CHRISTINA PETTERSSON explores decay, memorialization, and resurrection in large-scale graphite drawings that reference classic literature from the English Canon. Her romantic landscapes, populated by a recurring female figure surrounded by animals, reveal the wildness of the experience of a world in decline. Most recently, her work has been exhibited at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood in Florida and at Launch F18, curated by Site95, in New York. Christina lives in Miami, Florida.
OtherPeoplesPixels: You draw exclusively in graphite. What are the challenges of this medium and what are the benefits?
Christina Pettersson: I am able to achieve a tremendous amount of detail working with graphite, but it's a very silvery medium. I sometimes miss the true darkness of charcoal or oil. It's also very difficult to photograph well. If I try to capture the authentic grey of my drawings, it looks dull, and I find I have to cheat the contrast for reproduction purposes. It's a shame. On the other hand, it's cheap, non-toxic, and absolutely the most comfortable medium I've ever used. And I've tried plenty. It reminds me of writing too: the singular aesthetic of words on white. It's strange to think that in all my years of schooling no one ever told me I could just draw if I wanted. I had to be a painting major... then fiber, then sculpture. When I finally started just drawing again in my late twenties, I knew immediately that this was it for me.
Solo Show, Spinello Gallery
OPP: Most of your drawings are quite large, bigger than the body of the viewer to be sure. Have you always drawn on this scale? Why is the scale important to the work?
CP: The body is almost always to scale with life, and has been for a long time. I find it very difficult to relate to a figure otherwise. I want the viewer to be able to step right up and feel as if s/he could step into the page, as my figures are stand-ins for the viewers themselves. I want the viewer to imagine being in the various scenarios I put them in. The fact is they are not much about my personality. I want to be a storyteller. Rauschenberg said that narrative is the sex of art, and I think I understand what he meant. I am drawn to the pleasure and pain of beautiful tales, and it is not about fulfilling logic.
OPP: I'm interested in the fact that you say they aren't much about your personality, because the figures are in your own image, correct? Can you talk about the desire to insert yourself into "the pleasure and pain of beautiful tales?"
CP: The figures are almost always of me, but I don't consider them "self portraits." Admittedly, something about that term gives me the heebie jeebies...as if I'm trying to bare my soul, I guess. Let's face it though: there's no avoiding yourself, no matter what you do. Yet when we write the stories about ourselves, we inevitably change them. So why not steal from the better narratives of the Bible, literature, mythology? In art, the whole of history becomes a record of my own life. The act of drawing is so bizarre and primal. It is the demon's whisper that no book is closed forever, so keep digging. So, I would rather resurrect Ophelia from Shakespeare's murdered chambers, without any idea of what will happen, than to tell you what I already know.
OPP: There's is a pervading sense of Romanticism in both your drawings and in your video work. I mean that in terms of the mid-late 18th century ideals in European literature and art that were a response to the Enlightenment. There was a call back to nature and an attention to the wildness of the emotional life that is seen historically as a reaction to the hyper-rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment. Can you talk about these values in the context of our contemporary world?
CP: Absolutely. Most of my stories are resurrected from the best literary tales throughout history, spawned by murder or undying love. These are the primal fires that fuel my desire to be alive in the world. The figures were previously in large expanses of empty space, but lately the background has been playing a larger role. The sense of distance that it evokes echoes the romantic landscape tradition, from Claude Lorraine to the Hudson River School. The “sfumato” of the landscape—to use one of the four canonical painting modes of the Renaissance—literally means "gone up in smoke." I love those weird Pagan landscapes, too, especially Giorgione's Sleeping Venus, which shows a woman inexplicably reclining on flowing fabric in the romantic outdoors. There is this sense of an empire on the brink of collapse from it's own decadence. The old world is receding, and this reclining woman is both protector and destroyer. I want to restore that epic and mythological dimension, a sense of awe and reverence for the world.
OPP: From 2004-2008, you made a series of drawings of bricks taken from the houses of famous writers, including William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, and William Butler Yeats. Then, in 2009, you made drawings of the overgrown graves of Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty. The first thing that strikes me is the difference in how History treats male and female writers. Was this part of your intention when you made the later drawings?
CP: It was, though I'm not sure how deliberate it was at the time. Now that seems obvious to me, too, but in the beginning I worked on instinct and trust. I did initially visit the last surviving house of Zora, down the street from where she was buried in Fort Pierce, Florida. But it was a mean and lonely place of poverty and obscurity she died in. It was the opposite of the brick and magnolia grandeur of Faulkner's estate. Her grave itself was unmarked for over a decade, a mere empty lot beside the train tracks, until Alice Walker bought her a tombstone. The tree I drew is a Brazilian Pepper. It's not a tree so much as a shrub, an invasive species no one plants intentionally. It grows in the ditches among the weeds. Welty, on the other hand, was a white woman who was born and died comfortably, and was buried in a beautiful Civil War-era cemetery in Jackson, Mississippi. At her grave is a proud Juniper tree. So even between the two there is a great psychological distance.
Jack Kerouac's House, detail
OPP: The second thing that struck me about these drawings is more about you than the drawings themselves, and I see it in all your work that references literary texts. In your statement about the brick series, you say: "A lone graphite drawing of a brick, surrounded by a great expanse of white paper, can tell the story of how spirit actually finds its way inside of matter and how humans tend to it." This is a beautiful idea that gets at one of my personal interests: fandom. Although fandom is usually associated with media, like TV shows and movies, or sports, I love the idea of literary fandom. It's really the same thing: an intense engagement with a "text" (in the flexible, postmodern sense of the word), in which the text is a portal to other ideas or to other people. Did the houses and the graves you chose have personal significance for you?
CP: Yes! All great love affairs. Fandom is a perfect way to describe it. After all, stealing bricks from houses is certainly as weird as tearing off a scrap of cloth from a singer and keeping it at your bedside table. We each choose our own holy relics. Text, in particular, is a portal for me, because I can lift certain phrases and sentences off the page and carry them around in my head. They hang about for months and years, haunting me, repeating and repeating. I could stare at a painting by Caravaggio forever, but I could never carry it around afterwards. Not even a hand or a foot. My mind won't hold on to it. Drawing the bricks was partly about that—an attempt to make as close a copy as possible. In the end though, a drawing of a brick is not really a brick at all. But with writing you can make an exact copy. I suppose this is the real source of my romantic relationship with the world. When I walk down the street on a fall day, Shakespeare is incanting:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
And so on. I just looked up the word incantation, by the way. "Ritual recitation of verbal charms or spells to produce a magic effect." Isn't that wonderful?
It's a shame most people only read stuff like Shakespeare in high school. Writers were great prophets in the past, like oracles or augurs. Tennyson was one of the last poets famous enough to have crowds of people follow him down the street to his home on the Isle of Wight. That was long ago. That was fandom of a different color.
OPP: Before, you mentioned you want to tell stories and that the graphite reminds you of writing. Did you ever want to be a writer instead of a visual artist?
CP: Always! More than I wanted to be an artist probably. But getting your second choice in life isn't at all bad. I just want more time to read: weeks, months, years. It's the only thing that makes me wish I believed in an afterlife, because like Borges, "I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” So, third career choice: librarian?
To view more of Christina's work, please visit christinapettersson.com.