Russell Karchner has been making art off and on since his early teens. His colorful and visually compelling work has been on display at Chop Suey in Carytown since the middle of March, and the show is set to close at the end of this weekend.
Russell Karchner has been making art off and on since his early teens. His colorful and visually compelling work has been on display at Chop Suey in Carytown since the middle of March, and the show is set to close at the end of this weekend. The show includes 17 pieces, all painted by Karchner, and a series of photos by friend and fellow skateboarder Forrest Hollingsworth. Entitled Look Both Ways, it is Karchner’s second solo show.
Karchner, who grew up in Hampton Roads, by way of Northern California, has been “…doing art since [he] was little.” The now-29-year-old Karchner started showing in the Hampton Roads area. There, he participated in three group shows, and held another solo show, titled Gold in The Gutter, early in 2012.
“I didn’t really start painting until I was in my 20’s, Karchner said. “Like, really trying to do stuff that I like, versus stuff at home when I was a kid, [when] there were watercolors, and I would draw comic book characters.” There was a distinct lack of inspiration to be found from a lot of the mainstream art community in Hampton Roads. Karchner remembers checking out galleries in the area and being unimpressed. “The stuff that you saw in galleries was like seascapes and crappy landscapes,” he said. Instead of painting, Karchner spent most of his time partying and doing drugs, and quickly fell into a destructive spiral.
He started doing drugs when he was 13, and continued until he was 26. He was not focused on anything else. “I was spread so thin because of it, I would try to get into skating, but it was something that was very momentary,” he explained. “The only thing [that] really mattered was getting fucked up.” Karchner describes his drug times as dark and unproductive. He stumbled from one thing to the next before beginning to see that a change had to be made. He kept painting while he was using, but created nothing he was proud of. “Everything I painted while I was partying and stuff was just dumb stuff,” he said. “[I was] tagging walls and doodling, but my mind was focused on getting fucked up. Then I started skateboarding again, and watching friends that would still paint. So instead of going out to a party, we would do that, and it would become its own little party. It was weird, because people didn’t even know I was into art.”
After having a friend die from an overdose, Karchner stopped using drugs. “The big thing that made me stop was that people seemed shocked that he overdosed,” he said. “Everyone went back to just doing the same thing after. It kind of scared me because I was like, ‘I don’t want to be that guy.’”
Art and skateboarding brought him back from the brink. He began painting more, and met Brian Sanchez. “I think he influenced a lot of people that were in Hampton Roads to actually take whatever they had with doodling and drawing or whatever, and make it a thing,” Karchner said. “He lit a fire under people’s asses, he made it a cool scene.” Karchner became a bigger part of the Hampton Roads art scene as his expertise and list of showings grew. As he progressed, his style and voice became more concrete, and evolved into his current work.
About his process, Karchner says, “I play with colors first, building from there. There’s usually something I want to paint already in my head. First thing [is] finding something in the garbage I want to paint on, finding something that someone threw away. I think that kind of stuff’s taken off now, urban street folk type stuff… it’s hip. I’ll get 20 ideas before I get home with whatever I found, then the colors. I’ll see people, like 20 faces; it’s just what comes out.”
“I like a lot of crummy photography, the down and out vibes that everyone tries to ignore,” Karchner said. His art has a definite punk rock feel, but is laced with vivid colors and his sometimes childlike outlook on the life. This outlook again hearkens back to the artists that inspire him, like Barry McGee and Thomas Campbell. To Karchner, their art wasn’t “something that they learned in school. You could see that in the lineage of their art, the five year old kid still inside them.” Karchner says his art pulls a lot from these same ideas. When asked to describe his work, he said, “I don’t know… just reflections of stuff that I see, a little bit of everything. Low brow stuff, nothing special, nothing that hasn’t been done before… That’s the hardest part, is having to look at stuff I like that I’ve done, and going, ‘This looks too much like…’ and not being able to put it on the wall.”
The night Look Both Ways opened, the upstairs room at Chop Suey was full of bike messengers, skaters, and friends from Hampton Roads. Karchner says the art scene in Richmond is definitely pushing him to work harder. “I know I have a lot of extremely creative friends in Richmond. I’ve been in Richmond for one and a half years and I’ve only painted for 6 months maybe. When I came here, I was fresh out of two shows and kind of burnt out mentally, so I spent a lot of time riding and getting introduced to bike culture. I don’t know, I’m here and I’m making art in Richmond. If I could put my footprint here then why not? There are a lot of great and talented people in this city and that’s kind of inspiring too. Hampton Roads was pretty bland, you really had to dig deep for it. Here it’s more in your face, and I think it’s rad.”
With plans to move to San Francisco and possibly going to art school in May, Karchner is making his artistic career more of a focal point in his life. When asked what he thinks it would be like to be a career artist, he gave an honest and realistic answer. “Oh yeah, I’m very curious to see how I would be like after a year mentally. That would be rad,” he said. As he continued to ponder the question, both his work ethic and skepticism about his own art came through in his response. “Things don’t just happen, but it’s a definitely a lifestyle I can see myself being in, in the right place and time with the right tools. I can live that lifestyle now, but it might not be mentally healthy for me. But, it’s something I’m going to do until it’s all over. If it’s eating ramen and coffee for two weeks so I can paint, it’s not something I look forward to, but I can do it.”
Russell Karchner’s exhibition, Look Both Ways, can be viewed at Chop Suey Books, located at 2913 W. Cary St, through Sunday, April 6.