Thursday, February 16, 2012

In the Land of Strangers: The Unnerving, Narrative Paintings of Mary Chiaramonte

"There are a select few people that are the people I understand them to be. I read a study about twinship and loneliness and how that effects a person. Apparently twins feel really alone all the time—when they’re not with their twin because they have such a bond that they feel such a separation from everyone else. This portrays the general feeling that I have with my sister. It seems like there are so many people that I've come across in my life that I've trusted to be one way but they've turned out to be not what I've expected"   --Land of Strangers, 2012 

I am a word girl. I hear music through lyrics and I see images through the veil of language. Which is why the paintings of Mary Chiaramonte hooked my imagination immediately; leading me out of the room in which I was sitting when I saw them first, through the gallery where I saw them later and into a lush, dark underbelly within the world of story.
Mary’s paintings are laced with narrative, but like books that don’t end tied neatly in a bow or with a happily-ever-after trailing off into a synthetic sunset, her paintings ask more questions than they answer. “I feel like one of my biggest goals with my work is to try to understand human nature,” she says. “I think I’ll never grasp it fully. I take what I know and make it more bizarre because it’s that place I don’t understand.”
Like snapshots taken in the middle of a dream, Mary’s paintings in the body of work, “Land of Strangers,” evoke the sensation that a secret has just been told, or that you are peering at someone in a moment of intimate privacy. If you’d happened to look a second later, everything would have been different; the subjects would have made themselves more presentable for the world. But that’s not what we want—we want what’s hidden deep inside. 
The images in Mary’s paintings beg their viewer to keep looking, to figure out what could possibly have led to this, to piece together a personal interpretation. They echo that whole unending question that I have about human nature,” she says. “There isn’t any answer.” There is, instead, unnerving compositions within a blend of darkness and light where the subject seems to hang in the balance. “There’s a story in my own mind,” she says. “A lot of the stories I convey in my paintings seem to be the negative things that happen in my life. That’s where my mind tends to go—to the dark places.”
            Mary reads biographies and autobiographies and says that while painting, she has listened to every single episode of This American Life. “The mystery of human nature is just so interesting to me,” she says. “That’s why I’m drawn to biographies. I want to know the truth about people but I don’t know how much of it’s real anyway. There’s no sure ground for anyone.”
 Using acrylic on birch panel, she keeps a rigorous schedule. “It’s the same thing everyday,” she says. “Sometimes it gets boring. I make myself stay in the studio all day and paint. I get up pretty early—about 6 and take my dog for a 3 mile run, come home, take a shower and get to work” She’s currently at work on a painting of a woman with a bobcat on the end of a string. “The bobcat is one of my husband’s taxidermied animals,” she says. “It’s standing up growling and looking crazy. The title’s going to have something to do with being tamed. It’s what I was saying about settling down in my married life.”
            So far the marriage of Mary’s discipline and talent has paid off—in her prolific body of work with a wide cast audience. At 32, her art appears in collections throughout the US and Europe. She has been featured in New American Paintings and American Artist Magazine and is currently represented by Long View Gallery in Washington, DC, Hespe Gallery in San Francisco and the Eric Schindler Gallery here in Richmond, Virginia.
            The opportunity to ask questions about her work in general and certain paintings in particular, was, for me like the unparalleled pleasure of discovering an epilogue after the cliffhanger.  

            Mary's paintings are mesmerizing, thought provoking and unsettling. But don’t take my word for it. Go see them for yourself. 

Her show, “Land of Strangers,” will be at the Eric Schindler Gallery through March 10. 2305 East Broad StreetRichmondVA 23223. Call 644-5005 or visit for gallery hours.

Visit Mary Chiaramonte online at

Take Care, 2011-  I wanted to leave anything dark in the past behind. That’s why there’s a building storm behind her. The umbrella symbolizes having shelter from that and moving on. There’s a positive outlook, but a foreboding, ominous  background. 

The Nameless, 2011 --  This one's about the mystery of human kind and how I can't put a name to it. It’s just something indescribable. Nothing’s ever what you expect. It’s kind of fun that life’s like that. I take it with me, everywhere I go. It’s such a big thing for me, it burns inside of me that I can’t understand people. They’re not always how you think they are or what you know, even. I love the mystery. It’s a thing that I’m so passionate about. For this, I built a cardboard model of a house and lit it on fire. I was living in a suburban area at the time and there were all these houses, but I painted it in front of a nighttime sky. It was funny, I thought somebody was going to call the fire department. 

Souvenir, 2011 --I don't think this has any deep dark meaning or anything. My husband has all these sort of treasures, he would call them, but they’re just all these different taxidermied animals in our house. He has a trunk full of them. It’s just a little snippet of my life at home with my husband. 

Our Very Own Secret Hideout, 2011
Best Friend of Man, 2011

High Tide, 2010
Forever Lull, 2011
Estranged, 2011

World Turning, 2011


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