Creating space: Diane Christiansen slows down time with her work
“It feels like we’re all in the last days of something, isn’t it?”
Meet artist Diane Christiansen.
We meet to discuss her work in the Chicago Cultural Center exhibit “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 events of the previous day. “I’m not sure I’m ready to do this,” she said, referring to our interview. “In a way, the art looks like just rearranging the proverbial lounge chairs. Or, in my case, maybe decorating the loungers.
Christiansen reveals a knowing smile, and deep brown hair surrounds kind and penetrating eyes. For almost an hour and a half, we discuss painting, the pandemic, lost loved ones and the critical need for both physical and psychic space. As our conversation progresses, it comes alive; his enthusiasm for Eastern art, music and 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 Leslie Baum and Selina Trepp in addition to Christiansen. In practice, it looks like a series of solo exhibitions in adjacent galleries. Of the works by the three artists, all women, all middle-aged, Christiansen’s seems the most outward-looking. Large-scale works on paper, such as the newspaper “Weather Report” or the incendiary red indictment of the system that is the “last days of capitalism”, carry their thematic cues in a way that many paintings contemporary abstracts do not carry.
How does the world enter into his work?
“At the start 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.
The loss shattered everything. And for the artist, the only way to handle that was the same way she handled the Trump years.
“I was just going to the studio and trying to have this ritual. I started making these little pieces and sending them to several of my clients who were really isolated. They said things like “Hold on” and other little affirmations. I was trying to give myself something to connect to.
This is how “Weather Report” was born, it was born from the death of the artist’s brother-in-law.
A sprawling record of calamities, “Weather Report” is a Rorschach-tinged green-and-black reminder of a civilization-altering event that will never end. Black dots rise to the surface of the paper, punctuated with dates and descriptions of the day’s events. Upwards, the whole composition seems to open up. “And that’s why I left the space up there. Because this disease is just going to continue, and go…”
And like so many things, the exhibit, conceptualized years ago, has been put on hold due to the pandemic.
“I think the dates may have changed, twice or even three times,” Christiansen mused after pausing to collect his thoughts. During the delay, the work she originally set out to show changed dramatically.
“My work kept evolving and changing and I started to panic, like I was going to have way too much work that I wanted to do. But with the help of my artist friends who came and said, ‘No, don’t have an entire wall of plaster paintings’, I edited just a few of them.
The five large works on paper benefit from the clarity that space gives them. “Milarepa’s Ear”, a bold blue colored slab bisected by a continuous white line, is littered with small portholes revealing aspects of a painting below. It takes time for these moments to arise, and even in their revelation, it’s not always clear what we’re looking at. To penetrate the meaning of the work, the spectator needs a psychic distance.
“When I’m counseling clients, helping them with marriage issues or anxiety, one thing you have to do is create a lot of space and a lot of empathy.”
“And painting does too,” Christiansen continues. “You create and you slow down time, and it becomes what in Buddhism is called ‘transmission’ – a whole body of knowledge is communicated instantaneously in front of a painting.”
Despite the dominance of lens-based media over the past half-century and the more recent rise of fashionable “immersive” events, the strength and relevance of painting lives on in its ability to convey. Although a work may begin in a moment of tragedy, the distance it gives us can lead to joy.
“I’m so happy with the way the show went and the quality of everyone’s work. 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 starting, we feel 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.