Robert Mugabe, Pope Benedict.
Charles Page’s head is exploding with ideas. All the time. Whenever the Chula Vista artist opens his mouth, words fly out as he tries to explain whatever notion is running through his mind at the moment.
“This short film that I want to do is based on a concept of the ‘concrete jungle.’ There are more than a few artists who use animals in their art around here,” says Page, explaining the ideas that have come to him during a recent stint of artistic intensity. Page quit bartending for the time being so that he could focus on art full time, and take some film classes at Southwestern college.
Page continues, “What I want to do is go to the zoo and find, like, children, and talk to them about the animals, have them describe their favorite animals. I’d like to talk to zookeepers about what it means to work closely with animals, and what that means for society. Then, I’d like to juxtapose that with wheatpaste and graffiti artists from around here who paint animals--interviewing them, letting them talk about the sacrifices they have made to be artists.”
Because, you know, it’s a jungle out there.
Page himself used to do graffiti, but he shattered his heel falling off a roof, so now he paints mostly on canvas and mostly at ground level. Despite the fact that he’s a full-time painter, Page realizes the daunting challenges that face artists who want to live off of their art.
“When I was a kid,” he says, “we used to talk shit if someone was a sellout or whatever. But then you try to actually make money doing something that you’re passionate about, then the boundaries collapse. I’ve done corporate work, I’ve done local work with NBC...painting signs and whatever. I’ve heard it’s easier in LA, but San Diego’s tough. Nobody’s buying art. I don’t have anything to compare it to, but nobody buys anything. It might be the economy. There was a time when people were just throwing money around. But then the economy went to shit.
“Then again, some of the things that I paint aren’t really buyable material. Like, the Pope in a clown nose, that’s not really something that makes people say, ‘Hey, I’d like that in my living room!’ I try to make some things more approachable. I have a knack for using pop imagery. The last thing I painted was a British cop throwing a ‘west coast’ hand sign. It had kind of a stenciled look to it, but it was all just paint. Something like that is a little easier to sell---and I have had offers on it--so I know that, yes, I can make stuff that will sell.”
Page makes no bones about the fact that art should have a purpose, a quasi-Kantian end that seems more erudite than the ex-graffiti artist’s streetwise manner would suggest. When he talks about the goals of art, he is clear on his simple, but potent, goals.
“You know,” Page explains, “when you’re in college and everybody is kind of an idealist. Everybody has his own utopian vision in his head of what he wants to do to make the world a better place. My own mantra about that is not to tell people what to think--I don’t want to push anybody in any one direction--but I believe that if people would just actually start thinking that the world would be a better place. Some of the stuff I do is just to try and create some kind of conversation.”
Some of Page’s art is politically charged.
Just because nobody quite got what Charles Page was driving at doesn't lessen the impact of his portraits of child soldiers.
“Look at the painting with the clown nose on the Pope,” he says. “I think that’s pretty blatant. I also gave Robert Mugabe--the dictator from Zimbabwe--a clown nose. The next one is Hitler, obviously. I want to put Hitler and the Pope right next to each other. Hitler was never excommunicated by the Catholic church. A lot of Nazi leaders were. Hitler, however, was not. It remains a mystery as to why not, but he was never excommunicated. So, I want to put them right next to each other, and, when people walk by and ask why, that’s why.”
But Page tries to be consistent in not shoving his audience towards some predetermined conclusion. For the artist, raising the question is the whole point. What viewers do with it is up to them.
“On my business card it says ‘historian & experimenteur,’” he says. “I see art as this filtration process. You take in what you see, and you’re the filter. You filter everything through yourself and your mind. To everything that you’ve seen, you’re like a historian, but then you have to take it and throw it back and try to make something new. Without that, you have nothing to build on and nothing to interpret.”
Perhaps as a way to undermine his own politics, he injects frivolity into the more serious art.
“I also want to go in a pop direction with [the clown noses]. Kanye gets a clown nose. Lebron James gets a clown nose. Basically, if you’re a fucking clown, you’re going to get a clown nose,” he laughs.
It’s an uphill battle, sometimes, and Page can get carried away by his own thoughts and ideas. They don’t always come across the way he wants them to.
“I did a series on kids with guns that was tied to an influx of Somali refugees in San Diego. I started thinking about it from a religious aspect, even though I’m not religious. These kids, who were born into violence and some of them were forced to kill people, are they going to hell? What would a preacher say? He would probably say, ‘oh, well, if they confess their sins and accept Jesus Christ as lord, they’re going to heaven.’ But, what if they don’t? I painted them in black and white, with butterflies in color floating around them that were supposed to represent their souls. But, then it was these kids with guns.
“[My ideas] didn’t come through,” he laughs. “People kept asking me what it was all about. ”
One thing on which Page won’t budge is that artists in the local community need to stick together. He thinks there are too many “haters” in San Diego, in- and outside of the art scene. He expresses his disappointment with an unexpected anecdote:
“I went to see Wu Tang at 4th and B and all the opening acts got boo’d off the stage. I’m like, ‘What is this?’ I feel that way in the art scene as well sometimes. It doesn’t make sense to me. Whenever I go to an art show, I make a point to support the artist, even if it’s just going up and thanking him or complimenting his work. How can you have an art scene if not even the artists support it? How does that make sense to anyone? I think people need to start working together more, but what does that mean exactly?”
As is his nature, he doesn’t claim to have the answer. Instead, he raises the question in hopes that people will just stop and think for a second.