Amidst his ever-evolving career as a composer and multi-instrumentalist, Charles Compo has always carved out time and space to develop his painting skills and style. For decades, instead of exhibiting finished paintings, Compo repeatedly reused his canvases and drop cloths to practice the traditional techniques including oil painting, laying gesso, and mixing custom pigments.
Today, Compo no longer paints over his finished pieces, but the process of revisiting a single canvas repeatedly remains integral to his practice. He methodically evolves his compositions by adding multiple layers of paint to a canvas—a process that sometimes spans several years before a piece is considered finished. Not only does this approach facilitate boundless experimentation, it makes the artist’s improvisational journey a tactile part of the finished piece, discernible to the viewer in each layered brushstroke.
Compo’s 2020 painting I’ve Got The World On A String, was exhibited at the prestigious 2021 London Biennale. It demonstrates the fascinating potential of this exacting artistic process. The scarce negative space around the central figure emphasizes the intricate details and dynamic brushwork of the outer edges of the canvas—no doubt formulated over the course of many painting sessions. Compo’s visualization of the familiar tension between feeling on top of the world and feeling overwhelmed by it recalls the tradition of horror vacui—an aesthetic notion whose history stretches centuries, from medieval manuscripts to postmodern graphic design. Much like a dream loosely based in reality, I’ve Got The World On A String is chock full of seemingly ordinary details that become extraordinary.
With a paintbrush as his instrument—and a personalized iconography of loose forms and dreamy cool colors as his catalog of musical notes—Compo creates visual art that utilizes the same improvisational intuition, technical expertise, and audience interaction skills he learned as a professional musician. Compo explains,“I strive to have the viewer become entangled in the painting, to add an element of collaboration, just like a drummer and a dancer.”
Compo’s 2020 painting, Swan Lake explores the intersection of musical and visual arts—from the name and subject matter of the painting, to the rhythmic movement of the shapes and the harmonious arrangement of Compo’s signature color palette. Swan Lake features a cast of dreamlike characters that invite viewers to join in as they dance their way through the formal elements of the composition, whimsically pushing the boundaries of flatness, depth, and translucence. Swan Lake is on view at Greenwich Art Society’s 105th annual exhibition, juried by Metropolitan Museum of Art associate curator Brinda Kumar, until May 5, 2022.
In addition to his masterful transposition of musical influences onto the canvas, Charles Compo strikes a chord with his paintings. He often explores the complexity of everyday subjects, unveiling familiar stories layer by layer. For example, Compo’s 2021 painting There’s One In Every Crowd is a subtly surreal interpretation of what has now become a universal scene: a group of people wearing face masks in public.
As the COVID-19 pandemic devastated New York City, Compo began work on There’s One In Every Crowd from the vantage point of his midtown Manhattan studio. He watched out the window as masked pedestrians mulled about near the Port Authority bus terminal on 8th Avenue. Compo’s painting style integrates elements of real life into a dreamlike—or nightmarish—context. He highlights the unsettling fact that this new normal was born out of devastating circumstances, and that what might have once seemed like an apocalyptic aberration of everyday life has quickly become a universal, and even mundane, experience.
There’s One In Every Crowd won second place at the Schweinfurth Center’s “Made in NY” show in 2021. Interestingly, the painting is currently on view in a window display at Six Summit Gallery in Manhattan, which is visible from the very bus terminal that inspired it. Millions of pedestrians have passed by this window display, briefly becoming a part of the scene it portrays whether they realized it or not.
Another uncannily timely Compo painting, Down At The Rally, was acquired by the Yuko Nii Foundation’s permanent collection in Brooklyn, where Museum of Modern Art curator Paulina Pabocha awarded Compo a special prize upon its acquisition. Completed in early 2021, this painting tells the infamous story of the insurrection of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, of that year—but Compo had actually begun work on the painting before the titular incident even occurred. “It was a moment of precognition. I painted that guy with devil horns [the self-proclaimed ‘QAnon Shaman’] in the crowd, and saw him on the news a month later.”
For many Americans, this event was indeed as predictable as it was horrifying—a dynamic tension that Down At The Rally effectively explores. The phantom-like quality of the figures unsettlingly blend together as they retreat towards the Capitol, emphasizing their collective, almost inhuman threat. The stormy sky is painted with urgent brushstrokes and cacophonous colors, which hauntingly illustrate the destructiveness of the actual events as well as the ideologies that inspired them.
From the pandemic to politics, the past three years alone have provided Compo with more than enough artistic inspiration to amass a successful body of work. Compo has been soaking up everything that New York City’s explosive contemporary art scene has to offer for decades—including an assistantship in Pop Art icon Andy Warhol’s studio, conversations and collaborations with avant-garde filmmaker Harry Smith, an off-Broadway theatrical debut, and involvement in the burgeoning movements of performance art and free jazz.
Today, the fifth-generation musician and lifelong New Yorker has dozens of recordings, thousands of performances, international acclaim, and several prestigious awards under his belt as a composer. It was not until three years ago, after his sixtieth birthday, that Compo decided to professionally pursue oil painting. Since then, Compo’s work has been displayed in internationally-renowned galleries, show-stopping window displays, and in a debut solo show titled Psychodramatic Landscapes.
On any given day, Charles Compo can be found painting in his studio, engaging with his community of fellow artists and collectors, and gathering inspiration from both the ordinary and extraordinary moments of life in New York City. And as for what’s next for the prolific composer-turned-painter? In Compo’s own words, “Isn’t that what life is: a mystery?”
Edited by Anna Hilbun. Emily Snow is an Art Historian based in Amsterdam, and a contributing writer of TheCollector. She has an MA in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.