One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but for artist Jerome "Chu" Charles, other people’s trash serves as the canvas for his work. His show Still Good, which runs through Sun., Feb. 9 at CDCP Project Space, incorporates recycled or discarded material and uses them as inspiration for the works themselves.
The garbage theme of the show is both about literal garbage, which Charles uses to paint on — reusing framed art from goodwill and painting objects found on the sidewalk — but also garbage as a feeling. It’s become part of the general lexicon to say things like “I feel like trash” or “I’m garbage” (in addition to broader sentiments, like “the world is a garbage fire”). Charles calls this aspect of Still Good "public acknowledgment of being a garbage person."
"People say 'be that kind of person behind closed doors that you wanna be in public,' and I just wasn't doing that for a long time," says Charles. "I just wasn't acting like a person that people would want to be around. You know, probation and losing friends and all that stuff can really put that kind of stuff in perspective."
In 2016, Charles was charged with criminal mischief for graffiti tagging dozens of spots around the city with his signature tag, "Chu." Part of the reason he started incorporating unwanted items into his art is because after the whole legal process, he didn't have much money to buy art supplies, but he did have the drive to keep making art. He'd scour the neighborhood for stuff left out on the curb or go to Goodwill for discounted items, like already framed art he could draw on top of, which also helped make up for some feelings of inadequacy.
“I’m a new illustrator, so I sort of struggle with making backgrounds. It takes the stress away if I can play with the art that already exists and draw on top of that,” he says.
The work, though, doesn’t look amateur. It’s bright and cartoonish, but also funny and sometimes touching. And while painting over old art might be a shortcut, it’s not without precedent, like artist Wayne White who makes sardonic word paintings over cheap landscape art he finds at thrift stores.
One of the pieces that spurred the idea for Charles’ show is a painting of a dented soup can with a peeling label in the damaged aisle of the grocery store (69 cents). It doesn't look perfect, but the contents are still good (Still Good).
"For somebody, that's easily something that you could pass up, but for somebody [else], the extra cents that you save means the difference," says Charles. "There are people out there who are willing to put in the work and they can accept the dented can because they know that it still has worth."
Another piece in the show features a junkyard cat based on Heathcliff, the comic strip feline who's always causing a nuisance, holding an apple pie and wearing a crown with empty pockets turned out. It’s inspired by a Robyn song called "Bum Like You." In it, she sings about loving someone who doesn't have their shit together. "She's basically describing being in love with a trash person, and I feel like I have been that trash person and it's nice to know there are still people who are out there who are willing to love trash people," says Charles.
The description of the show on CDCP’s website might sum it up best, with an anonymous quote: “Just because you’re trash doesn’t mean you can’t do great things. It’s called garbage can, not garbage cannot.”
Like many of his pieces, the cat painting also includes Charles' signature tag, Chu, as the cat's mouth. It's a nod to his graffiti days, as well as a way to put himself in the art. "Even when I was a photographer, some of the best work were self-portraits," says Charles, about one of his previous iterations as an artist. "It just follows the same theme, that in my art, my tag follows through everything. It helps me actually put myself into the painting and I can express myself better that way."