The work of an artist is often informed by what is external, “calling attention to the ills of the land”. Christopher HASSETT’s work is violent, sexual, direct and confronting but the helplessness of his subjects, grabbed, tossed aside like weightless matter, the disproportionate eyes and inflated bellies of children who cannot save themselves, tell stories we might feel more comfortable turning away from.
And similarly, the artist’s brush is also guided by an internal journey. An “experimentation in error” and a “developing love for the process.” An obsession with limbs, skin or eyes might direct the choice of subject matter, nude, wide-eyed, sprawled, faceless or truncated by the edges of the frame. The artist’s work lies in the ability to translate the intersection of the internal and the external in its most honest form and that, aside from being “marketable” or “palatable” is a thing of beauty.
ALOUD: Could you start by describing your background as an artist? How and when did your interest in this field emerge?
CHRISTOPHER HASSETT: My background as an artist is more deeply grounded in literature, in poetry and poetic imagery, rather than in painting, but I found the movement away from images expressed on the page to ones–equally poetic–expressed on canvas to be absolutely natural and, in fact, even more pleasurable, or at least more fulfilling in terms of my own evolving internal aesthetic. The difficulty came in the actual translation between the two languages, from that of the pen to the slower articulations of the brush. I began terribly, creating these monstrous renderings of myself and my children, friends and neighbors, that only their creator found charm in. It was an experimentation in error, yet it was also an embracing of that error since the immaculate failings of each painting went hand-in-hand with a developing love for the process, and so one took care of the other.
ALOUD: How did you learn your craft/skills?
CHRISTOPHER: I’ve had no formal training, though when it comes to the artistic expression of self I tend to mistrust that kind of training anyhow. Not that I don’t see its merits; it’s just that I’m also very aware of the risk of some greater loss in going down that path, of precious individuality or the organic growth of a truly authentic voice. Besides, I’ve been steeped in the academic world for decades, both as a professor and as a student. At the time when I began painting I was finishing up a degree at UCLA and wanted nothing to do with another teacher. Further instruction felt like the willful ingestion of poison. Instead, I simply stumbled headlong into the process: I painted and painted over paintings and threw away paintings and continued painting.
From the beginning I was only interested in the body. I wanted to master it in its many forms, but I did so by largely fetishizing its various limbs, obsessively working on hands and faces and eyeballs and skin. That sense of obsession, perhaps even digression or dysfunction, I think is still present in my work, if not its defining character–a kind of severe formality I sense only now is beginning to slip.
ALOUD: As an aside, what do you teach at University?
CHRISTOPHER: I’m a literature professor.
ALOUD: Can you name and describe a few of your inspirations?
CHRISTOPHER: As far as inspiration, and I like your use of the word “inspiration” rather than “influence,’’ since my influences as a painter are everywhere other than painting, but the few painters who have had the ability to inspire me are, not surprising since I am a figurative painter, Lucien Freud, for his dependably deviant eye and for the sheer tumult of flesh that spills from the folds of his sleepy subjects. And Marlene Dumas because I find I am unable to encapsulate her in any way, though what I love most in her work is the simmering ferocity that moves through so much of it; and her palette, which I often find stunning.
One artist in particular who continually inspires me is Anthony Hassett, an art critic for Santa Fe’s THE Magazine. He produces these twisted, brilliant little images–card-sized masterworks–that shock and cause outrage and/or immediate incontinence. Unfortunately his work is nearly impossible to find unless you go to him directly, but he is definitely worth seeking out. He shows occasionally in Berlin, which is probably the only city that will have him.
ALOUD: Could you introduce the body of work exhibited for NO!R’s Ceremony of Innocence?
CHRISTOPHER: This latest series focuses on the body at risk, or bodies under outright siege. For millions around the world this is the general state, and for many governments it has become the default mode of rule, to wield power with a menacing or murderous hand. Not that this is anything new, nor is it all too worthy of news, at least not in the Western outlets. But that shouldn’t mean it’s ignored in the world of art as well. Artists for centuries have played an essential role in calling attention to the ills of the land, and the world today is unquestionably ailing, environmentally, sociologically, economically, politically. . . Where are we seeing those concerns finding expression in art? Which artists are touching on them in their narratives? Perhaps the better question is, which galleries are offering their walls for the furthering of that dialogue? Not many in this country, and surprisingly few here in New York City, where galleries are far more comfortable, and undoubtedly find it far more profitable, to hang yet again another enervate series on street art or some fungal eruption off the expired remains of pop-art. To a lesser extent, then, this latest body of work is a rejection of that drift.
ALOUD: Could you describe your experience as an artist in NYC? In terms of challenges and opportunities?
CHRISTOPHER: I like the energy of this city, its pressures and full-flavored smells, its watery babel that washes riverlike through half-sleep and dreams. I especially like its light, which on those crystalline days is incredible. All of which naturally elevates my experience as an artist. Yet I’ll often go days without entering this city’s streets. Rather, once I’m on a canvas I become completely monastic and rarely leave my studio, which has its own hermetic energies that breathe spaciousness and range into my creative vision. In those periods–which can roll languidly on for months–I am most obviously and actively “an artist,” and in that mode I don’t necessarily experience any real challenges, save for aesthetic ones.
That said, there would indeed be challenges of the type I think you’re referring to, great ones probably, were I to be more invested in the idea of promoting myself as an artist, particularly in this city. Foremost, I think the direction of my work is moving oppositely from current trends, which aren’t ones of embracing figurative art, especially of the kind that, like mine, could be interpreted as being hostile or unpalatable or not easily marketable. To that end, some of the challenges would be of my own making. And then there’s laziness, and resistance, and the kind of dread that comes from knowing just how many hours and days I would need to put into that more laborious task of presenting myself to galleries and press. It becomes a massive effort, and I fear in making it I wouldn’t get much painting done, which ultimately for me is more important than self-promoting. So I’ll be honest, I’m not experiencing the challenges because I don’t really make the effort, hence countless opportunities missed, I’m sure.
ALOUD: Do you try to establish a limit between your life and your work? How prominent is Art and the production of Art in your life?
CHRISTOPHER: None. There’s not a hair’s limit between my life and my work. Whatever I’m doing in any moment is my life at that moment. Going from a painting to the bathroom to the bookstore to a party is all seamlessly one life, and through it there is this one mind that ties it all up into a nice little fiction. Though I must say that to even feel the need to establish limits between aspects of one’s existence, to conceptually fragment it, would suggest some strongly independent, contentious identities within an individual, battling personas or ones that dismissively shrug off the others. I don’t see myself nominally or ontologically as an artist or teacher or father or husband or whoever else I’m expected to be because of what I’m currently doing.
But then I do create, I express myself creatively, and so unquestionably I am an artist, and proudly so. I love to paint. I love to write. I love it that my wife does both, and better! I sincerely love that there are artists out there creating all these things for us to look at and listen to and read. To challenge us forward or draw our eyes offward so that we newly see what went otherwise absent from view. I find it remarkable, and I am grateful, that the production of art is an element of our world, essential to it–like earth, water, fire and air, there is Art, and we forgo it at our peril.
You can see more of Christopher’s work on his website. Come back this week for more interviews with artists from the NO!R “Ceremony of Innocence”.
If you are an artist or designer and have found ways to turn your passion into your livelihood, I would love to hear from you and help you get the word out there. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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