Invisible People: An Interview with Christopher Chinn

It was…pretty hard to see how paintings of pretty people leisurely reclining on beautiful hardwood floors, saturated in sunlight, could be relevant when thousands were outside my door reclining in filth on the streets for years on end.

Christopher Chinn just completed a larger than life sculpture of a homeless man reclining on the sidewalk and installed it for one day in May. I sat down with Mr. Chinn to find out what inspired this sculpture, what kind of conversation he is hoping to engender and what his future plans are for his work.

You can make a tax-deductible contribution to the future of his project entitled Encounter, through a partnership with US Artists. Click  here to learn more and contribute!

You just completed a larger than life sculpture of a homeless man. What was the inspiration for this piece?

The idea for this work began in 2008 during a solo exhibition of paintings. The gallery director and I were discussing ways to bring the homeless who had modeled for the work to the gallery. We ultimately decided that while well intentioned it was largely misdirected. What really needed to happen was just the opposite, to move the artwork out of the gallery and onto the streets where it could be experienced by the homeless without barriers. My interest in this subject matter developed about ten years ago after I graduated from USC. My first studio after graduate school was just south of skid row in downtown Los Angeles. There were four homeless people living in the long walkway to our new front door when we moved in. It was very difficult to witness everyday the living conditions of those on the streets. I realized pretty quickly after moving there that it was something I was going to have to deal with. I came to the conclusion that the best way for me to do that was with my artwork. It was also pretty hard to see how paintings of pretty people leisurely reclining on beautiful hardwood floors, saturated in sunlight, could be relevant when thousands were outside my door reclining in filth on the streets for years on end. My previous painting lost all meaning for me, and I realized that I wanted my work to directly engage real social issues.

Where is this latest piece being exhibited?

The sculpture was exhibited for one day, on May 27, 2011, from 5:30 am to 9:00 PM, on the corner of 5th St. and Towne Ave. in downtown Los Angeles. This first piece will be joined by many others. I hope to be able to install several such sculptures at the same time for a few months throughout the skid row area. The art audience would have to take a long walk, bus rides or a bike ride in order to see all of the pieces, leading them through different pockets of the neighborhood. Although this is specifically designed for downtown Los Angeles, I think that the sculptures can work just as well in any big city with a significant homeless population, or even in different areas of LA.

What kind of conversations did you have that day on skid row during the one day exhibition? Did anyone come along and tell you you couldn’t have it there? Did homeless individuals have an opinion about the piece?

I was really surprised by the positive reaction from the neighborhood. Everyone seemed to be taken with it, starting with the group of people who awoke that morning across the street from it. People who worked in that area stopped to photograph it and to have their photos taken with it. It became a sort of prop for people to act out what their experiences of homelessness were, kneeling and praying for him, covering him with their coat, sharing a beer or cigarette, picking his pockets. I’m still not sure what to make of it all. There were plenty of real homeless people a few paces away who nobody would stop and do those things to, but I guess the sculpture made it safe for people to express those thoughts. Homeless people loved the piece as well, and they participated in the improvisational acting game with it. I was told several times that it should be made permanent.  Others said that they would like to see more and hope that this becomes the past of skid row, were people don’t have to sleep on the streets like that anymore.  I was really overwhelmed by it all.

At one point before lunch a police car rolled up.  The officers got out and talked at their car for a while, and afraid that they would ask for my permit for the sculpture I did my best to ignore them. Then a second car stopped right next to where I was sitting. That officer joined the other two and they slowly strolled over to the piece. I thought that the day was over, when they pulled out their cell phones and began taking pictures of it. They really loved it as well and had a lot of questions for me about it. I was surprised that they would like it as much as they did, as moving people off of the street it kind of their job. The sculpture was also sitting right under a sign that says “No person shall sit, lie or sleep in or upon any street, sidewalk or other public way.” I thought that was quite ironic.

One woman who lives on the street right across Towne Ave. from where we were came over to look at it several times throughout the day. At the end of the day as she was setting up for the night she came over again and said the best thing to me.  She said that she really liked the way the sculpture disappeared into the gray of the sidewalk and block building.  She totally got it, and I was so thankful for that.

You indicated that there were some specific locations where you would like to see your work exhibited.

I thought that locating the piece outside of the door to the Center for the Promotion of Democracy could create a significant interaction of ideas concerning democratic voice, economic influence and civic responsibility. It is my feeling that the individuals living on the streets have very little if any political voice. Certainly there are institutions that work for them who strive for political influence, but the people themselves have none. A vibrant democracy requires a healthy and educated public. I think it is pretty clear that far too many are left behind in this regard, at least in our city. Taking care of our poor is a civic responsibility that strengthens our democracy. I think that we (at the city, state and national levels) have forgotten that detail about how our government works. It is a relatively new train of thought for the artwork, but one that I am excited about exploring more fully.

You also mentioned to me an idea you had about it being permanently in the public and that this type of installation would be a part of the art itself. What would that public interaction have to do with your artistic vision for these pieces?

I would like to see the sculptures installed on the street for a month or two, or even permanently. The idea that the work would get beaten up, cracked, tagged, and generally weathered is definitely a part of this project. That kind of wear and tear on the sculpture is akin to the beating that those living on the streets take year after year. The interaction with the public is directly a part of the art for me. The actual sculpture is a catalyst/vessel for those kinds of reactions. Homeless people get beaten up both by each other and “normal” housed citizens. They are also, in a way, a part of the urban landscape, and I would like to see the sculpture disappear into that landscape with them. When you are on your way to your car, you do your best to not see them. I am working on making that happen.

Do you ever worry that your art exploits or in some way glorifies people’s suffering?

I have always worried about the criticism that this work exploits someone’s suffering for my own profit. In fact, I didn’t begin working with this subject matter for at least a year while I wrestled with this very question. I am committed to donating half of what I make from the artwork to organizations that work with the homeless. I have always viewed my artwork as collaboration and I want to make sure that the homeless are able to profit from it as well. When I was living in downtown I developed relationships with my homeless neighbors and I knew a lot of them. That has been harder now that I no longer live there, but I still try to get to know anyone that I might like to use as a reference for the artwork.  I always ask for their permission so that they have a say in whether they want to be a part of it or not. I am trying to raise awareness about, and better understand for myself, an issue that is very important to me.  While I use individuals, with their consent for that purpose, I do everything I can to keep it from being abusive and unfair.  I have a lot of respect and admiration for my models, and I try to honor that relationship with the artwork.

Is this your first sculpture?

This is my first sculpture since undergraduate school. Sculpture is so much more difficult than painting for me.  There is a lot more process involved, it is much more costly, and then there are the physical aspects that aren’t really concerns in 2D work like the scale and scope of the work in terms of weight, mass and strength of materials, etc.  It has been a huge learning experience for me, but my undergraduate sculpture professor was delighted when I told him what I was doing.  He said he “knew I would come around.”



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