Cecilia Charlton: Taking a hard line on surrealism

When introducing Cecilia Charlton to the Artisster community, it may be best to reduce facts to their simplest denomination. 1. She is a talented, American visual artist. 2. She’s pursuing an MFA in London. 3. Her new life and experiences in London, like shopping for art supplies at Green & Stone of Chelsea, are invigorating. 4. She thoroughly enjoys the silent pauses she takes to solely work on her art. 5. She’s even married to an artist.


Charlton is an artist through and through. She’s been an artist more than half her life. She studied at the Yale School of Music & Art. She completed at BFA in Painting at Hunter College. And now, working towards an MFA in Painting at the Royal College of Art, she’s fully committed to her art practice. Charlton relishes in the most basic elements of an artist’s life. As an individual artist, she says she spends most of her time working alone. And she enjoys those solitary studio moments immensely– the times when she’s locked away, secluded from outside impulses. Listening to her, I imagine this is when she feels she’s at her best, most fundamental — most like an artist, in tune with her direction and inspirations, reduced and most herself.


“As artists, we draw on so many inspirations. We get to expose ourselves to many sources. I’m constantly researching and exploring things. I can be a jack of all trades. My working knowledge is actually a culmination of many inputs,” she tells me from the London flat she shares with her husband (who’s also working towards an MFA at Slade School of Fine Art).


She decided to join the Artisster collective after the founder, Sandy Banic, reached out to her directly. She liked the idea of being part of an online gallery to showcase affordable art where the artist has a more active role in promoting and selling original, signed work. Charlton selected several recent works which explore scale, pattern, and notions of the portrait, as well as works from a new body work called “Isolated Abstraction.”



Charlton doesn’t like labels. When I asked her to describe herself in 3 words, she politely asked, “Do I have to? It’s so ‘pigeon-holey’. Words are so solid, they leave less to personal interpretation.” And when existing terms don’t fit, Charlton makes no apologies for inventing new ways of defining her work. She calls her identifiable style and genre “reductive scientific surrealism“. To better understand what that means, I refer to her website:


I create forms that are potentially anthropomorphic yet unrecognizable, well-ordered yet extemporaneous. Within the digitized appearance of the paintings there is a sense of spontaneity – suggesting the presence of a person. Paramount is the implication of disarray, buoyed by the meticulousness with which the elements are constructed; the paintings push the viewer into a space where science and humanity overlap and eerily begin to speak the same language.


Her work is thoughtful and measured. Surreal and mathematical. Straight lines precisely executed, depth and layers pulling the viewer in or pushing us away depending on her focus. Muted tones juxtaposed to dense colors. Her acrylic “Rooms” series is a reflection of her architectural and scientific leanings, while other paintings are titled with practical names like “p-2016-11-27” and “p-2017-02-05”, which refer to the date that the canvas was stretched to begin the artwork.


She says she rarely finds herself creating work that is overtly personal. For Charlton, this kind of work tends to be less honest. “I have tons of personal opinions and thoughts, like most artists, but I don’t convey them directly in my work,” continues Charlton. “I think my background as a potter and in ceramics allows me to not get attached to my individual works.”



I just arrived to the U.K. In September 2016, so I still feel relatively new here. Before that I had been living in NYC for the past 3 Years. When I first moved there, I imagined myself living there forever. But NYC is so congested, in every way really. Even walking through the streets, on the subway, leaving my apartment; sometimes it felt like an assault on the senses. Dodging people on the sidewalks. My work then (not part of the portfolio on Artisster) was also more “congested”. In London, everyone thinks that it’s very crowded and densely populated, but that frenetic energy I had in NYC is no longer part of me. In London, I feel more calm and focused, less congested. There’s a certain composure even in the madness of traffic and masses here that’s refreshing.




I’d like to turn that question around and answer the question of “why does being an artist work for me?”, she says. [A nice change of pace: see how sometimes I got the feeling our roles kept reversing.] “I can be a jack of all trades, trying out different ideas all the time.” Her self-described perfect day is one of the reasons she loves being an artist. “My favorite day is when I can work in the studio and try all these weird things I’ve been working out in my head. I see no one at all, and I’m left to simply do my own work. It’s the day to day life that makes me an artist. I can get up and do it everyday,” Charlton muses.




A turning point for me was when I was taking classes at a community college. It was a ceramics course that I enrolled in just to get exposure to the subject. At some point the professor, Fred Herbst, asked, ”Are you a fine arts major; well, you should be.” And that’s when I started to see myself differently. Involving herself in ceramics was the beginning of the trajectory that has landed her in London, studying painting.




Charlton has noticed that people usually approach her work from a purely aesthetic point of view. They’re captivated by the stark contrasts, the mix of soft shapes and hard edges, organic feel, color palette, and straight lines. Even though her work has developed over the years since she finished her BFA at Hunter College in 2015, one thing remains constant– the hard-edge lines, which have become signature to her style.




Who she leans on: My parents and my sister have always been very supportive. And my husband who is also studying here with me.


What’s next: This summer Charlton has been awarded a self-directed residency at RUD AIR in rural Sweden. She’ll use the two months to broaden her experimentation with textile art, cross-stitch, weaving and wall paintings. “I’m approaching it with more flexibility.”


Italian Flair: I love walking around in Italy. The Italians’ connection with the arts is embedded and omnipresent in their culture. “I saw how they use design elements in unexpected places. I love how they work with patterns everywhere from flooring to landscaping.”


Whose art she follows: Tomma Abts, Björk, but I have to say that contemporary art is in a strange place at the moment.


How she works: Mostly in silence. I never play music, but I do stream podcasts sometimes. I’m subscribed to Fresh Air, The Moth, Hidden Brain, TED Radio Hour.  A current favorite is Crimetown.


Creative block remedies: I try not to over-think what I’m doing until I’ve actually done it. I love creating so much, I just do it. If ever there’s a lack of good ideas, it’s superseded by my desire to make something.


Inspiring text: Indirectly, I’d say Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. I end up reading a lot of fiction. I appreciate how fiction exists as writing and doesn’t rely heavily on artspeak.

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