The Games We Play: Chloe Wise
Chloe Wise interviewed by Chiara Moioli
“Charcoal make it start and make me liked at times
Lick me till it cleans all of the world”
—Blood Orange, “Charcoal Baby,” from Negro Swan (London: Domino Recording Co. Ltd., 2018)
Canadian-born artist Chloe Wise is undeniably an “it girl” (Zoolander’s Jacobim Mugatu’s voice-over) right now.: her status, outwardly, might resemble that of the popular girl who in high school made you feel like your life was worthless—the kind surrounded by cool people going to cool places to do cool stuff—and to some degree, this could be the case. But she’s a hit with a (huge) twist: she’s so damn funny you can’t help but like her. Wise’s humor—witty but genuine, constructed yet candid—has been key to her success in the last few years, during which she has grown a fervent fan base over Instagram, a platform where she’s not ashamed to post interludes lip-synching rap hits along with… her parents. Above all, parody is crucial in her practice as an artist. In her paintings, Wise addresses American consumerism and its craving for consumption by inserting easily recognizable branded goods in solemn but jokey group portraits starring her friends, while her sculptures recontextualize food in a memetic way that calls for virality (and a big laugh).
On the occasion of Not That We Don’t, Wise’s second solo show at Almine Rech, London, the artist presents a new video and series of portraits featuring sanitization products in a specifically designed sculptural setting, covered with a gray fitted carpet, where the furniture offers visitors Kleenex and paper towels. Here’s why.
CHIARA MOIOLI: Not That We Don’t extends your survey into portraiture, especially group portraits—depicting a sense of what a community might be. The subjects of the paintings presented at Almine Rech in London are, almost always, your friends. Can you talk about how the scene you participate in influences your work?
CHLOE WISE: I have always chosen friends as the subjects of my work, without a distinct intention to portray or unpack a particular “scene.” If anything, working with and depicting my friends and those around me is just a natural part of my process.
CM: You are well-known for inserting consumer goods in your paintings and sculptures, tackling American consumerism and its desires. This new series of paintings is focused on sanitization products—Reynolds Wrap aluminum foil, PURELL hand sanitizer, Kleenex tissues are easily recognizable on the canvases. Could you open up about this choice of subject?
CW: This body of work engages with the coded dynamics that allow for an individual to exist peacefully in society. Group portraits that are awkwardly, even violently cropped, with subjects seated “patiently” before fabric backdrops, allude to the staged-ness of “natural” group photos and the performativity of normalcy. Within the groups, hand gestures or consumer products become subtle hints/reminders that disobedience, uncleanliness, or, say, human fluids must be contained or cleaned up, implying the potential for being othered, or othering, should one breach the social contract. You’ll notice that in all of the paintings and the film, no one is visibly breaking the rules, no chaos unfurls, everything is seemingly going fine. In other words, these are groups of people Following the Rules! These images portray a strained order; they are not a depiction of disarray. The ambiguity of the potential for what couldhappen, and what festers just below the surface, is where the tension is found.
The PURELL and generic sanitization products, as well as the sculptural carpeted benches which dispense Kleenex, “gently” imply, as do many of our surroundings, that you ought to follow the rules, wash your hands, cover your mouth when you cough. We are socialized to internalize the necessity for following the guidelines of participation within a group. If we want our participation to function smoothly within the dictum of civility and the parameters of the group, we must obey the Way Things Work.
In his 1957 work Mythologies, Roland Barthes considers soap advertisements and how language covertly enforces our belief in a system that promises to keep us safe from the danger of contamination. Soaps are the heroic weapon that will “fight” dirt and grease, “penetrate” the “enemy” (uncleanliness), and absolve our plates and bowls and selves from the threat of impurity. This language effectively implies soap is a system in which we should place our trust, not unlike societal underpinnings like Christianity or justice. It is tacitly agreed that should we not follow these societal guidelines and place our trust in the purification of PURELL, we may succumb to the abject filth (or worse, chaos) that awaits those who breach the rules. A doormat at the entrance of a home, a napkin to be placed on one’s lap, the mere presence of hand sanitizer in a public area, all of these are subtle implications that you should clean any abject fluid or guck you may have secreted before you proceed to interact with us.
CM: The gallery has been provided with specifically designed benches offering visitors paper towels and tissues. There is a stark contrast between the “purity” of these products and the fitted carpet with which the whole space and the furniture have been covered—which is notably unhygienic and rather difficult to clean. An element of disturbance emanates from below the surface of the carpet. What about this polarization?
CW: As the gallery space itself is not immune to the same coded contracts as any other public space, ostensibly a viewer who enters the gallery would be subject to the same unspoken contract. And so, when faced with objects that are seemingly functional and vaguely recognizable, the viewer, confused as they may be, does understand the gentle implication that they should take a Kleenex. I chose the vague ugly blue carpet and subtle beige walls because they remind me of a nondescript corporate office, a waiting room for a psychiatrist, or the DMV, or the principal’s office at school. Places where you are beckoned to cooperate within a preexisting structure, places you are invited, intimately, yet quantified, anonymously. There is a collective comprehension of this sort of place, this designation of order and control. I wanted to change the way one views the paintings, which, at first glance, seem pretty and innocuous, to make one feel strange.
CM: Portraiture is key in analyzing the construction of the self, especially in the age of the selfie. Perhaps not by chance, your first series of paintings is titled Literally Me (2014). Your public persona, deliberately constructed over platforms like Instagram, is rather prominent and indiscernible from your practice as an artist—over the years, you have accrued a strong and attentive fan base.1 What is your attitude toward a social media like Instagram? Is there an element of self-promotion and gamification that drives you toward it? Your beautiful Siamese cat, Pluto, has an Instagram account too.2
CW: While I think it’s a wonderful tool for garnering visibility and potentially circumventing, if need be, the standard gallery system, we mustn’t forget that seeing an artist’s work on Instagram is nothing like seeing it in real life. I would argue that my presence on the Internet is not indiscernible from my practice as an artist. Rather, new ways of viewing art, which increasingly ventures online, are what leads to this obscuring between art and artist, persona and practice. If you’re seeing my art online rather than in the flesh, you’re probably going to come into contact with my life and jokes too.
I get asked about my use of social media a lot, and at a certain point, it’s not very interesting. I’m twenty-eight, it would be more unusual (and potentially rather pretentious) if I didn’t use Instagram. I’m just an oversharer with no filter(s). Pluto, on the other hand, is an influencer, and there’s nothing I can do about that.
CM: Talk to me about your use of humor, parody, and your purposeful love for “bad taste.” This is particularly evident in your Instagram’s clips and video production, of which What Horses (2019) is a fine example.
CW: I find humor in almost everything around me, and that absolutely extends into the visual and verbal language I employ when I create things. I see discomfort as a point of great potential. This particular body of work perches in the “uneventful” events and “nonmomentous” moments of ambiguity that arise within groups. There is something funny about putting a group of strangers together and asking them to “act natural”—it’s uncanny, in a way that’s reminiscent of the Sims, because it reminds us of the fragility of our shared semblance of order.
The video What Horses highlights a lot of that subtle discomfort, the moments of uncertain stagnation or unfilled pauses in conversation, feeling weird, “acting” “ordinary.” A lot of the dialogue in this film is my own poem, interspersed with Trump quotes, which, out of context, have a dolorous yet naive emptiness to them. To me, recontextualizing or highlighting commonplace, normalized actions or sayings creates a tension where we start to reexamine what “normal” is anyway.
CM: You started your career making “memetic” sculptures (for instance, Star of Larry David  and the series Irregular Tampons  and Bread Bags ), creating visuals of the kind seen on the Jogging,3 a famous Tumblr started by Brad Troemel and Lauren Christiansen in 2009, which has grown over the years thanks to an extended team of artist-curators and the launch of an “open submission” campaign addressed to the users of the platform. Has the so-called “Post-Internet art scene” and its thirst for virality through trolling had an influence on your conception of image making?
CW: I definitely loved Lauren and Brad’s website the Jogging, and I even used to assist Brad back in the day, which undoubtedly affected the way I thought about what images can do. It’s one thing to place an image or artwork within the comprehensible context of a gallery setting or to upload an artwork online. But the Jogging did more than that, adopting tactics to somehow activate the viewer in a whole new way. My early works, such as the bread bags, fake ads, and videos such as the black metal fake VH1 spoof BEHIND, required a viewer to misunderstand at first, to wonder whether this product or video is real, a joke, a prank, whether they should be outraged, curious, or just confused. The work would gain more nuance when reblogged or shared, inviting more people into the dialogue than if it were to exist simply in a gallery. I’m drawn to this initial confusion of presenting something, myself included, in a deadpan way that may be completely misread, or even elicit outrage, before the viewer realizes the joke.
CM: The impact of technology on your practice is quite evident. For realizing paintings, you take pictures with your iPhone instead of life painting; in your previous exhibition at Almine Rech Paris, Of false beaches and butter money (2017),4 many paintings had a fictional background—as if it had been Photoshopped onto the canvas after a photo had been taken. You are thinking digitally and (post)producing in an analog way: would you elaborate on this?
CW: In some ways, yes, having grown up semifluent in technology, methods of collage and digital image making are quite natural. I like how you put that, analog postproduction. The fake-looking backgrounds in my show in Paris were a thematic decision, as that exhibition examined the fictive “milkmaid” narrative that the milk industry purports in order to characterize dairy as “wholesome.” I intended for those paintings to look idealized, almost like a Windows 95 background meets Vache Qui Rit packaging.
My newer work is actually quite traditional. I suppose the part that is the most related to technology is the cropping. I was thinking about the violence of the crop, and the availability of it. When, for a LinkedIn or Tinder profile pic, you crop yourself out of a group photo, and the fragmented hands of those whose arms were around you remain attached, now severed, to your shoulder—I always thought that was such a beautiful visual reminder of the potential for, even in togetherness, the faint, insidious threat of isolation.
 See https://www.instagram.com/chloewise_.
 See https://www.instagram.com/plutochickennugget.
 See http://thejogging.tumblr.com.
 See https://www.alminerech.com/exhibitions/4324-chloe-wise.
Chloe Wise’s practice spans diverse media, including painting, sculpture, video and installation. Foregrounding an interest in the history of portraiture, Wise examines the multiple channels that lead to the construction of a Self, paying particular attention to the interweaving of consumption and image making. Advertising, fashion, taboo, multi-national brands—Wise looks to the consumptive habits built around these structures with parody and derision, underlying how the body is framed and becomes excessive in its manipulation of these sites. Recent solo shows include Coast unclear seeks rained parade, Galerie Sébastien Bertrand, Geneva (2018); Of false beaches and butter money, Almine Rech, Paris (2017); Cats not fighting is a horrible sound as well, Galerie Division, Montreal (2016).
at Almine Rech, London
until 18 May 2019