Chaz Guest sees the whole world as jazz: the improvisational style, the reaction to energy, the frenetic air of the moment. He talks about Miles Davis and John Coltrane as his biggest influences. When I hop in his car, he starts the engine and contemporary jazz piano booms from the speakers full volume.
“Most people call it jazz, what it really is is classical American music,” he explains. “Sometimes you shouldn’t think. Miles Davis used to say that all the time to his musicians: ‘Just abandon what you learned. You know what to do not to slip off of the cliff. Just don’t think’.”
But Chaz Guest is not a musician. Guest is a painter of high acclaim whose work is rich, tactile and conceptually layered. Guest’s true passion is painting.
“I know that if I wasn’t doing this, I wouldn’t be doing anything. So this is who Chaz Guest is. He was born to be a painter,” he says.
We talk at one of those tiny boutique coffee shops equipped with only an iPad, an espresso machine and a charmingly scruffy barista. A high-level gymnast in college, Guest is in his 50s, but no one would guess it from his muscular frame and vibrant energy. Charming, his laughter is a buoyant bass that resonates through a room. We sip on espresso and then walk to his studio near Miracle Mile.
Filled with artifacts from his world travels, Guest’s studio reflects his global influences. The room is decorated with a mix of African sculpture, stacks of books and canvasses and figurines of samurai complete with robes and swords. His desk is cluttered with brushes, jars of ink, and tubes of paint. Littering the table along with matchbooks and fringes of paper lies a copy of a Roy Lichtenstein book with it’s fierce dots pointing outward. Beneath that I spy corners of an early Marvel comic.
For Guest, cartoons and comic books were early inspirations. He was taken by the power and imagination of superheroes during the golden years of DC and Marvel.
“To have super powers like Spiderman or Superman, and to be able to get pissed off and turn into a big green dude!” he muses.
Guest’s latest show is the beginning of a monumental project depicting the life, legacy and adventures of a comic superhero of his invention, Buffalo Warrior.
The story of Buffalo Warrior is complex and culturally resonant. Born as a slave named Booker Cooper who was recruited for the the infamous 10th Regiment Cavalry, or “Buffalo Soldiers,” Buffalo Warrior is killed upon sacred native grounds when he communes with a powerful spirit that bestows him with the power to combat evil and traverse time.
“The story of Buffalo Warrior and the aesthetic, even who he is, just came very easily,” he says. “It was like a spiritual download from another place. All I had to do was ask for it and they provided all of the information and imagery. I want Buffalo Warrior to inspire people in recognizing evil and trying to deal with it in a spiritual way and sometimes a physical way.”
Here, Guest’s fluid brushwork bends and sings like the jazz of Coltrane’s horn. His imagination pollinates the project. At the opening of The Origins of Buffalo Warrior, tufts of cotton flowers gather around a bench tracing Booker Cooper’s lineage. There are paintings, drawings, life-size sculptures and tiny figurines of Buffalo Warrior in his mask and blue armor. He wields a pair of buffalo horns as his weapon.
Buffalo Warrior marks a departure from Guest’s previous work which is applauded for capturing the spirit of real-life subjects. He has depicted people from around the globe: dancers, peasants, musicians, sumo-wrestlers and politicians.
In a painting Guest made of Barack Obama before his presidency, Guest demonstrates his ability to essentialize his subjects.
“I thought it was so interesting with his arms folded and the way he listens and responded to the conversation, and I just took mental pictures of his energy,” he says. “So that portrait that I did was not president Barack Obama. That’s Barack Obama the person.”
The lines are swift and angular, the gestural style evoking more Charlie Parker than Coltrane. Obama is posed pensively with arms folded; a pose now almost ingrained with the president’s image. Like any good jazz musician, Guest knows when the moment is right, when he’s not thinking.
“I’m not interested in doing any portraits of just anyone. I would have to be inspired somehow,” he says. “Intrigued, inspired. I’m not interested in making a beautiful picture. I’m interested more in capturing the spirit of something. We’re just here as a casing, and we embody this amazing replica of the universe as a spirit using this. I’m more interested in trying to capture that.”
Music is pivotal to Guest’s life, work and inspiration. He shared some of his favorite jazz albums with me. Listen through the playlist below for an intimate window into Guest’s jazz spirit.
You can find out more about Chaz Guest’s work and the saga of Buffalo Warrior at the artist’s website.
Text and photos by Kelby Vera
Editing by Allison Wolfe