New American Paintings/Blog

Visual/Language: A Q&A with Christopher French by openstudiospress

Christopher French, I am a River Who Delights in Overflowing, 2011 | Oil and acrylic on linen, 41.5 x 43.5 inches. Courtesy Marsha Mateyka Gallery, Washington, D.C.

The work of Christopher French (New American Paintings edition #21), currently on display at Marsha Mateyka Gallery in Washington, DC, can be read as well as seen. The artist has explored braille in his paintings for over two decades, first as textual passages and more recently through his use of braille graphing paper as a painting surface. The tactile braille grids catalogue a taxonomy of  colorful circles, offering the potential for additional sensory interaction while implying a hidden lexical meaning.

The titles he often uses — I am a River Who Delights in Overflowing; My First Everything; Remains of the Day, October 19, 2010 — intimate subjective emotional responses that also remain hidden, within seemingly objective abstract forms. This resonant tension, between what we can read in his paintings and what we must intuit, is an important component of French’s work

We recently caught up with the artist to talk about the use of braille in his paintings, his thoughts on abstraction and minimalism, and his time as a circus performer.  —Matthew Smith, D.C. Contributor

Christopher French, Remains of the Day, July 7, 2010, 2010 | Braille paper with oil and acrylic on linen, 20.5 x 21 inches. Courtesy Marsha Mateyka Gallery, Washington, DC.

MS: I’m sure that you get asked this often: why do you use braille? I read somewhere that you use it “as a metaphor for the perceptual tension between looking and touching, comprehension and intuition.” Is that to say, the perceptual tension between the type of comprehension that comes from something like reading and the evanescent, “satori” -like moment that comes from viewing an artwork?
CF: I began to use Braille paper in 1987. I had moved to New York City from Oakland, California, and my paintings were figurative, influenced by Guston, my former studiomate Tom Stanton, and what I had seen of the European and American Neo-Expressionist painters. But I was very much impressed with the quality and abundance of the stuff people were forced to edit out of their lives (NYC apartments are small, after all), and I kept an eye out for materials on the street. I found a Braille instruction manual, and immediately thought of the raised and variegated surfaces as a foil for my brushstrokes.

The more I worked with [Braille], I started to think of the potential of incorporating the texts as an active component of my compositions. So I taught myself to read and write Braille, and began acquiring Braille books of texts that offered metaphorical opportunities for my work, which was quickly turning away from figurative narratives and into coded abstractions. I think your observation between brain-based and sensory-based perception is spot-on. “The eyes are a part of the mind,” as Leo Steinberg liked to say. What Braille helps me do is activate other sense centers. You want to touch, but you can’t, and I think this contradiction makes viewers use their eyes in different ways—perhaps caressing, rather than reading. Perhaps “satori” sums that up best.

Christopher French, Heat Index, 2009 | Acrylic on linen, 41.5 x 40.5 inches. Courtesy Marsha Mateyka Gallery, Washington, DC.

You’ve used Braille text in the past and are using braille graphing paper now. They both imply a hidden language, although the latter does so more indirectly. Is there a relationship between your use of both?
In the earlier Braille text pieces language—what was taking place in the text—drove my compositional and color choices. I would work in series, sometimes using my own writing as a starting point, but more often take inspiration from a particular book (usually a well-known historical text, like a Shakespeare play or Lewis Carroll’s children’s stories). The gridded works substitute color for text, and the gridded Braille paper, which is more commonly used for charting and graphing, functions as a scaffold for my randomized arrangements of color palettes derived from photo shoots I make of a specific site on a specific date and time.

Your use of precise formal repetition within and between paintings is resonant, but it’s difficult for me to put into words why. What is the significance of repetition for you, and what response, if any, are you interested in eliciting from viewers?
Repetition… That reminds me of a joke I learned when I was in the circus: Repetition is the mother of invention, and what a mother it is!

Perhaps it’s my rejection of the autonomist, or all over, or splatter approach, which I came to consider too easy, almost a formula for how to make an abstract painting. But it also reflects the influence of Minimalism, both in music (Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, John Adams) and in art (Andre, Lewitt, et al). Doing things insistently, pointing out their importance by doing them over and over again, hopefully making them better and more interesting as you go, that’s the personal value of repetition to me. I find myself drawn to artists who obsessively repeat themselves, like Kusama.

Christopher French, Tracing the Colors of the Sky, 2010 | Oil and acrylic on linen, 40.5 x 41 inches. Courtesy Marsha Mateyka Gallery, Washington, DC.

Wait—You were in the circus?
I joined the circus instead of going to graduate school. Royal Lichtenstein Circus. Beautiful show: one-ring, European style, talking clowns, making fun of everyone and everything; precision juggling, stage magic and fables. We billed ourselves as the smallest circus in the world. We had a quarter-scale ring, and so we had a miniature stallion. Instead of lions and tigers we had dogs and cats doing tricks on the back of the horse. A wooly monkey and a Himalayan black bear, and 5 performers. 41 states and 200 shows in 9 months. I looked great in tights, but I realized that I was at heart an image maker instead of a performer.

You’ve been working with the formal repetition of your T-Top Paintings and Remains of the Day series for several years. Your new series Floral Prototypes to some extent loosens the strict formal rules with regard to exact repetition that govern the other projects. It would almost appear that you’re marking a transition towards something new. Is this the case?
I think the Floral Prototypes are a change or transition for me. To some extent they reflect my 2008 move from Houston, TX to Long Island, NY. I find myself much more preoccupied with landscape now, although this started in Texas with the Remains of the Day series. And color, as an evocation or memory of place has come to the fore. But as you can see, while I am influenced by the changing character of land, water, and sky, I’m not a landscape painter—my motto is “remember the landscape, forget the horizon line.”

Matthew Smith
is an artist and writer in Washington, DC and a frequent contributor to DCist.

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