The class was called “Steinbeck Country” – a high school English class that had a profound impact on artist Warren Chang. As a kid, growing up on California’s Central Coast, Warren Chang connected emotionally with Steinbeck’s writings, especially the author’s graphic portrayal of life in the fields, but it would be 20 years before Chang would use that emotion in his own work.
Chang is a relative newcomer to the world of fine art. Six years ago, after two decades in the world of commercial art, Chang decided on a different direction. “When I went to work in my twenties, I hate to say it, but I was kind of shallow. I just wanted to make money. It wasn’t until later after some hardship and heartache that I knew I wanted to do something more important – deeper.” Chang had a successful career as an illustrator in Los Angeles and New York. He painted more than 200 covers for romance novels – lucrative work, but Warren wanted more meaning in his paintings. He started with still life, self-portraits and landscapes – all things he continues to paint today, but he was still looking for that signature subject. He found it in his boyhood home and the emotions he first experienced with those John Steinbeck novels. Chang started painting field workers. “Something about the struggle for life is more intensified in these people,” Chang says. “I think in all art — the greatest art is always of the human struggle. It reaches a little bit deeper and is more universal. The field workers are a capsule of humanity.”
The decision on subject matter wasn’t universally popular. “One dealer in San Francisco got really, really angry,” says Chang. “He really thought it was a bad decision, and actually that was the last time I talked to him.” Fortunately for Chang, he did get support from his home gallery in Pacific Grove, California. Steve Hauk owns the gallery. “A lot of people who see Warren’s field worker paintings say they feel it is important work, that he is recording an interesting, and perhaps passing time in our history,” says Hauk. “They’ve made me think about it and I think they’re right. One kind of funny story about Warren’s work – an Atascadero chiropractor came in a few years ago and immediately fell in love with Warren’s field worker paintings. He explained that many of his patients were field workers and they were often nervous when they first came in, likely because they felt the chiropractor would not understand their problem. He bought one of Warren’s paintings and hung it in his waiting room and the patients immediately relaxed. They figured he knew why they had back pain.”
The subject matter was a perfect fit for a contemporary painter who taps into the traditional. Chang makes use of scenes and ideas of generations of artists who have come before him. Yet his work is uniquely his own. It has a style of subtlety and grace, a sense of place and mood. “Originally, I was into 19th-century realist art. One of the favorite subjects of some 19th century artists was painting peasants. Jean Francois Millet painted peasants, and later, Winslow Homer in America. So there was this tradition. I thought what a great idea to paint the same subject, only contemporary, and covering the subject matter that I grew up with in Monterey County.” Chang’s canvasses paint a bridge from art’s history to the present.
Although it would be easy to inject politics into the paintings, Chang denies there is any undercurrent other than the human condition. Analyzing Chang’s paintings, one young artist said what’s important about Chang’s work is the fact that he is painting field workers, who are often described as invisible people. In painting them, he gives them visibility. “Honestly, that’s not the reason I did it,” Chang says. Still, he does not discount the reaction and says it has raised questions he hasn’t considered before. “It’s something I’m being educated about after the fact, when people see my work and have these reactions.” Some people think Chang’s paintings should be more political. In New York, Chang studied with Max Ginsberg, a social realist painter, whose influence on Chang continues to this day. “He still harps on me because he thinks I should be much more overt and political and not be shy in talking about politics in my work.” But making political statements is not Chang’s intent.
Chang works out of his newly finished studio behind his modest home in Monterey, California that he shares with his wife and children. His young sons often hang out with him in the studio, and in fact he is currently working on a self-portrait that includes his oldest son – Warren at his easel and his son at his feet drawing. Family and work is about all Chang has time for these days. Three days a week he’s teaching at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. “I’ve always taught,” he says. “I taught at Pratt in New York and a small school in Los Angeles and now at the Art Academy.” He likes teaching; it keeps him working from life, which is important for a realist painter, and it gives him the financial freedom to paint what he wants.
The studio is modeled after Norman Rockwell’s barn studio, but there is very little of the stereotypical Rockwell in Chang or his paintings. The son of Korean immigrants, Chang is living the American dream, but it doesn’t look like a Rockwell painting. There is a seriousness and urgency to the artist and his work. The artist clearly feels the pressure of time. Pointing to a complex painting titled Studio at Chestnut he says, “I don’t know how many more paintings like that I have in me.” His paintings do take a lot of time, whether it’s a field worker painting, self-portrait or a landscape, the process is the same. “Basically all my paintings are the same. I’m very academic. I’m trying to paint mood through the capturing of light and color. I use a limited palette, so there’s not a lot of color. Red is powerful because it’s surrounded by grays and browns. If you put bright blue next to it, that red isn’t very colorful.” There is a somber mood and a sense of alone-ness in many of Chang’s paintings. There also is a feeling of quiet peace, perhaps resignation.
He hopes that it’s that emotion that people will connect with. “I don’t think the subject matter alone should be important. I don’t think the fact that I’m painting field workers is that significant. Hopefully, people will see a lot of beauty in my paintings. A lot of things that are going into my work are emotional, as far as technique, and I happen to be painting field workers. But just the fact that I’m painting field workers, I hope that’s not important.”
Subject matter or not, Chang’s paintings are connecting with a lot of people. His paintings are selling, and he’s building his artistic reputation. Even though he’s been at the fine art angle for only six years, he doesn’t feel like an overnight sensation. “It’s a slow building process,” he says. Still, Chang is now starting to achieve the very thing that led him to become an artist in the first place. “I decided I wanted to be an artist because I saw this artist’s work that just affected me so much. The biggest thing an artist can do is to touch somebody in a very profound or life-changing way. That’s very powerful.” In coming home to Monterey, Warren Chang has re-connected with a part of himself, and perhaps that is what his new-found audience is appreciating. Chang left his hometown for fame and fortune elsewhere. Decades later, he would find success by coming home.
Written by: Erin Clark
ARTWORKS – Summer 2007