Christi Birchfield has two exhibitions on view right now at William Busta’s on Prospect Avenue and at SPACES on Superior Viaduct. Having two shows running consecutively in one mid-sized town is a fairly impressive feat. Many would be stoked to have one show up, or even half of one. Birchfield, a Cleveland native, received her MFA from Columbia, and now teaches at CIA. She returns to the lake and apparently doesn’t intend to leave much space on the walls for the rest of us.
As for the shows, they conjure two very different animals. Busta’s, formal in comparison, straightforwardly presents Birchfield’s product; at least the latest incarnation of said product, which consists of semi-abstract two-dimensional works on paper and canvas that contain elements of the printmaking process. Gorgeous moments abound. Two of the smallest works in the show, situated side by side, include configurations used as stencils for spray paint on paper and rank among my favorites. Soft colors and minimally guiding subject matter, allow me to follow them somewhere else every time I visit. The tall and narrow, untitled, blue spray-paint pieces draw me in as well. Spending time with these images, I find myself looking out the window of an upper story on a blue puffy cloud kind of day … this image transforms into a fractured storefront display where I can not make out the beginning of the reflections and where the interior spaces end … Then vertigo sets in because I can not find my center in the pieces at all. The work here does not lead one by the nose. Discernable objects reside in the pictures, but they give nothing away.
SPACES sets a different stage, first by involving music like adding toner to the air. Second, compounded by the lack of framed work, the effect feels less like a presentation of results and more like the moment itself begging for creation, as experienced through the filter of Birchfield. The instant congeals here, when the disparate embers floating around in every artist’s head finally gather enough heat to compel the hand to make a move. The moment of crystallization pauses similarly to the song locked on repeat and made visual. Or so it seems to me. Whether I am right or wrong with this interpretation, I am sure that all of the elements add up to something quite delicate and beautiful. A chair spins and spins on the wall, an edged out Marlene Dietrich chirps hauntingly through a little hole, the specter of Eva Hesse awakens through pictures of pictures, and artificially dyed flowers have been wedded to paper.
I had the privilege of speaking with Birchfield the other day. Continue reading for some excerpts of our conversation.
AMS: You must be pretty stoked to have two shows running consecutively…how did you manage that?
Birchfield: Well, I had a show in Bill Busta’s Project Room in the spring of 2010, so we had an ongoing relationship. Then he approached me this summer, to maybe do another show … at this point I was in New York, but I was coming back (for the summer) to take a break, and then as it turned out, to make work for the show. It wasn’t until the fall that SPACES approached me with the idea of a show, and I got really excited about the idea of having dual shows. It was exciting to have the SPACES show as a platform to experiment, or as a supplemental platform for the work at Busta’s.
Then I came to realize that they couldn’t be the same type of show, that they would have to be different in attitude … the SPACES show would be more a way to expose the process of my practice. There was some apprehension about having two shows at the same time … I had to enter into it with the mindset that they’d have to be two very different things. But still, I was really excited.
So, getting into the mindset to make work, how does that happen for you? When I’m trying to get into something, I’ll put one song on repeat a thousand times …
(Laughing) I wonder if this is something all artists do? I mean I, whenever I make shows I play the same three songs over and over, a playlist or something. I don’t even really have to like the songs … maybe it’s not even music that relates to my work, it’s just wherever I get stuck …
Can you talk about how the body of work at Busta, where it’s coming from and/or how it got there?
Yeah … With my work before this show I was thinking a lot about image making … and how to make-work in a way that allowed me to distance myself from it. That said, printmaking, the process, is very important to my work; some super basic techniques, like stenciling. This is a way to distance myself from the work.
Some of my older work was based on graphite, and the drawings I made were made reductively, one at a time. I was pulling the image out (of the graphite), then adding back into it, going back and forth … that work kind of exhausted itself; it was so much about my hand …
So then I started thinking about printmaking and the element of surprise it adds to the work. I started to run things, like these intensely, artificially dyed flowers through the press. It was like creating a new way of painting for me. The etching press allowed the marks to not be of my hand, but from something more mechanical. And, I really wanted to make paintings for this show; I like to consider myself a painter. There is just something romantic and simple about that, but I really never understood painting, the piling of material onto the canvas… That’s where the bleaching part of the process came from on the Rorschach (ink-blot) type canvas pieces, there is something in how the marks being made are somewhat indexical that takes away from the directness of my hand, the more mechanical nature of the inkblot marks made it less about my decisions and more about the process they went through. And … I was making them unstretched so they became more like paper as the edge became part of the piece.
Did you plan on stretching them?
At first, but as the frayed edges became more important and came to relate to the deckled edge of the paper, it made more sense to float them. At the same time, the spray paint drawings were happening. With these I was thinking more like I was with my graphite drawings, with lots of atmosphere and space … all of that good stuff; thinking about the index of the mark, and then thinking about stenciling in a more serious way. Stenciling has always been very important to my work.
I also started to think about Surrealist ways of working that don’t have so much to do with your decision making but following a process, like the Exquisite Corpse, So I started using objects from the studio to make marks, like another way of working subtractively; by placing an object and using it as a stencil, then taking it away, the ghost of the object is now the painting. I liked that the objects that were from my studio started taking over the work …
I was wondering how that started …
It was another way to not take full responsibility for what was in the work. It progressed into making stencils of the shadows that these objects cast … and then that stencil becomes a new layer … I can take that stencil and use it again and again, almost like a Photoshop layer …
The series of blue pictures kind of started the whole thing … My dream was to capture, like Christian Marclay style cyanotypes of these things, the blue spray-paint was a way to mimic this sort of process without actually doing it …
What made you choose the title “I Will Be Your Mirror … ?”
It was inspired by the Velvet Underground song … but also by the Rorschach symmetrical images and how they start to reference the mirror … and then the spray-paint pictures, they kind of have this fractured, reflective feel to them. The title is also, maybe like an offering somehow too … like I am offering this experience to the viewer?
For me, the most poetic moments in this body of work come from the two smallest pieces which are sitting side by side … the string and spray-paint pieces … where do they stand in relation to the other work?
They were quick studies to see how this was all going to work, but in the end, they didn’t really fall behind.
The discernible objects in these pictures, from vegetation to ladders and lights … My first thoughts on approaching the work was that you were somehow creating still life images of your studio environs … Then I overheard a conversation you were having in the gallery (Yes, I was eavesdropping) and I got the feeling that this wasn’t necessarily the case …
No, but I do like thinking of them as still life. It kind of started that way … but the objects were really just a way to produce an image, they in no way signify something else …
So I shouldn’t write my dissertation on the meanings of the objects you chose?
You mean the relationship between the plant and the clip light … ? No.
What about with the more organic shapes, maybe I’m covering the same ground, but I want to ask anyway …
The image in these is just as much a surprise to me as it is to the viewer … because I didn’t really make it, I ran it through the press … so if someone happens to see a butterfly or an orchid or a body part, that is fine. But, I am interested in making abstract paintings.
I’ve come to realize how when you make something symmetrical, there is this automatic questioning from the viewer … all of the sudden it becomes like “what is that?” I think we are programmed to see things that way, but it is not my intention to lead the viewer.
How did you come to make the cut up canvas pieces? Frustration often leads to the X-acto in my studio …
No … Collaging has always been a way I work, and I was already making all these stencils in my studio, so taking something that looked like a stencil and calling it the work, I guess I liked that. It’s still made from the materials of painting, just all cut out now and drooping. And its like, instead of adding another layer of paint onto the canvas, I just turned it into a collage instead. I also get really happy when I get the X-acto out in the studio. I like the intensity of the process of cutting. And, I’m always thinking about the edge of things … and now I have all of these edges. Cutting is like another way to draw things while at the same time adding another edge. The dress form (everybody sees that in it …) ended up being a stencil for some other pieces too, so it’s a functioning piece.
Let’s move on to SPACES … it has a very different feel. Here, the poetry is more in the air than on any one point of the wall … maybe it has to do with the music? Tell me about your approach to this show …
I guess things really started with with me wanting to have a direct reference to Eva Hesse. Also, I think of it more as a residency than a show … it was a residency. I was thinking about the aura and persona of Eva Hesse … and her early death; The romance of her almost … dying for her work, which kind of leaves her hanging in this eternal vortex (as they quoted me in the show catalog). There is this portrait of her that I kind of got hung up on; it’s of her in this wicker chair. I visited her archives in Oberlin and I looked at the pictures of her and I took photographs of the photographs, kind of my way of appropriation, and then I used them as a direct reference to her. Things started this way for the show… I was thinking a lot about this image of her in the wicker chair. I wanted to take that photo and start breaking it down…it became just about this chair and using it as a way to make a video … and how it closely related to the picture. It just worked its way to that.
So this is how the “Revolution 8:29” part of the installation was born … I love this part of the show …
Revolution 8:29 became a dilution of the portrait. My studio has been a bit of a shadow factory to produce the work for the Busta show. I started playing with the shadow of the chair (and) I became interested in its spinning. I liked the 3D model quality it has when it falls in and out of focus. (There) was also an exciting discovery in that because the shadow becomes a silhouette and because it revolves, the human eye can’t read the depth and as a result reverses the rotation of the chair … it’s called silhouette illusion. This brings to mind ideas of optics and the “act of looking”.
What about the flower pieces at SPACES … Residual Output in Four Colors? How does this relate to your exploration of painting?
The flower works are a way to make paintings. I am fully interested in materials and process. Because I run the flowers through a press or drive over them with a steamroller (see video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dgpTHxKngYE), I again incorporate another tool/machine into the mix that removes the work from my own hand.
And Dietrich’s appearance in the wall … (singing Where Have All The Flowers Gone)?
I had been thinking about the video of Marlene Dietrich for a long time. I feel that the video is both horrific and glamorous. It needed to be small in the wall because it is such a loud piece … visual and audio. I wanted to put it in the wall to break a barrier, and create a moment of discovery for the viewer.
Any artists you would cite as having a significant influence on you and your work?
I’m always thinking about the stain painters like Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis. I’m really interested in that point in painting history. Also, to state the obvious, Eva Hesse is a big influence … I’m interested in the fragile aggressiveness her work contains.
And how do you like being on the other side of the academic world so far? Joys? Annoyances … ?
I love school. I wish I could stay forever … maybe that’s why I love teaching. I love learning and the escape from reality school allows. Columbia was overwhelming. I am so grateful to have had that experience. The faculty is amazing.
Now that I am on the other side, the conversations, lectures, and studio visits that I had at Columbia have and continue to become clearer. The distance has been important … it’s nice to have the freedom to live where I want to live now that I’m not a student. It’s been great being back in Cleveland. Cleveland is such a great place to make work. Space is so available and the art community here is so alive.
Christi’s work will be on view at William Busta’s until March 18th and at Spaces on Superior Viaduct through March 30th.
Andrew Simmons is an artist and writer based in Cleveland, OH. View more articles by Andrew Simmons.