Drawing on her Mexican American heritage, memories of childhood and family, daily life and language, b. Chehayeb creates beautiful canvases that, in her own words, sit “somewhere between abstraction and representation.” The first artist to have their work displayed in the Drake’s Open Studio, our new space on Canal Street in New York City, we called up b to talk about her work schedule, inspiration, love for Japanese clothes and Jenny Holzer. Originally from Texas, b studied at Massachusetts College of Art and Design before moving to Brooklyn. “I’ll probably die in New York, she says over the phone with a laugh. I love it here!”
Drake’s: Hi b, what does your schedule look like at the moment?
b Chehayeb: I try to go into the studio every day, it’s my full-time job. A lot of being an artist is pushing through moments where I don’t feel excited to make anything and just making myself work. Sometimes there’s no excitement and I have to figure out why that is and figure out what to do with those feelings and how to channel them into my process, which can be hard. It can be an emotional thing.
To someone who hasn’t seen your work before, how would you best describe it?
It’s somewhere between abstraction and representational work. It’s talking about memories and the way we can’t really place the fullness of an idea or memory. There’s a lot of erasure. Half images, isolated images and even some text. A lot of my childhood revolves around language and the absence of language. I’m Mexican American, so there’s a lot of Spanglish and chopped up words.
Has your idea of what you want to create changed over the years?
I started off with very specific memories about trauma with childhood, language and identity, but it's become less and less personal. Now I’m working on language specifically, abstractions and language barriers and pictures related to language. It kind of ebbs and flows into what kind of content it is. It all stays within the realm of memory. I prefer to work with memory, no matter how reliable or unreliable it is.
Why did you want to become an artist?
I took an art class accidentally. I actually wanted to be a thespian! I’d been writing short stories since I was a chid. I had the moodiness and oversensitivity. But then, when I was 14, I saw that Jenny Holzer piece that says “Protect me from what I want.” It hit me in the gut. That idea was so heavy and complicated. Familiar, but not necessarily your experience, but it felt relatable. It was over for me at that stage. Jenny Holzer, she was the one.
How does clothing inform how you see yourself?
I think you caught me at a time when I’m regressing back to my middle school wardrobe of old t-shirts and athletic shorts. I bought a bunch of Adidas training shorts which feel super nostalgic to me. My mother sent me a load of my old softball t-shirts, so at the moment I always look like I’m on my way to a softball game. I don’t know if that can be considered fashion, but I like it!
I prefer things that are simple with a sophisticated design element. I love Japanese clothes for this reason. Quality, simple with deep colours. They’ll have one detail that’s like a secret that’s just for you, the owner.
Are there any other artists who inspire you?
A lot of my interest in art has been shaped by art history. Paul Klay is a big one, I went and found his diaries and became obsessed with his interest in childhood and his own relationship to gender and his willingness to talk about these subjects with these seemingly simple drawings. Then Rauschenberg was visually so out there. He brought so much life into these inanimate objects. I'm also inspired by many writers and a lot of writers who are also visual artists, like Mike Kelley and Francis Stark. As far as painters, I like Roy Oxlade, Laura Owens, the list goes on.
What do you think of the NFT craze? Any temptation to join in?
I wouldn’t know where to start! If some NFT wizard came to me with an idea, then maybe, but I’m not sure of the benefits. I’m so interested in material in painting, the materiality of paint and drawing, but also the matter of the object. I tried to do a couple of digital drawings, and even though I liked them, they weren’t enough to communicate what I wanted to communicate.
What else do you have coming up?
I just wrapped a group show in Paris with Ruttkowski;68 curated by Parisian artist Antwan Horfee. In November I will open my debut solo show with Ochi Projects in Los Angeles in their new location: Ochi Aux. I’m also showing some work at Drake’s, maybe you’re familiar with it? Come and visit. Buy a jacket, buy a painting!