My work is philosophically driven and raises questions in a comical way. When making imagery, I start with an interesting irony or absurdity. Sometimes the images are just humorous, but frequently they also have a sarcastic, dark element. I’m interested in and deeply concerned about our cultural confusions in the areas of science, religion and politics, and I make work which reflects those concerns.
I didn’t think about being an artist as a child, but when a college roommate set-up a darkroom in a house we were renting, I discovered the magic of photography. It was love at first sight of an image materializing in the developer tray. That was in 1968 and I’ve been on an artist’s journey since. I’ve had a few other mini-careers along the way, but whenever I put the camera down, I wander more or less blindly. The photographic process keeps me engaged with both the inner and outer realms and provides a mechanism for more than self-expression; it has set me up with a way of being in the world. There is no separate part of my life which is sort-of distinct from my life as an artist. While I don’t always carry a camera and am not always thinking about how to use this or that experience in my work, I do pay attention to the inner muse and note ideas that are interesting and possibly useful. So, for example, if a conversation while on vacation resonates, I stop and record the point of interest as soon as possible because I’ve learned that it may inspire new work. The photographs that are necessary for the construction of a piece may or may not already be in my collection, but ideas are what gets the ball rolling.
Finally, after I’ve completed a new piece, it often doesn’t resemble what I intended at the outset. No matter, for as the process stimulates and challenges, the work mutates and that’s the true reward.Download John Charbonneau's printable statement.
John Charbonneau discovered photography in the late 1960s and with it, an engagement with the world that is best expressed through a photographic lens. His philosophical and often comical subject matter combines animal heads, mostly birds but also dogs and other familiar creatures, with human bodies. According to Charbonneau, these ‘birdmen’ can be interpreted as a new kind of human, one with the abilities and spiritual freedoms we envy in our feathered friends.
“By replacing human heads with bird heads, the constraint of recognition is replaced with an ambiguity,” explains Charbonneau. “The birds bring their associated symbolism, but clearly they are now also dealing with our bodily limits.”
These anthropomorphic creatures are placed in dream-like settings that reflect irony or absurdity, creating confusion around subjects such as politics, science, and religion. Charbonneau adds a bit of humor to dispel any offense around these often touchy topics, while also raising meaningful questions and enchanting contemplations. The result is an opening to consider new possibilities, and to re-imagine and manipulate iconic imagery. Starting with a conceptual sketch, each piece blends digital painting and photographic elements into a photo-realistic dreamscape.
An artist living in Santa Fe’s cultural melting pot, Charbonneau is inspired by art in a variety forms. However his love for photography has naturally drawn him to gain inspiration from the medium’s masters, including Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Steichen and Stieglitz. Upon discovering the photographs of Minor White, whose work was guided by spiritual and intellectual interpretations of photography, Charbonneau began experimenting with symbolical abstractions in his work, leading him to his current style. Idea development also comes from his family life, travels, and love of reading.
“There is no separate part of my life which is distinct from my life as an artist. I’ve learned to take notes whenever I find or have ideas that are interesting and possibly useful for my art. That kind of linkage is a great perk of being an artist.”
Download John Charbonneau's printable biography.