Chad Etting Paints the American Everyday
There’s a bit of mystery to a Chad Etting painting. Applied loosely to canvas, the artist might reference a local car dealership, regional flora, a small tennis club, and snapshots of his own personal history, ‘Lonely in Alphabet City in 2007,’ one might read, the view from a bedroom window, or a bank-sponsored baseball event. Autobiographical and irreverent, a touch of folky Ed Ruscha in the way he uses text and Americana as tools. Etting is also someone who’s lead an interesting life, he’s been a maths and art teacher and currently works at a University near his New Hampshire home, developing his practice by, as best he can, trying to paint something new every day.
On display now at the Drake’s Open Studio, Counterclockwise is a series of paintings that explore his New England upbringing, combining the humour and “masculine undertones” of car racing, dealerships and branding. “The question I wanted to answer was how to create a show that had unity from piece to piece,” says Chad. “This show has allowed me to explore some interesting pathways that still feel true to my references and story.”
On an early morning in New England, we spoke with Chad about his work, background and “painting what you know.”
Drake’s: Hi Chad, can you tell us about what first drew you towards being an artist?
Chad Etting: It feels like a long time ago. I was a math teacher in New York and I remember appreciating, in a way, the graffiti that was all over the city as I was riding the train from the East Village up to the Bronx, the 6 train. You got the sense of culture, and how the city is laid out and - more broadly speaking - America in those geographical terms.
I was working for a Catholic institution in an old monastery, and there was tons of space and time in the evenings to paint. The most definitive period when it comes to my painting was when the pandemic started, though. I had a lot of time at home and, thankfully, I have a home studio. I thought, ‘If I’m going to do this, then I’m going to do it now,’ and so I doubled down on my efforts.
Drake’s: Can you remember the first piece of work that confirmed your belief in being a painter?
CE: The first thing that took off was when I wrote ‘Landscape Painting’ on a canvas, and people loved it. It made me dive into text based work. I felt like there was this nice parallel to music. Contemporary pop, the music and the lyrics overlaid. I see my text paintings as having the music in the background and the lyrics alongside.
I find complete freedom in the act of painting. What can happen within a rectangle, you’re only limited by yourself. What do I feel like painting? And then I paint it. I try not to think about it too much, which I think allows my work to be eclectic. Working on the show for Drake’s, I wanted to flesh out an idea. It was nice to pick a theme and then let my voice develop while putting it together.
Drake’s: A lot of your paintings reference your New England home. Can you tell us more about how you draw inspiration from your surroundings?
CE: A lot of my work is autobiographical and refers back to New England. I grew up in Connecticut, which is considered southern New England. It’s suburbia and quite densely populated. There are a lot of intricacies to the state, but it’s influenced by how close it is to New York City. Then going up to northern NE, which is only three hours drive on the highway, but it’s a lot more rural. There are farms, hand-painted signs, and general stores that have been operating since the 1800s, still in the same building, where people will go for their their paper and groceries.
I like to take the heavy consumer culture of the Connecticut area, and blend it with New Hampshire. It makes me reflect on where I was previously, and where I am now.
Drake’s: How did you originally land on those themes for your work?
CE: The writer Stephen King, who’s from Maine, wrote a book called ‘On Writing, and what I grabbed from it was the quote, “Write what you know.” Early in the pandemic, when I was doing a painting every day, I took comfort in that quote. I’m true and honest, so how can I be wrong? It’s very personal, but I like to think that there are universal themes in my work.
Drake’s: Are you a ‘secret’ painter? Or do your friends and colleagues know about your after hours work?
CE: Art is quite difficult in the US. I was a high school art teacher for a bit, and I realised the general population doesn’t really appreciate how ‘cutting’ painting can be. A lot of people think of sunsets, and that if you can make a painting that looks like a photo, then you’re the best.
I had a show where one of my paintings said ‘Budweiser’, and one of my cousins said, ‘That’s a good painting!’ Simply because he loves Budweiser. It does exist on that level, but I also hope it exists as more of a nuanced cultural statement than just… drinking bud is fun. It can mean totally different things for different people. We all have our own memories and associations with signs and logos.
Drake’s: Do you think there’s still a level of intimidation when it comes to a lot of people accessing art in their daily lives?
CE: Definitely, but on the other hand, a lot of galleries are free, and I’d encourage anyone to just go in! That’s your free entry into, for lack of a better term, high society. Access it. When it comes down to it… do you like looking at it? Or do you not like looking at it? Do that over a million images and you’ll begin to find your own taste for art. It shouldn’t be rocket science. You’ve just got to look.