My recent paintings and works on paper are deconstructed landscapes. These depictions are primarily generated from cloud imagery that plays the role of symbol, index and vector. I re-assemble and re-assign sourced digital fragments, translating them into minimalist planes of suggestive naturalism, gradients, and repetitive space.
Interview with Christopher Saunders
Questions by Jessica Petrylak and Emily Burns
Hi Christopher! can you tell us about your background and how influenced your decision to pursue the arts?
Hi Jessica and Emily! I'm originally from Virginia and grew up in a range of places that was at the time collectively referred to as Tidewater (coastal South Eastern Virginia). I spent a lot time around water, as there is a longstanding beach and river culture in the area. Both sets of grandparents were farmers by inheritance and vocation. The partial exception being that my maternal grandfather spent a career in the Air force before returning to farming in the early 1960s. So many of my formative memories are etched by those pieces of farmland and the coastlines of Virginia and North Carolina. My teen years would be different and more or less informed by mall culture and the peculiar dystopia of rural suburbia.
I would describe the region as a slow and somewhat insulated place during that time. There was no real access to art or art awareness during most of my upbringing, but the family land and the cultivation of it, gave me an early cosmology that has stayed with me. A favorite past time for me as kid was lying down at the farm and watching clouds form and dissipate. I also came to love watching the day end with all the attendant gradient beauty that comes in summer. Keep in mind that the land is extremely flat in this region so the atmospheric effects could be quite dramatic with the sky always carrying a bit of weight compared to earth below it. I also think that unknowingly I was getting a lesson in process through the lens of my grandparents. The cultivation of crops, the close observation to every stage coupled with the factor of "chance" in the form of weather probably has some bearing on my intuitions as an artist.
Growing up, I always drew with pencil. I was that kid who wanted to draw everything they saw. I mostly copied images from popular culture, some cartooning and the occasional drawing of worn and falling barns. Fortunately, I was encouraged by my family as well as many teachers to keep drawing but I don't think anyone really viewed it as a way to live. I'm thankful to them all for allowing that side of me to flourish. In hindsight I see that as a major factor in my sense of self.
In high school, I got really into music (mostly indie, hardcore, post punk) and poetry (20th century) with a couple art classes mixed in. I feel like I have to credit music first for providing a portal into another kind of awareness, a counter measure to the examples I saw of everyday life. Music stirred my initial creative yearnings (still does). Secondly, I credit literature. Here was my first introduction to larger ideas, observation as a device, and theoretical concerns around the larger world. Somewhere lurking inside something was gnawing at me but I still didn't quite know what it was. I thought maybe I'd be a writer or something.
I didn't really pursue studying art until after my sophomore year in undergraduate school. I took an elective in drawing and had great support from my professor. That support along with a couple of art history courses got me a lot closer to understanding this compulsion I was beginning to feel around making things. So I changed majors and transferred to art school at VCU. It was not a popular decision at home but to everyone's credit no one tried to stop me either. The rest is the next 20 plus years and counting.
Your work has increasingly incorporated instances of digital glitching or fragmented static—how does this translate through a medium such as painting? What does this process look like?
Yes, increasingly I'm trying to bring in some noise and methods of pattern disruption. The translation part I'm still working on but I think painting has many ways of behaving and becoming. Often painting is about finding a solution you like and then breaking it apart for a solution you aren't sure about. That's when the opening reveals itself for a more generative outcome that can sustain further work. So for me the fragment, glitch, static, can behave as an erasure of sorts but also as a bridge to a less determined yet more impactful state of presence for an individual work.
The material process is a bit hard to define. I have a few tricks around paint application, dry time and selective paint removal. Mostly, the process centers around trial and error, some good luck and less about an accurate depiction of these types of irregularities found in technologies
You mentioned in a previous interview that you have an enormous collection of images stored on your hard drive. When you’re collecting reference photographs—both digitally-excavated and self-taken—how do you decide what makes a good reference point to begin a painting?
Yes the index is quite big. Going back over a decade, I think initially I was drawn to collecting images as a way to filter my thinking—a form of drawing almost. I was really a hunter-gatherer selecting anything I might need, what my vocabulary might look like, and also to perhaps understand that moment which was exploding with a universe of digital imagery.
After many years later, I think I've internalized the sourcing to a point where I am much more triggered by impulse, as the imagery I'm using is mostly my own capture. The ultimate criteria being, can I make this with my hands? Can I translate it into the language of another medium without any of the trappings of replicating photography?
You have expressed that you enjoy the dichotomy of taking inspiration from both natural and digitized elements, can you elaborate on this?
I do enjoy conflating these two. I see it as an extension of our moment in history. Weaving in and out of the real every day but never really leaving the digital light.
When speaking about light in your work, do you view the light as coming from a real place or behind a screen of sorts? How does this light affect your color palette?
All of the above. 99% of the time I work in conditions of natural daylight. This is my preferred environment hands down. The color palette is truly influenced by that real time light and its changes throughout the seasons. In addition to source material, there is a lot of intuition at play in color choices as well as traditional methodology in color mixing. The other light source is photographic/digital light, usually distilled through a digital thumbnail. I look to these as a way to key up certain palette choices and provide another light signature for the painting. In essence I'm weaving different types of light into a standalone instance.
Have you always worked abstractly? How has your work changed over the years?
Actually I was a figure painter all through undergrad and graduate school. I came to a dead end and pursued photography for a couple of years after my MFA as a way to clear out the baggage. This led me to landscape (and place studies), which ultimately brings us to now.
I'm probably alone in this opinion but I still read my current work through the lens of landscape.
You earned a BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and an MFA from the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University—what was your college experience like? How has that experience influenced the way you work now?
There are highs and lows to any school experience but I feel very fortunate to have been in each of those programs. They were quite different from one another and as a result I think I received a very round educational experience. With VCU I got a very specific take on Modernism and Post War American art. It was heavy on process and physicality. The students were dedicated and we literally lived at the studios. I really had training in learning a range of mediums. It was intense and gave me a true work ethic that has served me well in the years since.
Rutgers was the other end of the pendulum. Highly theoretical, activist and academic, an interdisciplinary program where we read non-stop and critted non-stop. A thick skin was a quickly acquired necessity. We were taught to take responsibility for our work, know "the why" and to not be afraid of writing and speaking. It was a different type of work ethic that also has proved valuable in subsequent years. In terms of faculty, it was a fortunate time in that I had artists like Geoffrey Hendricks, Joan Semmel, Martha Rosler, Dawoud Bey, Emma Amos, and Mel Edwards as teachers and advisors - to name a few.
Both schools forged the skill of self-critique and I can't imagine it any other way.
How do you think location has affected the way you work? Is it important for the artist to respond to the culture of their current environment?
Living in New York is not easy on anyone, but maintaining a creative practice is particular in its difficulties here. I think this location has shaped how I compartmentalize and how I make decisions in the studio. I'm a bit ruthless and even keep a time card for myself! I'm always looking for ways to cut out indecision that isn't serving inquiry and slowing down my efforts.
I also think being in a city full of art and artists provides a level of comfort in knowing that you are not alone and that many have chosen the same path. There is support here and a full body of active perspectives. This gives you edge and challenges you to keep working at it.
As to responding to culture and environment, I would say that the studio practice doesn't exclusively reside inside the studio. The practice that is alive is one that is within you and goes with you everywhere. The practice is also what you are surrounded by daily. That even includes your daily commute. You have to be awake, study the outside world and continue to value your creative self in proportionate measure. The point is to always evolve but with empathy.
What is your studio space like? Is there a specific environment that you work best in?
My studio space is sort of an old school Brooklyn art studio. It's within a former factory and I've been there for nearly 15 years. The best feature is that I have one full wall of windows that saturate the studio with natural light. I've worked in all manner of conditions. I would say the main requirement for me is natural light and enough space to feel a physical relationship to the work I'm making.
Is there anything that significantly destroys or enhances your groove in the studio?
After so many years in New York, you get pretty good at being flexible and adaptive. Being able to adjust to constant change is a required skill if you want to live and work here. You kind of learn to pick up where you left off no matter what the challenge in life may be. I think the only real thing that derails a session for me is if I'm forcing an idea or approach that I'm not fully committed to or ready for.
What is a typical day like for you?
My typical day is an early morning and a commute to work. Hopefully I will garner some train time to review works in progress on my phone or perhaps some reading. Evenings are typically relaxing at home or a brief session at the studio. Weekends are the primary time for art production.
The car window framing the world go by had captivated your artistic eye at an early age—how does the aspect of movement inform your work? If the viewer were to break through, does the painting lead somewhere, maybe encapsulate a void?
Thanks for reading that interview! Motion crept into my work when I was a figurative artist and trying to find a way to orient yet displace the figures I was drawing and painting. I was very captivated by the blur and the way that could transform an image.
Now movement occurs more through an interplay of light, with repetition and subtle color shifts. A sense of movement is central to how the image is constructed, both in compositional considerations and how the work should actually feel.
I hope that it leads to a feeling really or perhaps a memory. The driver in all of this is to create space for the viewer (like I've created for myself), to simply turn within for a few seconds. That's the breakthrough I'm hopeful for, a personal moment that belongs to no one else but that person.
Can you speak about the scale and spatial placement of your work—do you always work vertically and if so, is there significance to this?
Scale is always a tough early decision. Some imagery lends itself better to say 8 x 10 in. and some is easier realized at 6 feet. With the exception of a handful of larger scale paintings, typically I've worked on the smaller side to maintain a certain range of intimacy in order to achieve types of surface quality. Ideally I want the same visceral impact no matter the size. I want each work to be able to hold the wall by itself.
I like the vertical format a lot. I feel really comfortable within it. Some of that choice has to do with an interest in vertical depth and increasingly in a sort of stacking information into the frame. It provides a type of tension. Beyond that I suppose you can liken it to a window or door in how it might orient the viewer.
If your work came with “exercises for viewing” what might that entail?
I think the exercise would simply ask to slow down, don't simply scan it assuming you know the piece but look closely.
You’ve talked about being influenced by artists such as Sally Mann, Gerhard Richter, and John Baldessari. Who are you looking to for inspiration these days?
These days I think I'm mostly just taking in everything I can without a specific beacon of influence. We're surrounded by so many incredible historical shows in New York recently that I'm just trying to learn and absorb as much as possible.
Has there been any other media (book/essay/poem/film/etc.) that has changed your view or influenced your work in a significant way?
Tough question, so many have and continue to do so. A few early examples would be Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, Atlas by Gerhard Richter, and The Lure of the Local by Lucy Lippard.
Besides art, what are some of the things that interest you or that you enjoy the most?
Standard stuff really. I'm an avid reader, so books are very central to my life as is music. Travel has afforded me many of my most cherished experiences in life. Good food, good company, the ocean and maybe a little baseball in the summer are worthwhile pursuits.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a working artist? How have you resolved them?
Like many I think the biggest challenge has been lack of market support and choosing to live in an expensive metropolis. There have been degrees of success with exposure and sales over the years but never a full-time or consistent platform. Securing that platform is not so easily resolved, so you work around that factor and keep pushing the work forward. To survive, you find a parallel career to support yourself financially while participating in the arts community as much as you can.
Do you believe it is important for an artist to operate and engage frequently with social media or in an online format currently?
At this point these platforms are public utilities. I think the answer to your question is somewhat informed by one's generation and even one's geographic location, but by and large we're all fully embedded into the matrix.
For me I see a lot of sides to the digital space. I've personally benefitted from being any early adopter of blogging. I operated an arts blog in the mid 2000's (Hi Low & In Between) and met many wonderful artists, arts writers, academics and even a nuclear scientist through the experience. Most of the relationships have continued on in some form for many years now. It really helped scratch a creative itch, educated me and provided some needed visibility and community at the right time. Sort of akin to what online artist run publications are doing now to support artists.
The digital space has also done a lot to democratize access to visual arts. This has benefitted a broad spectrum of young art dealers, artists, collectors and general audiences alike. It has opened pathways for many that would not have had access 25 years ago. All of this is incredibly positive.
In terms of a downside and using Instagram as an example, there does seem to be growing consensus that the experience of viewing artwork in person is in decline and/or diminished somehow. The virtualization software that makes social media platforms (and the web) what they are, is likely a cause in this decline. I think many (myself included) feel they have experienced something that they have not. The algorithm sorts and filters creating a mirror of the user. Thus we see what we see and our brain fills in the rest as if it is lived experience.
My personal opinion is that artists should view the digital space as a tool to be used in a range of ways, but not to confuse it as a substitute for a creative practice. Audience has its place, but one shouldn't be compelled by a longing for likes as a benchmark of artistic achievement.
What is one of the best exhibitions you have seen recently?
There are so many good shows to see and highlight in New York. Like many, I miss more than I care to admit! Citing one is hard so I'll mention two that I recently enjoyed. First, Danh Vo at the Guggenheim stands out. I thought it was a well-executed institutional exhibit. It was great getting to see a good cross section of the work in one setting. I admire the poetic post-war day tripping through historic and ordinary objects with a laser beam focus on the personal as political. The artist as historian/witness is timely as always.
Another highlight was the Hockney exhibition at the Met. As a painter (with an interest in 20th British painting) it was such a pleasure to see many of those early works in the flesh. I left that show feeling good about painting and the nuance of experience that the medium can offer.
Do you have any other news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
At present, I'm just producing new works in the studio.
Thanks so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
Thank you both for sharing these questions. It's been a pleasure!
To find out more about Christopher and his work, check out his website.