Works on LPP
★ MEET N‘ GREET ★
Jess Wheaton interviews Christopher Russell.
JW: Hi Chris, thanks in advance for talking with me. I’ll begin broadly, and ask what your relationship to the sorts of landscapes you work from might be. How did your compass come to rest on what I’ll call vibrant, aestheticized nature scenes?
CR: My landscapes are based on both on my physical experiences in the outdoors, and a fantasy narrative. My working practice really teeters on a line between my reality and fantasy. Backpacking in the mountains, traveling, swimming in lakes with friends and even just riding my bike up in the East Bay hills; these experiences outside really fuel my painting and are a part of my life that is essential to my mental well-being. The fantasy comes into my work as a sort of exaggeration of my real experience- while I may have hiked to the top of a 14000ft peak, I have never climbed something like K2. So my art stays open to the influence of other peoples’ documentation of epic experiences in nature. There is such a long tradition of people venturing into the natural world to capture it in a painting; this tradition is a part of my work, but I don’t feel directly in line with this tradition. I don’t have the authenticity of people like the "True-View" Painters of the Joseon Dynasty or painters of the American wilderness like Thomas Moran, who literally ventured into the wilderness to paint sublime images in order to show people what is out there. The contemporary equivalent to a Thomas Moran painting would be an episode of Planet Earth, not my paintings. So I am partially following a tradition of landscape painting, while playing with this role of a landscape painter who hikes off into uncharted territory to paint the sublime. However, my relationship to the landscapes I paint are not always as direct; I am not painting outside, capturing specific places. I try to keep this apparent in my work, I am not going for realistic landscapes. My paintings deal with things I love, human experience in the outdoors, the gear involved, undisturbed wilderness, and natural science, but they also address a disconnect from the natural world.
JW: Many of your paintings allow the viewer to enjoy a Godlike perspective. Do you shoot reference photos of places you’ve been, AND invent portions of them (such as perspective shifts)? What’s your process for making a work or body of work? Can you describe your working style and how you make it all happen?
CR: For the most part my paintings are very constructed, meaning I am inventing the landscapes, but they are often based on an idea or experience of a place. There are different ways in which I will start a painting. Some are started from a specific experience, such as a specific camping spot, or a favorite trail; I will often have many photos from these experiences. I use photography and memory to help give a painting a specific feel or sense of place, but I am not really painting directly from the photos. I am trying to set up visual challenges to solve. For example, in my painting "Switchback" I wanted to paint an entire trail through these trees, and I also wanted it to have a fast flowing feel, because that is something I love about a specific trail. So I had lots of photos but the trail is in the trees, so the most you can see in a single photo is one or two turns; and a few turns may be painted from a photo while the painting as a whole is made up. When you go on a trail through the trees you go in and out of light, so your photos will either be dark or light- they only capture a split second. In the painting, I made half of the landscape dark and half brightly sunlit, trying to create an image of the whole experience that I wasn’t able to capture in a photograph. Many of the mountains I paint start as a bunch of lines, like an architectural blueprint of their structure, or topography lines on a map. Inventing light sources and creating depth is a challenge I am continually drawn to. Sometimes, though not as commonly, I will have a photo or drawing from which I will directly take a composition. These pieces usually become more about inventing color, since the shape is already established. I try to maintain a painting process in which I can surprise myself with the outcome of a painting, in the same way as an abstract painting.
JW: The tree branches within paintings such as "Aura," "Web" or "Networking" stretch and weave horizontally, becoming almost as supernatural as, say, the vines in Sleeping Beauty. Which is to say: these branches look like they could eventually hide castles or build rooms. Are these elaborations an act of glorification, and/or symbolic?
CR: I guess the branches are kind of symbolic of the interconnection of everything, like in string theory, or Buddhist beliefs- ideas that I really don’t know any details of, but am nevertheless drawn to and interested in. Sometimes I will paint a branch that connects to multiple trees; I want the paintings to hint at aspects of a landscape that are invisible: all the complex, amazing cycles and structures that are happening in the natural world. I want to make things mystical, but not really supernatural. I may anthropomorphize a mountain with a face, but I don’t want the paintings to come off as a fairy tale. I am trying to show our tangible world, but with a sort of religious view of it.
JW: I know you hail from Boulder, CO, and then moved to attend art school in Oakland and San Francisco. Seeing that you’ve long been involved in painting landscapes, I wonder what drew you to Northern California, what that transition was like, and how and why you’ve come to stay in Berkeley. Do you think the city already does or might eventually also exert an influence on the content or consideration of your paintings? For you is there a sort of dichotomy between the look of the Southwest and the look of where you’ve lived several years now, or even the look of other places you may have been?
CR: I moved out to the Bay Area almost seven years ago. I was looking for something different than Boulder, where I had lived my whole life. Initially, the big draw was living in a more urban area, while still being close to the outdoors. I love Boulder- it is a college town at the base of the Rocky Mountains- but it is very sheltered. The Bay area is culturally progressive, infinitely more diverse, and just seemed like a good place to pursue art. I also love the weather here, it’s like fall, then spring, then fall again- my two favorite seasons. I do miss the snow, but you can go up to the Sierras and get all the snow you want. I think I have always been in love with the Pacific Northwest landscape. I love Colorado too. Every place has its own beauty, but there is something about the forests in Northern California- things grow here almost supernaturally, and we have the largest trees in the world. Growing up, I thought the coolest place to live would be in the Ewok village in StarWars, and that was all filmed in the Northern California redwoods.
Northern California and Berkeley in particular have a lot in common with Boulder. There is a large neo-hippie and a large outdoorsy culture both here and in Boulder. So, there are a lot of "hippie" ideas that I have grown up with and been attracted to. Living around Berkeley has surely fostered these types of influences in me and my work. However, what I have come to realize to be most important to me personally is not the dominant culture of where I am living, but instead, living somewhere where I can maintain some connection to the natural world. I do love many things about the cities here, and there are a lot of different people doing interesting things here, whether it is making clothes from recycled materials or creating makeshift venues for small concerts. Despite this, I really don’t go out much and am starting to think I could live in a much more rural area. The last part of your question reminded me of something a friend once told me. He said that I need to figure out where the farthest northeast corner of the Southwest is, and that is where I will find an interest in my paintings. I liked this comment; aesthetically the Northeast, New York, has a very different artistic sensibility than the Southwest, and I draw inspiration from both. This is not really getting at your question though. Every area has its own culture, and in addition, every landscape is different. The Southwest is a dry climate, and out here it is much greener. The types of rocks, trees, altitude- it is all different. Looking at and painting the things that make one place unique is a large interest of mine.
JW: You seem much more survival-savvy or nature-attuned than a lot of people, so I’m wondering: are you prepared for this big quake that’s supposedly heading the way of our Bay Area? Do you think about that?
CR: I wouldn’t say I have given any thought to preparing for a big quake. I think the old warehouse loft I am living in would probably collapse. If all hell really broke loose, I think I would take off on my bike with my water purifier and my camping gear. The big problem would be food; so yeah maybe I’ll stock up on some dried beans and seeds and stuff. Then I could head north, and live in the woods, and I could start growing my own food and all.
JW: For my very last question to you, a two parter- what’s the most exciting show experience you’ve had (please describe) ... and what’s next for you, either artistically or in general?
CR: My senior show in college was the most exciting show for me because it is the first time I really finished a solid group of paintings and put together a complete show. I even screen-printed posters myself that I wanted to be like Jack Hanley posters. I was working on everything up until the last minute, I literally was working on two of the paintings until 4 a.m. the morning of my senior review. Since then I have been fortunate enough to put together some solo and two person shows, and I try to push out of my comfort zone to make new paintings every time. A large motivation for me is seeing all the work hanging together; the shows are really about how the different paintings interact with one another, so that is always an exciting part of my process. I am starting to get the ball rolling for a two person show with my roommate Seth Armstrong in March at 111 Minna (in San Francisco). We are going to do some collaborative paintings and some really large paintings. So the next four months are going to be really busy in the studio. On top of that, my brother will be moving in with me from Boulder at the end of the year. I am hoping to learn some welding and bicycle framebuilding from him when he moves out here. I was thinking about applying to graduate school for painting but I think I am putting it on hold again. I still think I want to pursue more art school, but I am not in any rush. Other than that, I hope to throw some small camping trips in there, and just keep living life.
JW: Thanks a lot Chris for sharing your exclusive print with Little Paper Planes, and for your generous responses. Have fun, and I’ll see you in March!
Born in Boulder, lives in Oakland.
School at CCAC.
Likes paint, pencils, ferns, trees, rocks, wool socks, bikes, rucksacks, and snowflakes.