The award-winning “Checkers” by Monterey artist Warren Chang was inspired by a group of street people at Custom House Plaza | Provided image
By Kathryn McKenzie
Painter Warren Chang looks for his subject matter in places that aren’t so typical. Scenes from ordinary life, featuring people that often are overlooked, have become his modus operandi.
Street people playing checkers. Field workers at lunch. A woman selling flowers by the side of the road. These are all images that Central Coast residents often see, but often brush past because they are so commonplace.
Chang elevates these typical scenes to poignant stories in paint, hinting at what is unseen as well as what is obvious. His use of light and shadow takes its cue from the Old Masters style, but he applies it to subjects that are very much from this modern era.
Chang has gathered a selection of this work in a new exhibition opening next month at the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara. “Warren Chang: Social Realism in California” captures everything from homelessness to the Black Lives Matter protests, delivering an emotional impact through beautifully rendered oil paintings. The exhibition marks the reopening of the Triton Museum to the public and will be May 22-Aug. 29.
The artist, who makes his home in Monterey, says his Triton show has taken odd twists and turns because of the pandemic. He was selected for a solo exhibition after winning the first prize in the Triton Salon. But his solo exhibition was delayed for a year, and then it fell to Chang to do most of the work on it, in an extremely short time frame.
“Usually, the artist is not the boss,” said Chang. Typically, museums organize exhibits and instruct artists on which of their artworks will be shown. But Chang was able to select the paintings personally. “It gave me a lot of freedom and control,” he said. “It was a good thing, in a way.”
Among them will be his Salon award-winner, “Checkers,” which depicts street people gathered around a game being played at Custom House Plaza. “It was like a contemporary version of Mac and the boys,” said Chang, referencing the characters that inhabited John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” and “Sweet Thursday.”
“These are the invisible people. People who drive by them don’t even know they’re there.”
It was a scene that Chang happened upon while walking through, and he was so taken with the sight that he began sketching it. Then he showed it to the group.
“They were so excited and thrilled about the idea after I showed them the sketch,” Chang said. Once he had their support, he began a complicated process toward the finished painting that involved taking photos, and then hiring people — some of them from the original group — to pose for him, since he prefers to work from life.
The resulting image is a mingling of real and artifice, but Chang compares it to writing a novel — sometimes a little fiction is necessary to reveal a larger truth: “The imagery itself is closer to the truth than reality.”
Among the 15 or 16 paintings that will be included is “Lunch Break,” which the Monterey Museum of Art is loaning from its permanent collection. The painting shows field workers sitting down to eat in a furrowed field, some sitting on the ground, others perched on coolers. Some are gathered in a group, engaged in conversation, while some sit further away.
Also in the exhibition is “Fall Tilling,” in which a woman sits at the edge of a row with an apple in hand while others work behind her with long-handled hoes. “Hard Times,” the painting depicted on the Triton Museum’s brochure, shows the poignant sight of a homeless man, Coke cup and cigarette in hand, in a dirty alleyway.
These are scenes that have not been captured widely in fine art. In Chang’s paintings, there is a tenderness for these people that draws the viewer into the image.
And although Chang himself chose the title “Social Realism in California” for his exhibition, he says he usually doesn’t like to apply labels to his art.
“It’s really about the human experience, the human condition,” he said.
Chang, born in Monterey in 1957, didn’t originally set out to become a fine art painter. After graduating in 1981 from the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, he was hired as a staff illustrator at videogame pioneer Atari. Gaming aficionados will recognize Chang’s work on box covers for the “Swordquest” series, “Moon Patrol” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Two years later, he struck out on his own as a freelance illustrator, and in 1990, moved to New York.
A couple of important things happened there that would alter the course of Chang’s life. He met his wife, Heather. He also became acquainted with other artists who were working in the fine art realm, and he began to lean toward a different artistic career path.
Upon Chang’s return to Monterey in 2000, he began pursuing his muse wholeheartedly, winning awards and having work selected for exhibitions at museums across the United States. His show at the Triton will be his fourth solo exhibition, following previous solo exhibitions at the Monterey Museum of Art and the New Museum of Los Gatos.
Not long after Chang returned to the Peninsula, he was drawn to local agricultural fields and the daily life of farm workers. The resulting paintings often echo those from previous centuries, such as those by 19th-century artist Jean-Francois Millet, best known for his scenes of agricultural laborers in France.
In 2015, when Chang had his solo exhibition at MMA, he was able to meet with second-and third-grade students from Salinas who were the children of farmworkers, as well as their parents. The occasion was a school field trip to see Chang’s paintings of field workers.
“They loved the paintings,” said Chang. “The children wrote poems about the way the paintings … they said it made them feel the same way as it is to be in the fields. And the parents opened up to me” — about challenges such as the lack of bathroom facilities, the constant worry about working around pesticides, the days of the short-handled hoe. “They would tell me all these different stories. They were proud and happy to see that the work they did was recognized.”
“These are the invisible people,” said Chang. “People who drive by them don’t even know they’re there.”
Chang still has the children’s poems.
Warren Chang’s work can be viewed at www.warrenchang.com and at Hauk Fine Arts in Pacific Grove and Winfield Gallery in Carmel. Triton Museum of Art is at 1505 Warburton Ave., Santa Clara; www.tritonmuseum.org
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