Art historical scholarship of early 20th century abstraction often privileges narratives of style over the political context from which the work emerged. Whether advocating radical social ideals in the wake if the 1917 Russian Revolution or responding to the catastrophic trauma of World War 1, avant-garde movements advocated models of abstraction as reactions against the ostensibly illusory and deceptive nature of representational art. The art of Utah painter Christopher Lynn draws upon this genealogy of ideas through a humorous, ironic hybrid abstraction that belies its own seriousness and political implications. The artist constructs temporary walls composed of cardboard boxes painted with brightly colored brick motifs that may be collapsed and reassembled on site. Lynn acknowledges his works' polysemy, inviting a range of readings of the metaphorical connection to theories of abstraction, social and political divisions, and the separation between artist and observer in the dynamics of spectatorship. Thus, for Lynn, the wall summons associations with borders, barricades, monuments, and defenses, as well as notions of division, permanence, and impermeability, which these sculptures actively work to undermine. For instance, we might liken their precariousness and toon-like appearance to the stage set of a children's TV show or to the rodeo clown who takes a tumble at the sight of the charging bull. In this interview the artist talks to Peripheral Vision about his Misplaced Wall project and the politics underlying his abstraction.
What are the dominant themes in your current body of work and how did your practice evolve to focus on these concerns?
Walls are articulations of the ground—taking the horizontal and making it vertical to match the orientation of upright humankind. This vertical articulation is created to delineate space. The area within these walls is mine. The other side of that wall is yours. Weather stays on the other side of the wall. This wall blocks my view of the other side. My walls keep intruders out.
The permeability of the wall helps indicate its level of exclusion. Windowless walls block light, sight, and bodies/objects. Walls with windows provide opportunities for spying or vistas. Walls with doors permit the regulated entry of bodies.
Historically, paintings often functioned as surrogate windows or mirrors when affixed to a wall. Paintings’ subjects were landscapes, interiors, and portraits—with each subject either reflecting from or projecting through the wall—acting as mirrors or portals. As such, paintings retained the same orientation of walls—being vertical and upright. The history of painting is largely dependent upon walls to be a ground or support for paintings and therefore the history of painting is reliant upon and propagates the segregation and differentiation inherent in walls.
For a while, my work has played with figure-ground relationships, including the painting-object’s relationship with its wall. I became curious about paintings that are not reliant upon exterior structures, or that form their own support. As a result, I began to make paintings that were walls.
My Misplaced Wall series takes the structure of a wall as its subject and as a signifier of borders, boundaries, protection, separation, and delineation. I build walls and raze them. Walls that were meant to divide and claim inevitably become divided and claimed. The Berlin Wall has been reduced to collectible rubble and peddled to tourists. My colorful and clownish structures sit incomplete and somewhat useless in deserts, homes, sidewalks and roads. They signify a blockade, but functionally fail. With calls in the U.S. to build a wall, I take up those calls, but lack intended direction or purpose. My deliberate obtuseness negates and mocks politics and ego.
Describe your studio practice and working methods? How does this space contribute to your process and development of ideas?
I tend to work in parts and pieces—creating modular units that can be arranged and rearranged to see how they might inform and interact with one another. Misplaced Wall, in particular, is a means of arranging similar components into a much larger whole. I am only concerned with the individual pieces and don’t give much thought to how they might be arranged later. I only try to create a variety of patterns, marks, and color combinations. When time comes to build a wall, I unflatten all the boxes and then select units to create difference and contrast.
This is not dissimilar to the crates of colorful wooden blocks with which my sons have grown up playing. The resulting structures that come from the blocks isn’t necessarily part of the thinking of the original block makers. The idea is just to create parts that can fit together to build new forms. As a matter of fact, there are small brick-shaped cardboard boxes printed with colorful brick patterns that are sold for children to play with. Misplaced Wall is a grown-up version of these same toys.
My studio spaces haven’t been particularly large. As such, creating large-scale works is challenging. By creating works out of collapsible cardboard boxes, each three-dimensional form can be flattened to take up very little space. When carting Misplaced Wall to different locations, it can all fit in the back of my minivan, then be built to be approximately 14 x 30 x 4 feet.
Initially, I wanted the wall to be sturdier and made of wood crates that would nest inside each other. I began to realize how difficult that would make moving the wall. I would have also missed out on a good bit of happenstance. While setting up the wall on the Salt Flats of Utah, a slight breeze caught the corner of the stacked cardboard boxes and brought a six-foot section of wall down while I was taking video footage. At first I was cursing this accident, but when reviewing the video later, I realized that there was potential within that problem. The razing of walls was always implied by its mobility, but was never made overt. Now I had an instance that showed fragility, mobility, and impermanence.
This birthed video pieces where a wall would collapse or topple, but another wall would be right behind it. Then the newly revealed wall would fall, and so on. When I think of iconic instances of architecture or walls being demolished, I think of the Berlin Wall, the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex (that architecture critic Charles Jencks pointed to as the end of Modernism and its utopian ideals), the slow dismantling of neighborhoods in Rustbelt cities like Detroit and Cleveland, and the fall of the World Trade Center towers. When a wall is erected, it is an act of optimism. It is a defiant statement against gravity, time, and what the wall excludes. However, every wall will decay or be felled, and new walls and optimistic acts will take their places. Border fences will fail. Borders will move or be eradicated. Politics will shift. New borders will arise. New politics will call for exclusions. New fences will rise. Misplaced Wall knows that it is temporary in the same way that construction fencing or police tape knows that they are temporary.
The Misplaced Wall project harnesses the potentialities of the anti-monument, a concept of dialogical public art developed by critic Grant Kester used to define works operating in the public sphere that acknowledge divisions and boundaries between social groups while working against a model of monumentality as an illusory expression of community. How do you see Misplaced Wall in relation to public art and monumentality? What role should public art play in the wake of controversies about Confederate memorials, erected in part to enshrine racism in American society?
The structures we build, despite our best efforts and unshakable egos, will crumble. We want to be remembered and acknowledged, and we want to think that we come from a noble history. Conversely, we also want the world to get better, but only so long as we and our histories remain relevant. We like to think that the values of our ancestors should be binding principles for all time, when we also hope to transcend many of their archaic social constructs. These contradictory inclinations are simultaneously beautiful, ugly, altruistic, selfish, laughable, and utterly human. Misplaced Wall is a somewhat buffoonish allegorization of this problem—rendered as a cartoon with simple lines and bright colors, using precariously stacked cardboard boxes that can be toppled with a stiff breeze, and placed temporarily in odd locations. It screams impermanence in a way that many walls and monuments work against.
The discussions that are cropping up about Confederate memorials are valuable in that they force us to confront our egos and identities. We can edit out the memorials so that future generations can grow ignorant of our overtly racist past, like a game of historical telephone. Or, we can maintain, but contextualize the memorials as "teaching moments" by quarantining them behind righteous didactic text in museums. We can melt them down, and symbolically recast them as new figures (whose ideals we hope to outgrow). Each decision says something about us, but we're afraid to collectively come to grips what that is.
Tell us about a museum exhibition or travel experience that has influenced your practice in a significant way.
Having grown up in Utah, I lacked immediate access to major museums or first-hand experience with artworks of note. Most of my art interactions were with local or regional dialogs that typically dealt with landscapes or religious subjects. It wasn’t until my late teenage years that some of my siblings and friends took a road trip to Denver where I made them drop me off at the Denver Museum of Art. I spent the day wandering through the largest museum I had ever encountered.
I remember being very disappointed by a minor Picasso and realizing the disconnect between the reproductions of art with which I grew up, and the reality of scale, texture, and color. This was driven home more significantly when I entered a dimly lit room with what appeared to be a video projection on the far wall emitting a steady, flat, blue light. The work was James Turrell’s Trace Elements (1991) from his Space Division Construction series. The light I saw at the end of the room was not a video projection, but a window into a titanium-tinted expanse bathed in blue light. The effect was like looking through a portico into an infinite vastness. The experience of being in this work was markedly different from what I perceived an art experience should be. Trace Elements was spatial in a way that was far different from anything else I had seen. My reaction to it was very visceral, and the work thankfully disrupted my narrow opinions of how an artwork could act.
One of our missions is to fill a gap in the availability of academic critical writing, providing an alternative to publications limited by format or budget. Describe the critical apparatus where you live. What obstacles do you face in gaining critical recognition and how have your worked to overcome them?
Over the past 20 years, Utah has done much better in creating opportunities and platforms for contemporary artists, but it is still struggling. Venues like the Central Utah Art Center (CUAC) have found it difficult to identify sustainable funding streams, and have shuttered. Newspaper coverage for anything other than traditional performing arts is not easy to come by. We have one notable online art publication, 15 Bytes, that casts a very wide net. With only this one outlet, venues and artists lack visibility, and without critical dialog, work tends to just be “appreciated.”
That being said, there are a number of very strong artists who have spent years elsewhere, and now live in Utah. They make sophisticated work and create a good community for studio visits and critical feedback.
What is next for you in your art practice?
Artists seem to work primarily in didactic and polemic methods, or abstract and abstruse ways, but rarely both. I’m sure much of this has to do with art education and markets pushing notions of a personal “voice” being interpreted as a single mode of working or style. I’ve always enjoyed artists like Gerhard Richter and Daniel Buren who work across styles, or use similar tactics or styles to move from the conceptual to the political.
Although Misplaced Wall—because it represents a wall—has political implications, I also see art historical and formal reference—each box being its own minimalist painting. The new pieces and ideas that I’m developing further some of the conceptual and formal concerns of the wall, but without the political suggestions and overt representation. These new works situate themselves between abstraction and representation and painting and object, or combine elements of each. They still operate modularly. I build components without regard to how they might combine later.
My studio has paintings, pieces of wood, bits of colored cardboard, and other miscellany strewn around. I move parts around now and again to see how they work with one another, but this is an act of discovery and I am unsure what it will reveal.