“It feels like we’re all in the last days of something, right?”
This is artist Diane Christiansen.
We’re meeting to discuss her work in the Chicago Cultural Center’s exhibition “An Instrument in the Shape of a Woman,” but the unsettling state of the world casts long shadows over our conversation. Just a day before, nineteen children and two teachers were murdered in Uvalde, Texas. A few days before that, ten people in Buffalo.
A practicing therapist, Christiansen is visibly shaken by the previous day’s events. “I’m not sure that I’m ready to do this,” she says, referring to our interview. “In some ways art feels like just rearranging the proverbial deck chairs. Or, in my case, maybe I’m decorating the deck chairs.”
Christiansen reveals a knowing smile, and deep chestnut-colored hair surrounds kind and penetrating eyes. Over the course of nearly an hour-and-a-half, we discuss painting, the pandemic, lost loved ones and the critical need for space both physically and psychically. As our conversation progresses, she becomes more animated; her enthusiasm for art, music and Eastern philosophy is palpable, even through the flickering connection of the ubiquitous Zoom call.
Theoretically, “An Instrument in the Shape of a Woman,” is a group show featuring displays by Leslie Baum and Selina Trepp in addition to Christiansen. In practice, it feels like a series of solo shows in adjacent galleries. Of the three artists’ work—all women, all middle-aged—Christiansen’s seems the most outward-facing. Large-scale works on paper, such as the diaristic “Weather Report,” or the incendiary red indictment of the system that is the “Last Days of Capitalism” wear their thematic cues in a way many contemporary abstract paintings do not.
How does the world enter her work?
“At the beginning of the pandemic one of my closest relatives, my sister’s husband, died of coronavirus—he was very young. And about a year before that we lost my parents, basically, back-to-back.”
Loss broke everything open. And for the artist, the only way to deal with it was the same way that she had been processing the Trump years.
“I’d just go out to the studio and try to have this ritual. I started making these little pieces and I’d send them to several of my clients that were really isolated. They would say things like ‘Hold tight,’ and other various little affirmations. I was trying to give myself something to connect to.”
That’s how “Weather Report” came to be, it stemmed from the death of the artist’s brother-in-law.
A sprawling record of calamity, “Weather Report” is a green-and-black Rorschach-stained reminder of a civilization-altering event that will never end. Black dots ascend the paper’s surface, punctuated by dates and descriptions of the day’s events. Near the top, the whole composition seems to open up. “And that’s why I left the space up there. Because this illness will just keep going, and going…”
And like so many things, the exhibition, conceptualized years ago, was put on hold because of the pandemic.
“I think the dates may have changed, two or even three times,” Christiansen mused after a pause to gather her thoughts. During the delay, the work she initially proposed to show changed radically.
“My work just kept evolving and changing and I started freaking out, like I was going to have way too much work that I wanted to put in. But with the help of my artist friends coming over and going, ‘No, don’t have an entire wall of plaster paintings,’ I edited the stuff to just a few.”
The five large works on paper benefit from the clarity the space gives them. “Milarepa’s Ear,” a bold, blue slab of color bisected by a continuous white line, is littered with small portholes revealing aspects of a painting beneath. It takes time for these moments to arise, and even in their revelation, it’s not always clear what we’re looking at. In order to penetrate the work’s meaning, the viewer needs psychic distance.
“When I counsel clients, help them with marriage or anxiety issues, one thing you have to do is create a lot of space and a lot of empathy.”
“And painting does that too,” Christiansen continues. “You create and you slow time, and it becomes, what in Buddhism is called a ‘transmission’—a whole body of knowledge is communicated instantaneously in front of a painting.”
Despite the dominance of lens-based media for the last half-century, and the more recent rise of fashionable “immersive” events, the strength and relevance of painting continues in its ability to transmit. Though a work might begin in a moment of tragedy, the distance it gives us can lead to joy.
“I’m so happy with how the show has turned out, and how great everyone’s work is. I never imagined how positive the response would be, or how many people would have seen it.”
A warm smile fills Christiansen’s face, and we both agree: an hour-and-a-half after we started, we’re feeling better. (Alan Pocaro)
“An Instrument in the Shape of a Woman” is on view at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 East Washington, through September 4.