Sunday, July 15, 2007

Art Space Talk: Christopher Reiger

Growing up on the rural Delmarva Peninsula, Christopher Reiger spent much of his time in pastoral settings, becoming familiar with the local flora and fauna. Whether working alongside his father at field chores, hunting, fishing, or simply playing, he found many of his experiences in the "natural" world similar to those of Lewis Carroll's Alice; Carroll's premise, that "things get curiouser and curiouser," guided Reiger through many an adventure. As an adult, Reiger's love of the outdoors has evolved into a fascination with biology, conservation and behavioral science.
Reiger's current work is informed by the conflict between fact and fiction in natural history and its impact on our species' ever-changing relationship to the biosphere. You can learn about Christopher and his art by visiting his site:

Brian Sherwin: Christopher, you earned an MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Who were your mentors? Can you tell our readers about their art department?
Christopher Reiger: I had a great time at SVA, in part because the program was relatively unstructured. This is a plus for those of us who supply our own demands, but I know some fellow students felt more formal guidelines would help.

The most valuable aspects of the SVA program are the location and the community, and I was fortunate to have terrific peers. We often hear that something like 95% of graduate students stop producing artwork within five years of obtaining the degree. With the staggering cost of grad school, and the ensuing debt, that's a scary figure. So connecting to the community is that much more important.

It's true that the friendships and professional relationships formed in graduate school can sustain you through the highs and lows of a life in art. I turn to fellow artists when I really find myself down-and-out in the studio, and the bulk of my close artist friends I met at SVA.

My favorite professors/artists at SVA were David Shirey, Jake Berthot, Jerry Saltz and Jackie Winsor. David is the chair/founder of the program, and he speaks in essays, something I appreciate. As our general vocabularies continue to shrink, folks like David stand out for his elocution and wit.

He's also something of a provocateur, poking us until we challenge our assumptions. I've always loved a good debate, so his class, where we basically sat in a circle and shot the shit, sometimes with a lot of feeling, was enjoyable. Jake gave the best feedback of any artist I've worked with. He called things like he saw them, with no dressing, and although this often made for harsh critique, his insights were invaluable and he radiated a core kindness.

Jackie was also excellent, but she really seemed to enjoy pulling back the protective veneer and exposing the fraud inside, something I think all young artists are terrified of. Her class shook me up for a long while and that's meant as a compliment.

Jerry Saltz is a writer I admire but more importantly his enthusiasm for looking at and contemplating art is almost tangible. It was a treat to spend time with him. Finally, I'm a fan of Gregory Amenoff's paintings, but I never landed in his class, something which still bums me out a bit today.

BS:Your work often deals with the conflict between contemporary humankind and nature. Why has this become a major theme for you?

CR: For years, centuries really, we first-worlders have willfully denied our own Nature, our animal antecedence. We don't seem willing to accept the fact that we are part of the rest of it, all products of star dust, whether you're talking individuals, species, or the solar system. Humans came up through the ranks of evolution like all of our animal brethren, but we don't much like to acknowledge that.

This is a problem the world over, one worsening as globalization carries capitalism to all corners of the world. We're a sadder people for it. As my father often says, the only thing that separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is our capacity for denial. The conflict between Nature and contemporary man is one of our own making, an intellectual, defensive construction that we must tear down if we're to sustain our species (and some semblance of biodiversity on the planet).

I was in the grocery store this morning and an older gentleman was talking with a companion about his being incontinent. Several other shoppers looked at the pair with disgust. One woman even tsk-tsked the old guy. If we can't talk openly about our bodily functions, it's no surprise that we edit out most scenes of predation in our wildlife television programs, refuse to accept the history of the pork chop we buy at the supermarket, and cover our ears when reports of genocide come over the wire. We're petrified of ourselves, and no bloody good can come of it.

BS: So it is safe to say that your current work is informed by the conflict between fact and fiction in natural history and its impact on our species' ever-changing relationship to the biosphere?

CR: Yes, that is an element of it. So you have the conflict mentioned before, between the reality of being human and our hubris, and then there is the question of the validity of our constructs. I'm very much torn on this count, as I embrace biology. I wear t-shirts with Darwin's picture and I frequent blogs devoted to the sciences. I even work in a neuroscience laboratory for my day job, not as a scientist, mind you, but I enjoy being around the scientists and their experiments. Yet the sciences themselves seem tremendously narrow to me, if only because we've neglected so much sensuous, as in sensed, input in favor of a very particular program of proofs and disproofs.

As a child, the world outside was a playground of the imagination. I grew up on the rural Delmarva Peninsula, and spent a great deal of time outdoors, planting, hunting, fishing, or just playing in the woods, fields and marshes. I anthropomorphized animals and trees and created my own explanations for why this or that event happened. It was a Wonderland, full of magic, truly.

As I aged I was introduced to natural history. Learning facts about wildlife became every bit as exciting as my created stories. I abandoned, in large part, the Wonderland approach in favor of "hard" science. This evolution from enchantment to analysis parallels the history of modern science, the transition out of the Dark Ages, a time of faith, magic, and superstition, into the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution.

But today I look around and see a little bit of the magic and the myth creeping back in. I reacted against it initially, but now I embrace as many fantastic beliefs as I do hard facts. This might sound like a conscious irrational choice, and perhaps it is, but it's central to my work.

There's a John Ruskin quote I always defer to. He describes the "broken harmonies of fact and fancy, thought and feeling, truth and faith." In my painting, I'm trying to bridge that divide. The beautiful thing about Ruskin's quote is that it so neatly and poetically describes not just my own search for balance and integrity, but also the contemporary, global dilemma as we move from a period of illusory certitude and universal truth into the labyrinth of post-modern relativism.

BS: Can you tell our readers about your Fractured Eulogies series? What were your motives behind this collection of work? How does it reflect your concern over our mutable conception of nature?

CR: Conceptually, the "Fractured Eulogies" paintings were borne of the fact-fiction divide mentioned before.

BS: Would you say that nature offers a form of spirituality?

CR: Yes, but I also view Nature as the Everything. We're Nature, the meteoroid in the asteroid belt is Nature, this keyboard is Nature. I find spirit in the interconnectivity. Given the the division and the parcelling off of contemporary life, it's easy for me to forget this, but I try to remind myself regularly what a miraculous experience I'm a part of. Painting is part of that meditation.

Having said that, I would also argue that untrammeled Nature, or the Nature Transcendentalists like Thoreau spoke of, allows us to more easily tap into the wonder and awe, or the Sublime. So, yes, a hike in Yellowstone is more "spiritual" in my opinion than my sitting here typing. But, again, that's really a superficial way to divide experience. Which is why I'm a big fan of contradiction. I have to be; I contradict myself all the time. Again, this is something you're not allowed to do in the arenas of politics or science.

BS: Christopher, can you discuss some of the philosophy behind your work... specifically your view 'hysterical transcendentalism'?

CR: We're seeing a lot of changes these days, and at an accelerated pace. Borders seem less and less relevant and, as we homogenize, cultural identities will become indistinct, perhaps for the greater good. But whatever the long term results for civilization or the species, in the short term we'll have heightened anxiety and outright fear. We're trending back into a period of relativism, of superstition and of economic extremes. I think of this moment as the dawn of hysterical transcendentalism.

We're all increasingly uncertain and insecure, and we grab onto hybrid, rickety cosmologies for support. In the so-called First World, for example, we see a lot of science, mysticism and religion being blended with consumerism. We're advancing beyond the culture of celebrity and distraction.

Distraction has become just one more idol in a cabinet of coping mechanisms. Even if the world could use a dose of healthy, moral magic, slippage into a renewed Dark Age is undesirable. Nobody wants warlordism and feudal politics to become the global norm and I worry we're trending that way.

Anyway, this all sounds rather vague and foreboding, but I don't want to give the impression that I'm a doomsayer. The landscapes in the "Hysterical Transcendentalism" series are as much about hope as they are anxiety. On the one hand they depict a melting world, a Nature torn apart and dissolving. But that dissolving is also an opening of the senses, the seepage of magic and mystery back into the picture.

One construct may be deformed, in this case the rational one, but that very deformation is natural and even exciting, wonderful. In a nutshell, these works are about cherishing and celebrating the universality of life in the face of growing uncertainty. In this regard they are reactionary, though not necessarily in the placard-protest sense of the word.

BS: Your biomorphic landscape paintings are often very colorful, reactionary works. These works have been considered to be both foreboding and joyous by viewers. Is it one of your goals to have people question their perceptions by viewing these paintings?

CR: Yes, definitely. And to question where those perceptions came from.
It's always interesting to hear what various viewers have to say about paintings in this series. For example, one person might be made uncomfortable by a painting while another finds the same picture somber and moving. Good. Nature is ambivalent. I try to make these paintings reflect that. That's why they vacillate between foreboding and joyous. How the works are read greatly depends on the mood or spirit of the viewer.

BS: You have been known to work on soaked and stretched Arches paper. You use many media on one surface- preferring watercolor, sumi inks, acrylic and graphite. From that point you stack images much as one would do when doodling in the margins of notebook. Can you go further into detail about your artistic practice?

CR: The "Hysterical Transcendentalism" and "Fractured Eulogies" series are both on soaked and stretched Arches paper, although the more recent works - most of the "H.T." body - I remove from the support when they are completed. They're framed, displayed under UV-resistant plexi. I think the mode of display should be dictated by the piece or series and the "Hysterical Transcendentalism" works, with all that saturated color and the riffs on traditional landscape, do better with a frame. The "Fractured Eulogies," on the other hand, are often so open that they should breathe at the edge, and a frame isn't needed.

As for the image stacking, I don't really do that anymore. The "Fractured Eulogies" certainly involved a lot of it, though. In fact, a curator at The Drawing Center in SoHo dismissed the work as the scribblings of a high school stoner. Those works were very much about unconscious connection, trying to marry the rational, scientific world of quantifying and measuring - hence all the rulers, slash marks, graphs and the like - to the world of magic and wonder, particularly with respect to scale and natural processes like sedimentation, decomposition and erosion.
I liked juxtaposing those ideas with "pop" colors and a graphic line.
Those works made themselves, and I was along for the ride. The process just lost its appeal for me over time. Perhaps I'll revisit it, but I'm not feeling it right now. For now, the "Hysterical Transcendentalism" approach is more exciting and, although the materials are the same, the process is very different, much more involved and thought out.

BS: Finally, where do you see your work going in the near future?

CR: I like to have at least one side experiment going at all times, and although I'm eagerly continuing with the "Hysterical Transcendentalism" paintings, I'm also playing around with map collages and other ways of approaching the same concepts. I've no idea where these will go or if they'll come to fruition at all. Most of the side-projects are abandoned or destroyed, but what matters is the playing itself.

The artwork aside, I'll continue with the writing for Hungry Hyaena and other spots online. I'd like to start inviting guest writers to contribute to HH. Perhaps that conversation could lead to the formation of a collective? I'm very interested in finding a core group of thoughtful, intellectually engaged artists, not necessarily like-minded, but exploring similar territory, with which to have regular dialogue.
The Internet makes that easy, which is another reason why MyArtSpace is a helpful resource, and I have my eye on several artists scattered around the globe. An international collective seems particularly interesting to me, especially if I could find artists in developing countries to participate. We'll see what happens. Thanks again, Brian.
I hope that you have enjoyed my interview with Christopher Reiger. You can observe his gallery below.
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin

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