If Thomas Gainsborough and John Baldessari had a baby, and that infant was a Lladró porcelain figurine whose godfather was a hologram of Joan Miró, the whole family would look something like the work of Chad Wys.
Employing everything from the perplexing to the playful, the artist's vision effectively merges the characteristics of long-standing genres such as classical portraiture and plein air painting with postmodernist applications found in movements such as abstract expressionism. Even so, Wys' whole practice yields an entirely new category of artistic composition. The result is a mind-blowing body of work that's completely unexpected, each piece differing drastically from the last.
Wys' unique, thought-provoking style is best described as post-conceptual, drawing from fine art traditions as well as more contemporary ones. But look beyond the Bob Ross-meets-Banksy veneer and you'll see a much more complex system at play. Lurking beneath the layers of Wys' works is a careful examination of the signs and symbols that we as a society have inherited from our ancestors, and how those signs are interpreted today. While it might appear that Wys' work looks backwards, it also looks to the future, exploring how the communication between technology and humankind ultimately affects our awareness of our own aesthetics.
With an M.A. in visual culture from Illinois State University, Wys currently lives and works in rural Illinois. His formal training as an artist is obvious in his work: far from mere pastiche, it explores the trajectory of art history itself, evaluating traditional work through a modern lens. Whether creating actual paintings, digital collages, or assemblages from found objects, Wys bridges the firmly entrenched divide between highbrow and kitsch, exploring the emergence of art criticism within his art itself.
"I think art is lifeless and hollow and disposable if it doesn't strive for something greater beyond the surface," he says, drawing comparisons between art and literature, in the sense that both disciplines convey an experience. "The best literature, the best poetry, shows us a new aspect of the world and ourselves. Visual art is no different. Art must always be showing us some aspect with which we're not finished grappling."
If art is a mirror reflecting the struggle of the human experience, then it stands to reason that today's art should inevitably dive into a kind of messy discourse about technology, and the uncertainty that comes with it. Yet while new applications of scientific knowledge definitely affect the way art is produced, Wys believes that today's artists themselves share much in common with their forebears.
"I think the fundamentals and philosophies are very much in keeping with the avant-garde of generations past in that ideas give birth to subsequent ideas, and ideas continue to mash together and overlap and mature into new ideas," he says. "The social and political climates change—or in some ways remain the same—and new ways of looking at the world always seem to be manifesting. But the same drive and ambition to tell important stories in refreshing ways has been a constant throughout art history and the production of images since the beginning—except when it has been suppressed maliciously from without, but even then, thoughts could not be gathered up and destroyed."
Wys feels his own art strives to convey a quality of mood, rather than taking the form of a narrative. "I work mostly in aesthetic tonalism—like a tone poem—without a clear objective or obvious antagonists, but with aesthetic gestures and the act of appropriation I hope to stir the audience to consider the very act of processing visual information," he says. "I hope to meet people at the very point that they perceive an image or an object and ask them to investigate how they derive meaning and experience in the first place."
The artist believes his own professional integrity has strengthened over the course of his practice, and that his vision has become more astute. Nevertheless, his themes have remained the same, conceptually speaking: "I think there's an ideological and aesthetic through-line that can be drawn from my earliest compositions to my most recent ones, and to some degree that's comforting, because it suggests I'm on a comfortable track," he says. "But while my critiques of reception have grown sharper and more nuanced, my drive to experiment with various mediums has broadened. I think I'm becoming more confident in my process, or, at least, more confident in being unable, and unwilling, to control every outcome."
When asked about the future of art as social commentary, Wys says, "I think all objects and images—all art—comment on our culture. All visual information that is produced in a culture, in some fashion, reflects that culture back on itself. Even art that isn't overtly political in nature communicates a great deal about the circumstances surrounding its production. I choose to point directly at the unseen forces at work in visuality, in art history, through the act of appropriation. I think artists will find their voice naturally. Whether they are viewed as an 'activist' or not depends more on the person doing the labeling. I think we all activate content in our own way. It's important that we continue to concentrate on what matters to each of us."