts Commission, where it is usually on view. It is one of Chew's most complex and convincing inventions. The fictive city planner is credited with Seattle-based architectural fantasies ranging from an Oriental obelisk in Elliott Bay to a fish-shaped trolley that would astonish and please even the comic monument builder Claes Oldenburg or the innovative architect Frank Gehry.


Stairway of Success and Failure (1982) was Chew's next work of art to assume the form of an elaborate museum or science fair display. This free-standing installation amalgamates diverse artifacts and data in a spoof on grants to contemporary artists and artists' perilous economic circumstances. The pieces pointed wit cloaks the genuine financial need and personal loneliness Chew was suffering at the time. These concerns are even more poignantly addressed in collateral mixed media collages of a Philippine mail-order bride and a prayerful beseachment to the sainted Child of Prague (which used the face of his daughter Zena).

In the early 1980s Chew's enthrallment with computer-produced art was aided by his introduction to the IBIS illustration software. Chew turned to the art of the past as he exploited this creative tool of the future. In jealousy Theory (1983) he traced illustrations from Janson's History of Art onto the computer screen. In his parody of the Judgment of Paris he pitted the rotund Venus of Willendorf against the willowy Botticelli Venus and a feminized neoplastic abstraction by Piet Mondrian. In 1984, reminded of textiles by the tufted fuzziness of these computer graphics, Chew began translating computer images into rugs. He was pleased by the idea 0 placing a work of art on the floor and of using imagery from ancient traditions. In Peking Man Wardrobe (1984) he jousts with a multi-leveled reference to clothing a skeletal, prehistoric being. Also, as Chew delights in the confusion about his name's possible Chinese origins (he is, in fact a white Westerner from Illinois), he particularly enjoyed making a new image of an extinct, and now controversial, Asian human. Twenty-five more rugs, some picturing magnified versions of his postage stamps, have now been fabricated. These rugs and related embroideries have been created by gifted weavers in Nepal, India, and China, overseen by Chew during his journey there in 1987 with his daughter (and aesthetic cohort) Zena.


Having ceased issuing stamps in 1986, Chew embarked on a commemorative group of collages, embroideries, drawings, and low-relief sculptures. These works catalogued examples of his stamps and illustrated how productive and imaginative his activity in this area had been. He soon moved on to experiment further with still-life imagery in alternately studio-based or computer-derived works fabricated by Chew himself or Asian carvers and weavers. Chew's recent table-top stilllifes close in on just a few objects from his material-laden work areas. Employing more conventional draftsmanship and carving, he enlarged what had been small details into whole compositions, as in Ant & Goat (1987) and Dancing on Rembrants (sic) Bones (1987). Exotic souvenirs of recent travels show up in these stilllifes, which also reflect the brighter palette he now prefers.


Such cycles of activity give great range to Chew's artistic production; they transform a selective retrospective into an exhibition with the diversity of a group exhibition. Mixtures of conventional and technologically advanced subjects and media, Chew's results reveal an energetic and careful study of the curious.


Patterson Sims
Curator of Modern Art
Seattle Art Museum
Checklist of the Exhibition
Unless otherwise noted, dimensions are in inches; height precedes width and depth. All works courtesy of the artist and Davidson Galleries, Seattle, unless otherwise noted.
A selection of paper ephemera and original art for stamps dating from 1975-86 is included in the exhibition.


1. Living Things Visit the Crab Nebula, 1972 
Drypoint 17 3/4 x 9 3/4 
Collection of Bill H. Ritchie 

2. Red Message, 1976 
Collagraph 20 x 26 
Collection of Zena Chew 

3. Red Message CX, 1976 
Color Xerox 43 x 33 

4. Video Faces, 1977 
Color Xerox 18 x 24 
Collection of Bill and 
Evelyn Zurow 

5. Hermit of Patagonia, 1978 
Color Xerox 29 x 23 
Collection of Edward Maurer 

6. Desk for the Study of the Curious, 1979 
Pencil on paper 30 x 40 
Collection of SeaFirst Bank 

7. Desk for the Study of the Curious, 1979 
Mixed- media assemblage 8' x 10' x 5' 

8. George Eastman, 1979 
Color Xerox 14 x 81/2 x 5 (3 pieces); 7 x 10 (1 piece) 
Collection of Candace Kern 

9. Prehistoric Post Office, 1979 
Drypoint 24 x 36 
Collection of Laura Mae Baldwin 

10. Red Ball Desk, 1979 
Watercolor on paper 15 x 20 
Collection of Bill and Evelyn Zurow 

11. Medieval Massage Parlor, 1980 
Mixed media on paper 36 x 24

12. Medieval Massage Parlor, 1980 
Mixed media on paper 36 x 24 
Collection of Sharon Gilbert 

13. Sacrifice (of the Prehistoric P.O.), 1980 
Mixed media on paper 50 x 38 
Collection of Jim Olson 

14. Torture by Squid (Over Bainbridge Island), 1980 
Mixed media on paper 48 x 221/2 
Collection of David Sucher 

15. Child of Prague, 1981 
Mixed media on paper 23 x 29 
Collection of Zena Chew 

16. Doid's Dilemma, 1981 
Mixed-media assemblage 45 x 36 x 5 
Collection of Dr. and Mrs. Martin Haykin  
17. Ralph Doid, City Planner, 1981 
Mixed Media assemblage 7'x 8'x 4' 
Seattle City Light I% for Art Portable Works Collection 

18. Torture by Tickets, 1981 
Color Xerox and mixed media on paper 495/8 x 333/8 
Long-term loan and promised gift of Anne 
Gerber, Seattle Art Museum 122.1985 

19. Lilia 21 Philippines, 1982 
Mixed media 23 x 29 
Collection of Debbie Cornell and Dan Ranniger 

20. Stairway of Success and Failure, 1982 
Mixed media assemblage 8'x 8'x 8' 

21. Stamp World, Where Artists Are Slaves, 1982 
Lithograph 48 x 35 
Collection of Drs. Fred Tobis and Carla Greenbaum 

22. Desk for Making Fossils, 1983 
Pencil on paper 19 x 261/2 
Collection of E. Tracy 

23. Jealousy Theory, 1983 
Pencil on paper 30 x 42 
Collection of Laura Mae Baldwin 

24. Peking Man Wardrobe, 1984 
Knotted wool on cotton warp 6'x 8' 
Seattle City Light 1% for Art Portable Works Collection 

25. Stamp World Tree of Life, 1984 
Wool embroidery on cotton 6'x 4' 
Collection of Eric Smith and Carol Poliak 

26. About Evolution, 1985  
Mixed-media assemblage 60x48x45  
Collection of Neil and Mary Wechsler 

27. Stamp Store II, 1985 
Mixed media on paper 44 x 30 
Collection of Rhonda Levitt and Charles Cowan 

28. Artozoic Scene, 1986 
Silkscreen 7 x 23 
Collection of Kay Rood 

29. Fig. 3, 1986 
Wool embroidery on cotton 6'x 4' 
Collection of Robert Kaplan 

30. Fig. 3,1986 
Silkscreen 23 x 17 
Collection of Kay Rood 

31. Ontogeny Recapitulates Philately, 1986  
Mixed media on paper 40 x 26 

32. Rosetta Envelope, 1986 
Wool embroidery on cotton 9' x 8' 
Collection of Karl and Barbara Krekow 

33. Stamp Tree of Life, 1986 
Mixed media on paper 48 x 20 
Collection of Bill and Melissa Goldberg 

34. Ant & Goat, 1987 
Acrylic on carved wood 12 x 15 
Collection of Camilla Nowinski and Alex Eyre 

35. Dancing on Rembrants (sic) Bones, 1987 
Acrylic on carved wood 12 x 15 
Collection of Betsy Borrow 

36. Maa Puja, 1987  
Acrylic on paper 16 x 20 

37. Maa Puja, 1987  
Copper and mixed media 17 x 16 x 3 

38. Mies van der Rohe vs. the Ionic Order, 1987  
Knotted wool on cotton warp 5'x 8' 

39. Tantric Story 1, 1987 
Cotton embroidery on cotton 67 x 17 

40. The Thorny Problem, 1987 
Mixed collage on paper 44 x 33 

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