Jonathan Chánduví

by Emma Wiseman

Into the Mouth of a Wolf
“I literally had no escape when I was growing up, I was either in a museum or a historical society or a wealthy collector’s home.”

This is Jonathan Chánduví talking about his childhood. You could say the craft is in his blood—he’s a third generation art restorer. At a young age Chánduví became his father’s unofficial apprentice, doggedly showing up every morning to prove that he had what it took to carry on the family business. In his 20s, exhausted, he traveled back to his native Peru to “mentally, physically, emotionally detach” from his father and his father’s work. But a newfound sense of individuality and confidence led him back to the States to try his hand as an independent art restorer in New York City. His foray into visual art was a reaction to the stress of trying to get on his feet; he would work through the night on any and all jobs that came his way, and he explains that he “started to experiment on old pieces of wood, pieces of board.”

While giving me a tour of his Spanish Harlem studio, Chánduví casually takes down an early piece and shows me that it’s been done on the back of a shipping crate.

There’s something nice to me about creating a piece of work that’s ‘artwork’ but that’s also durable, kind of the way furniture needs to be used and durable and last over time.

Exactly, functional. That’s what I love when I started working with these materials because they’re unconventional. But you’re right, they’re more durable.

Your work doesn’t seem very precious.

I would create a piece for the outside of my studio. And you know how people always say, “Don’t touch the art,” “Don’t get too close”; I put “Please touch it.” Once I started really selling pieces I started getting into gildings, gold leaf, and distressing with glazes and lacquers. None of my pieces have oil or acrylic. They’re all based on what you would find on a 2,000 year Hung Dynasty statue, or a Biedermeier Abattant, or a modern Julian Opie.

What’s the difference between a restorer and a conservationist, or are they the same thing?

A restorer is mostly visual; to be a great restorer you have to be like a ghost, you’ll never see it. A conservationist looks through a microscope and does carbon dating and so on—they really don’t touch anything, they just preserve what’s there. You’d have to find a piece of leather from that same age, same period. Archeology meets restoration. Mine is restoration meets modern art. I’ll find a leather piece and dip it in tea or something and it looks the same, but you put it under a microscope and you notice.

Do you find that when you’re working on a piece of furniture you have to shift gears from Jonathan the Artist to Jonathan the Ghost-Restorer?

Yeah. I like to work really fast. And some clients get scared of how fast I go on their very old pieces. Sometimes it’s so simple but they’re buying my patience, they’re not buying my sporadic movements. Psychologically they’d rather pay more and I’ve lost projects because I’ve been so realistic on the simplicity of their work, but they just want to pay more sometimes. When I’m the Restorer I have to approach it very classically.

I wish you could rewind the universe and see this master making a piece, and a hundred years later I’m restoring it and it’s paying my bills. And I have to be just as good as this guy. Sometimes I’m like, how the hell did it get this black? Because it’s a color, but it’s a hundred years from then. So your reds aren’t going to look the same and you have to be totally conscious of that.

Has your dad been here to the studio?

Once. And that was, like, last month. He came finally and saw my world. It was good.  It was mixed feelings, to be honest. He was here maybe 45 minutes and then he just left. He says he’s proud, but in the end I think because I’m four years in there’s a lot more I need to do. There’s a lot more I need to accomplish personally.

On Sundays I have kids come here and I teach them for free. I don’t teach them how to paint. I teach them how to open their minds, because that’s just as important. When they leave the studio they understand that when you have an open mind and you apply your creativity, whether you want to be a doctor or a musician or an actor, it really just breaks down in the same way. That’s how you leap.

What would you hope would be the next step in your life as an artist?

I want to have the right people believing in my work. Not to be too accessible to everybody—I’m not a machine. If you buy a piece from me, you believe in me and you know that from there I’ll take the funds to create my own space, work with a musician or a photographer or a fashion person and create our own style together. I love collaboration.

I tell a lot of these young people: You can make it happen. Don’t wait, don’t give yourself an excuse. Put it out there, and I know this sounds as corny as it sounds but the universe does find a way to do it, you just have to be at a point in your life where you’re ready for it.

You have to meet the universe halfway sometimes.

If not then, shit, it might never come.