Chris Sheridan: Flesh, Fabric and Flights of the Soul

Chris Sheridan has been making figurative oil paintings in Seattle for the past ten years. Each image is a storm of flesh and fabric that swirls tempestuously, rendered in strident, sometimes clashingly colorful chiaroscuro. Collectively, his figures harken to classic symbolism and mythologies, and frequently seem to dip a toe into the sensual murk of the underworld. But Sheridan manages to keep his iconography in the 21st century by painting subjects covered in tattoos or with the latest violet or cotton candy hair. He admits it’s a mash-up that frustrates some academic purists, while his foray into Jungian fairytales can be just as off-putting for many in the contemporary art world. None of that bothers him—as evidenced by his prolific output. For the past few years, Sheridan has been making 25-30 paintings a year.

On a stormy day last month we arrived to Sheridan’s home, upon which he immediately and graciously insisted on mixing us a round of giant bloody marys in his new kitchen (he and his wife, painter Kate Protage, had only moved into their West Seattle house a few weeks before). Throughout the home, walls were already covered with art from longtime Seattle artists—John Osgood, Su Job, Cristin Ford, Siolo Thompson. Adjoining the main living area, one portion of the upstairs has been built out into Protage’s studio; downstairs is a labyrinthine studio and storage area filled with Sheridan’s work.

Born and raised in Massachusetts, Sheridan studied illustration at a college in Florida, then returned home and floundered. “I basically served ice cream or beers everyday,” he says, laughing. “I was a manager at Ben and Jerry’s. I didn’t do a damn thing, I didn’t draw, was wasting away drinking beers at the same place everyday. Finally, one night my friends made a drunken bar bet that I couldn’t get into grad school. So of course I applied and got in. It was the best thing I ever did.”

After grad school Sheridan moved to New York City with Protage. It was the mid-2000s.

“At that time the figure was dead and God forbid you used oil paints or a traditional medium to portray it,” he says. “You’d walk through the galleries in Chelsea and there was this anti-craft thing going on. Technique couldn’t get in the way of concept. As a result there were a lot of things like stick figures stuck to the wall with duct tape and bubblegum. That was a legitimate thing.”

Philadelphia’s scene was more friendly to his style and Sheridan exhibited there often, but in 2006 he snapped. “I realized New York was making me super angry. The grind every day there drove me nuts. Like, one of our landlords didn’t believe in exterminating and the place was just crawling with things. One day I spontaneously put in my notice at work and came home and told Kate, we’re moving. A month later we moved to Seattle. I’d always heard Seattle was pretty rad but never lived here. It’s an amazing place to put down roots.”

Among the works hanging in the couple’s home is a photograph by Seattle photographer Amanda Paredes. Five years ago Sheridan began a collaborative project with Paredes, with content based on Dante’s Inferno. After spending up to six months brainstorming photo shoots, they hire a dressmaker, model and makeup artist, and construct elaborate backdrops. Paredes shoots the scenes for fine art photography, while Sheridan shoots images for reference points that will make their way into his paintings. In March of last year, the two had their first exhibit together at Axis Gallery in Pioneer Square.

“We started off loosely referencing Inferno,” Sheridan says, “but it was never supposed to be religious or have that kind of iconography. It became more so an exploration of the travels of the soul. Our dressmaker Jennifer Charkow started making gowns out of old parachutes. They’re so flowy, and immediately translate this idea of the transience of the soul through the figure in this envelope of fabric that has a life in and of itself. For this shoot I created a way to suspend our models from the ceiling and the parachute fabric draped 15 feet in any direction, tied at points all around with fishing line. Underneath were fans and lights and it became this huge billowing mass. That shoot was close to 11 hours.”

“This is the first painting I’ve done in a while that hasn’t had anywhere to go. I just had it in my head and had to get it out,” Sheridan says. “I’ve been doing a lot of hiking over the past year. It’s a remarkable feeling—that loneliness and reliance on yourself. That feeling sort of relates to this idea I’ve been trying to pin down about the travels of the soul. So suddenly the woods have become really important. Usually my backgrounds have something to do with skies and the movement of clouds because it relates to that idea of transience, but all of a sudden with this painting a lot of darkness came out. This landscape in the painting is actually off a lake near the site of a campsite I was recently at. The fingers of mist, the branches creeping, really impressed on me the idea of ascending from the earth. I was recently at a residency in Vienna, and traveling around Europe were these giant statues everywhere. They were all thematically connected, with figures atop what looks like piles of skeletons, corpses, ghouls. Some of these sculptures rose 50 feet in the air. As they got closer to the sky the imagery shifted to the angelic. Eventually I learned these were monuments to the plague placed in each town. This painting is an embodiment of the idea of soul rising up in a similar way.”

“In the process of arriving at the concept for a piece, I do a lot of reading, find symbols and passages that I really like, then I research more,” Sheridan says. “Eventually I’ll find a model and set up the photo shoot. I might take 350-400 pictures that I’ll pick from. In Photoshop I’ll grab the foreshadowing from one, the background from another, an arm from another, creating these sort of Franken-images, then I’ll continue to shoot and add in elements of the background. Oftentimes I’ll photoshop in environments and elements that support the concept and mood. I’ll do charcoal drawings from those then make paintings based on the drawings. The entire process is pretty long, but the painting itself can go quickly—often a matter of days.”

“Leonard is my skeleton I’ve been using for reference for a while,” says Sheridan. “Leonard is horrible! He’s so out of proportion, so misshapen, a little toothless. He has the ribcage of a child but the spinal column of an adult. I don’t know what’s going on with his pelvis. I paid a hundred bucks for him, and that’s what you get.”

“Some of my favorite paints. You have to have good paint to make a good painting. I went through that phase when I was in undergrad—I was so bad with money I was literally doing my landscape painting class homework on cardboard using vegetable oil as my medium. They were horrible and they would never dry. Then I discovered good paint and suddenly I realized what my teachers were saying was right about buying the good supplies. And that’s why I don’t have a savings account anymore! Or any life goals beyond painting!”

“I really love the work of Bouguereau, particularly his version of the birth of Venus. I always wondered what it is about that painting that speaks to me—if it was Bouguereau’s model or Bouguereau’s handling of the figure, his handling of the female form by placing her in that place of power. You’re looking up at her. But there’s always something about that painting that’s fascinated me. I think it has to do with that idea of the conflict of beauty, and so this painting is one of a series of studies that examines this intersection of beauty and power. In the series, each painting is six feet tall and every woman in each painting will be a different model, different body type, different ethnicity, different shape. I want to explore their individual sense of power.

But there’s been enough judgment of women by white men over the centuries in fine art, and I didn’t want to do that and be just another man creating this idea of beauty. What right do I have to do that? My goal is to have a room full of not just nude women in classical poses but also of nude men. My idea is to give you a sort of Rothko sensation, of walking into a space filled with color fields. In the same way that people who walk into a room full of Rothkos are consumed by the idea of a field of colors, I want people to walk into a room and be overwhelmed by a sense of beauty, when their peripheral vision is filled with the field of pure human form. Maybe people will learn something from that, the way I feel I have learned something from working with so many models and so many forms. When it comes to analyzing beauty, a lot of artists have beat me to it, but this will be my version, this consuming room.”

“Many people will notice there’s almost always a lot of red underneath,” Sheridan says of the deep crimsons and carmines that predominate. “On a practical level it helps to create a family of color. Conceptually, it’s about the blood. It keeps everything alive in the painting itself. Long ago I stumbled on a study on wedding dresses. You know how wedding dresses are always white—to show off the purity of the bride and so forth? Traditionally there’s a red string stitched into the dress somewhere, to represent the fact that yes I’m pure but I’m also human. For me, discovering that little hidden stitch was incredible, an OMG moment. It showed up as a literal string in my paintings for years, then it just became the red that was underneath everything. If you look closely under the scumbling you can see the red underneath—birthed from the idea of the wedding dress.”