On a warm day in summer, Brooklyn artist Christopher Saunders welcomed us into his converted warehouse studio space in Greenpoint to share his current body of work, along with the history of his path to New York and to landscape painting, his long-running relationship with photography, and the changing view of the world through his studio window.
Christopher started his career with earning a BFA from the Virginia Commonwealth University, whose painting and printmaking program has an almost unparalleled national reputation, and moved on to receive a MFA from the prestigious Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. His undergraduate years focused on studies outside the applied arts, but transitioned from his art history classes into his own expert practice. His paintings reflect this impressive educational background. While his practice is far from mimicry, it does, in the theory and thought behind it, constantly reference the work of artists as abstractly related as Tony Cragg’s sediment layer sculptures, to as strong and clear an influence as the disquieting landscapes of Turner. Throughout his secondary education, Christopher was primarily trained in figure painting and printmaking, but saw what was, for him, limitations in those arenas. After school and a rigorous academic entré into the arts, Christopher knew that there was “little about the human body or the figure that [he] wanted to talk about.”
In a kind of recession from formal painting, Christopher found photography. For two years after graduate school, he documented all the places that he knew as a child that were now in a state of transformation, capturing the changing landscape in film and polaroids. The drive was partly fueled by the enforced habit as a child of seeing his surroundings through the frame of a car window, watching the world go by through a set lens. From there, his interest in photography turned into a life-long passion, which, according to Christopher, lasted for 20 years. He began to take note of photographers like Sally Mann, whose photographs of southern landscape and sites of violence, through the myth of southern mysticism, spoke more about society’s history than people could. From there, he discovered Gerhard Richter‘s patchwork collection of photographs, newspaper clippings, and sketches in Richter’s work Atlas; an encounter Christopher described as “life-changing.”
Christopher built some of his original landscape paintings from these photographs, establishing his methodology in the process and working out an information system for himself. The work was not yet focused on the heavy skies you so often see in his canvases, and instead took the form of collage with what Christopher describes as a “realistic, architectural fragment.” He highlights inspirational similarities in the collages of John Baldessari, with Baldessari’s intersecting landscapes –which find points of contact in barren roads, desolate fields, or endless seas. Today, Christopher’s photo documentation varies from straight-forward shots of landscape, not in process so much as in his selection of the product. In a culling of both original images and scouring sites like flickr, he has amassed an enormous collection of images from which he finds inspiration. With a hard drive filled with what Christopher quotes as somewhere around “20,000 pictures,” his favorites are the “bad photographs –the very exposed, and the very underexposed. They were never taken with the idea that I was going to exhibit them.” He loves capturing the “mistakes.”
The move to New York caused a major shift in his work and as Christopher says, “no matter where you’re from, you aren’t prepared for the city.” He was continuing collage, set-up in a kind of ante-chamber in his current studio, that had no natural light. “When I moved in here [the windowed side of the split studio] in 2007, that’s when a few things clicked because the light was so robust and I could see the painting more clearly.” It was during this time that Christopher shifted from collage to painting, bringing fundamental processes from this former practice into his current work. Questions came to him like: “How can I make traditional easel paintings composed essentially by notions of light ? How can I do that and bring in contemporary concerns and make old vernacular new again? Within this approach can I also make something intelligent, rigorous and compelling that doesn’t require a textbook’s worth of explanation? Can the painting stand on its own with the viewer?”
In this second room of his studio, where light seeps in through his windows, despite (or perhaps enhanced by?) the additional filter of New York grime, his sombre landscapes sprung from the change. Christopher notes, “I’ve been in this room for many years. I’ve watched a lot of meteorological events: storms, sunrises, star shifts.” These celestial travels abstractly relate to his paintings’ focus, in reflections on the “dark times” currently impacting our world –from terrorism, to epic natural disasters, and isolation caused by social media.
The colors that are engendered from these introspections are mesmerizing, profound, and draw you further and further into the extending recesses of the work. Although they are focused on horizons, they really have none of their own. They open out to the viewer like an un-ending passage into a thought and experience, that metaphorically manifests in an illusory space. As with Christopher’s painting, Far Nearer Tomorrow, the colors bring a spaciousness to the room, playing off the natural light and picking up blue hues or tones otherwise unseen in a white-walled setting. His paintings have a cool, finished look to them, that incidentally photographs beautifully, and brings an ordered serenity to a work that is at the same time unbelievably complex.
Even more striking, while all the imagery is of natural landscapes, implying sea or sky or stretches of land, Christopher finds his color palettes from digital light and images he finds on the web. They are in fact “colors that aren’t found in nature,” he says. His infatuation with these series of colors is what inspires him to see to what extent he can “push them in a certain way to create a tone or an ambient feeling.” The obsession with Christopher’s selected color spectrum is entirely mutual for the viewer. Although brooding and sometimes ominous, the vibrancy of the palette is incredible and brightens even an artist’s somewhat ascetic studio.
The finished, glossy, almost photo-quality of each piece is equally compelling and conceals a meticulous process of reworking that can take many trials for Christopher to complete. Works like Far Nearer Tomorrow were initiated by Christopher’s instinct that the painted sky should overpower the land, but the imagery of the painting changed a dozen times before this balance was complete. The paintings are, according to Christopher, “months of work into one take.”
“This is my white whale,” Christopher says pointing at his beautifully promising (and still untitled) Work-In-Progress in his studio.“There are dozens of paintings and untold hours under that surface, I’ve lived multiple lives through it. Now this is the orientation…I think. All of the weight rests at the bottom and the light is rising from behind. We’ll see how it ends.”
To view more images and available works by this artist, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org