In the studio: Celeste Chandler

“I’ve had to find a way
to work amongst the chaos of life.”

When I speak to Melbourne-based artist Celeste Chandler about her upcoming show at Nicholas Thompson Gallery, 6 to 30 April, it’s from her kitchen-cum-studio. Prior to a couple of years ago, Chandler had a large studio and painted on a large scale. The studio was something she thought she could never give up – but due to a combination of circumstances, including the pandemic and her cancer diagnosis, Chandler has had to recalibrate.

Celeste Chandler, Lilac house, oil on linen on board, 20 × 25cm. Photograph: Matthew Stanton. Courtesy the artist and Nicholas Thompson Gallery, Melbourne

During the pandemic, many of us share this feeling of our lives having been contained to the domestic space. Your experience has been exacerbated by your experience with cancer.
My life has shrunk down in the last two years – with homeschooling, the pandemic. Instability of working space is a huge issue, increasingly so with real estate in places like Melbourne and Sydney. When I lost my studio, it really pulled the rug out from under me. I was also recovering from a massive surgery and, for the good part of two years, wasn’t able to paint. It was the longest I’ve ever gone without it. There was a huge part of me that just wasn’t there.

I’ve always had really particular requirements in the studio – privacy, quiet, the right angle of a wall to the window. I’ve always been someone who could never paint around other people. I’ve had to let go of that. I’ve undergone a really big change in how I’m working, because I need to. If I don’t work, I feel like I’ve lost my identity. I’ve had to find a way to work amongst the chaos of life.

How has that impacted your work?
It has become about looking in. During the pandemic, our homes have become our worlds. The work I’ve made before has been about creating a pictorial space that is right on the cusp of real space, but my recent works are more like looking inward to a virtual world. What I love about painting is that it’s the first virtual space, the first space that humans created which exists outside of real space. Paintings contain time. They relate image physically to space and time, and anchor it in a way that our fast-paced, hyperconnected world doesn’t.

Celeste Chandler, Digger, oil on linen on board, 20 × 25cm. Photograph: Matthew Stanton. Courtesy the artist and Nicholas Thompson Gallery, Melbourne

Do you feel like you’re trying to capture or prolong a moment in time?
I think I’m trying to capture an experience, but it’s more than that. Painting has this way of being able to hold an image, a moment or a period of time, both in the brush marks and in the image. That moment perpetually exists. I’m still working out how to title the show, but I’m thinking about the idea that all we have is right now. Mortality is something I’ve really had to think about, so capturing something of the moment of lived experience feels important.

It’s been a period in which you’ve had to confront your own mortality and bodily experience, yet your own body features less in this body of work. There’s a shift to images of homes and landscape.
My image does feature sometimes, but in a different way – such as the back of my head. I’m there but disguised; it’s still my embodied experience; it’s just less literally my body. What I’ve gone through has been confronting, in terms of my body, and I’m not quite ready to process that in my work at this point.

I think of houses as bodies, a container of life. When you see a house stripped back, there’s not much to them really. The life happens inside. It’s less a sentimentality to the architecture and more to the fact that these containers of life get taken apart and put back together again. I feel an affinity to that.


Celeste Chandler is represented by Nicholas Thompson Gallery, Melbourne.


Sophia Halloway is a writer and critic based in Sydney.

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