Whether she’s displaying her work blown up on the outside of a museum in Baltimore or in an intimate gallery in New York, the work of Theresa Chromati is always bold, and always thought-provoking. Drawing on everything from her upbringing in Delaware to her interest in ancestral spirits, Chromati inserts into her work a meaningful exploration of duality, cryptic messages, and a lot of glitter. Fresh from her 2020 show, Stepping out to Step In, we spoke with Chromati about her work as a celebration of Black women, and her plans to expand on her multi-platformed, multi-disciplinary craft.
You work across so many different mediums: on canvas, digitally, with wood. You even recently displayed your artwork across city buildings. Do you have a preferred medium, and do you tailor your work depending on how each piece will be seen by its viewers?
I wouldn't say I necessarily have a favourite medium. The goal is to dig deeper into women and their journeys and elements of power which help women along the way. With each work I can do that in a different way, that’s what’s so exciting.
The show I did in 2020, Stepping Out to Step In was great and I want to keep pushing the structure that show had. The interior of the museum felt like a cocoon where I could expand and be as cryptic and complex with the paintings as I wanted to. For my digital work, which I did for the facade of the museum, the way we enter spaces and historically, the way advertising is displayed, it made the process more straight forward. Even though you could go deeper, I was more interested in being straight to the point.
What comes first for you? Do you pick the subject matter and then decide on a medium that best suits it, or do you decide on the materials first and then build the subject matter and the artwork around it?
I’m always painting, so it's a constant thing for me. The digital work has been more project-based, like an addition. For example, the work for the outside of the museum was specifically made for that space. I wanted to make something that was bright and read clearly. So, it definitely changes. I'm moving in the direction where any work that I do is digital or public, so there are certain things I’m thinking about depending on where my work is displayed because outside, you’re competing with other distractions, but in a gallery, people have come there for a reason.
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You displayed blown-up versions of your work on buildings across Delaware in response to the pandemic after your solo exhibition was postponed. You also worked with the electronic artist Pangelica who created music for these pieces. Your work seems so personal, and so what was it like working on this multimedia, collaborative endeavour, and would you do it again?
Pangelica and I went to high school together, so we’ve known each other since we were 16. We were both in the musical department at Baltimore School for the Arts. She continued to do music but I decided to branch off from that. Naturally, though, my practice is multidisciplinary and music has been working its way into my exhibitions. Anything I create for an outside space or even an intimate solo show has a soundscape which is tailored to that body of work. We’ve been working together since my first show in 2016, and now there are four soundscapes and they're all different.
Through the years, I’ve discovered I love writing and my titles have reflected that. The titles have become different access points into the work, it’s a way to communicate with me and so many other beings and energies. So, a lot of that process between the titles and the paintings makes its way into the soundscapes. When you listen to them there are words that pop up that guide you but in a really cryptic way.
For the last body of work, I was thinking a lot about duality, which is always on my mind, but one thing that was at the forefront was laughter and its proximity to rage and yelling, and so there were literally sounds of me laughing and screaming in the soundscapes. It’s a really intimate relationship I have with her because I just record all these words and sounds when I'm making the paintings and then I talk to her about what direction I want to go in, she then takes that and adds a bit of herself into the process too. Honestly, my goal is to be able to put this at the forefront even more and become even more expansive with that process. I’m excited to see what else we do.
Did you receive any formal training when you started out as an artist or are you self-taught?
I went to the Pratt Institute. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts from there and my background is graphic design. That’s what I was doing when I got out of school, and then over the years, I started painting again. But art and music were always at the forefront. Painting is now predominantly my focus but music is important to the process and so is writing – the dialogue is important. Even just with the way I shape compositions, I can still see the structural design element. With the digital work the graphic elements come in too, but now the graphic work is mimicking the paintings, which I’m really happy about.
You explore serious themes in your artwork, with a particular emphasis on the bodies of Black women. However, visually your paintings are rather playful, with glitter and loud colours. What do you mean to communicate through this contrast between subject matter and aesthetics?
The subject matter, a lot of the time, is the central figure of the paintings which is inspired by me. What surrounds her is this intimate being. In a lot of the paintings, there is this intense hidden space which represents another being inside of her and opens up a conversation about women's intuition and where that comes from: is it inherited? Is it an ancestor? It’s definitely something we have to listen to and it grows with us. In some compositions, the figure is all-knowing and super intense and she sees everything. But other times, the central figure will be more unsure – she’s like: "I feel firm but I’m unclear."
Some of the scrotum flowers are floating around her because I see the scrotum flower as an idea of balance and power. In some compositions, she’s unaware of her proximity to her own power. In other compositions, she’s completely aware and she’s grasping the scrotum flowers. So many things change with each composition but they still stay true to this one person.
Aesthetically, when I’m building up the canvas, I’m thinking: how much is too much? More is more and that’s the point, that’s the goal. It’s a lot of excess and layering. So when you’re speaking about duality within women, I'm thinking how else can I build the surface up to better reflect the topic I'm exploring, I’m adding texture and glitter which is coarse but so mesmerising and bright. That, alone, is totally a depiction of a Black woman for me. These elements are literally protruding off the canvas, and that’s a play on power.
“I’ve come to realise which of my qualities I got from Baltimore and it's really the bluntness: no bullshit, no lies, everything to the forefront. It’s a certain level of coarseness, it’s unapologetic. These are the energies that are within me and make it into my practice.”
Your most recent show, Stepping out to Step In, just closed. There seemed to be a particular interest in scrotum flowers in this show, and the deconstruction of bodies. I’m sure you’re often asked what you aim to communicate about femininity through your work, but is there something you wish to discuss about masculinity in this exhibition?
With the scrotum flower in general, I do see it as a masculine and feminine being on its own. It’s not really about gender at all. It’s more about energy and balance, I see it as the key to clarity, which in my opinion is the key to power. This recurring object is really so important to me and it’s important to the central being in the painting. It acts as a guide and it provides reassurance and light. Masculinity is always in conversation with femininity and balance. They are energies which provide clarity.
Your work is so unique. Because of the presence of dismembered or deconstructed bodies in your work, they often appear inspired by collages. How do you describe your artwork, and who would you say has influenced your style the most?
Collage is definitely an element, but I think when you have certain things in your toolbox you’re not really thinking like that. But when you break down the idea of collage and what it means and when you’re placing so many elements together then yeah technically we’re speaking in terms of collage. The body parts are detached and fragmented which plays into that. But they might only be fragmented for a moment, and in another moment they are complete. I feel like what I’m doing right now is exploring abstract figuration.
For all the focus on body parts in your work, often when you discuss your art you talk about the internal, spiritual journeys of the women depicted. Would you describe yourself as a spiritual person, and is this something you seek to explore through your work?
The process of my practice has let me tap into things I wasn't aware of. With each painting, I learn more about myself and my viewpoint. Over the years, I’ve become more detached from deciding on a structure and following it. Once I start a painting, we’re just on a ride. I created the scrotum flower, the cryptic archways, and the checkerboard floorboards which have become more and more cryptic over the years. There are things in my toolbox that make it into each of my paintings but I don’t always know how they’re going to appear at the beginning. During the process, the painting just takes over and completes itself. It’s really such a therapeutic space for me.
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You live in Brooklyn now, but I read that you grew up in Baltimore and recently went home to display a solo show of yours. What was your upbringing like in Baltimore, and how did it inform the visual style you have now?
I’m from Baltimore originally but I’ve been in New York for around 8 years. Around 2016, I moved back to Baltimore for a year-and-a-half just to recharge. Baltimore is such an in-your-face city. There are so many things I can take away from my upbringing there. I went to college when I was 17 and moved out of my mother's house.
I’ve come to realise which of my qualities I got from Baltimore and it's really the bluntness: no bullshit, no lies, everything to the forefront. It’s a certain level of coarseness, it’s unapologetic. These are the energies that are within me and make it into my practice. If you know the energy I’m talking about, you can make sense of these elements and understand how it translates to the paintings.
The women that raised me had that energy: they know that they don't have any limitations, and I really rely on that in each composition: am I being true to myself, am I putting my all in it? Is this uncomfortable? It should be.
Having heard you talk about your artwork before, family, identity, and community seem very important to you. Are the women depicted in your artwork based on women you know, or even yourself?
The central figure is inspired by me: I see through her and she sees through me, but we’re also different. Nothing is ever a literal depiction. The floating eyes and lips in my work also feels like an attachment to the central figure, but at the same time I’m wondering who’s ancestral spirit is this? I feel like as a woman your intuition isn't just yours, it was provided to you by previous women in your bloodline. So yes, it's all one being but there’s so many layers to that and that’s what I want to explore.
Having finally gotten to display Stepping out to Step In after a Covid-related delay, what are you moving onto next?
I have some more public art projects coming out this year. I’ll also be having a solo show this year in Chelsea, New York, so I’m building up to that right now. There’s so much that happened last year that we've all expanded from, so I'm really excited to see that body of work come to light.
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