Ages of anx­i­ety Artist Todd Chris­tensen


Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Jen­nifer Levin The New Mex­i­can

AS chil­dren, Todd Chris­tensen and his brother slept in the base­ment. They stayed up late at night, read­ing un­der the cov­ers. “Sub­se­quently, we would have a dif­fi­cult time get­ting up in the morn­ing,” Chris­tensen told Pasatiempo. Their mother would come down to wake them, and if they re­fused to rise she re­sorted to threats. “She would say that if I didn’t get up and get dressed, she was go­ing to make me go to school in my un­der­wear. She said this of­ten enough that I oc­ca­sion­ally had th­ese dreams where I would ac­tu­ally be at school in my un­der­wear, sit­ting there at my desk with my clothes in a pa­per bag. I would have to wait un­til re­cess to put them on.”

Th­ese dreams — pretty typ­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tions of child­hood anx­i­ety — be­came a source of stress for young Todd. In some of the dreams, though he felt awk­ward and un­com­fort­able, none of his class­mates no­ticed his nu­dity. But in oth­ers he would tip back in his chair, and in the kind of prophetic, cat­a­clysmic event your teach­ers al­ways warned you of, he would kick over his desk on the way down, and then ev­ery­one would see.

Chris­tensen’s life­long anx­i­ety per­me­ates his ear­li­est mem­o­ries as well as his art­work: im­mer­sive, mo­saiclike in­stal­la­tions of hun­dreds of an­tique books he tears apart, paints, draws, and writes upon, and then puts back to­gether. The in­di­vid­ual pieces also ex­plore vis­ual rep­re­sen­ta­tions of his med­i­cal prob­lems, which in­clude high blood pres­sure and de­bil­i­tat­ing headaches, as well as child­hood and fam­ily mem­o­ries. His first solo ex­hi­bi­tion in Santa Fe, Ob­serv­ing the With­drawn, opens at Ar­ti­fac­tory, the gallery space within the Ar­ti­fact con­sign­ment shop, on Satur­day, Nov. 14.

Chris­tensen teaches in the vis­ual and per­form­ing arts depart­ment at New Mex­ico High­lands Univer­sity, in Las Vegas, a com­mu­nity where the school-year pop­u­la­tion hov­ers around 15,000. Las Vegas is a bustling me­trop­o­lis com­pared with the farming town where he grew up — Cir­cleville, Utah, pop­u­la­tion about 500. His fam­ily moved there when he was three or four, af­ter his fa­ther gave up farming to be­come a game war­den with the Utah Depart­ment of Fish and Wildlife. “Farm­ers called and yelled at him when they had deer in their fields or beavers in their ditches,” Chris­tensen said.

He moved to Las Vegas, with­out ever hav­ing vis­ited, just af­ter com­plet­ing his mas­ter of fine arts de­gree at the Univer­sity of Ari­zona, in Tuc­son. At a for­tu­itous break­fast with his for­mer pro­fes­sor, Me­lanie Yazzie, and her cousin, the mas­ter print­maker Michael McCabe, who was in town for a visit, McCabe men­tioned that he’d re­cently turned down an ad­junct teach­ing po­si­tion at High­lands that wasn’t right for him. “I raised my hand. I needed a job. I got in con­tact with the pro­fes­sors here and the whole time it sounded like they were try­ing to talk me out of it, be­cause they could only pay me for a couple of classes,” he said. That was 11 years ago. Chris­tensen is now an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor and chair of his depart­ment.

He at­tributes his love of books to be­ing sur­rounded by them as kid and firmly in­cul­cated with the value of read­ing by the ed­u­ca­tors in his life. His grand­fa­ther was an English teacher and high school prin­ci­pal, his sis­ter earned a de­gree in ed­u­ca­tion, and his mother stud­ied to be a teacher but left col­lege to get mar­ried and have kids. Grow­ing up, both of Chris­tensen’s neigh­bors were teach­ers, an el­e­men­tary school teacher on one side and a high school teacher on the other. One of his prom­i­nent mem­o­ries of anx­i­ety over making phone calls, which he still car­ries, con­cerns the el­e­men­tary school teacher, who was the fa­ther of a friend. “This man was a math teacher. There was a day when I didn’t at­tend school for some rea­son, and my mom asked me to call him on the phone and ask him what as­sign­ment I’d missed. I couldn’t do it; I got freaked out and wanted to cry. I didn’t know what I would say when I called him.” The other teacher had a li­brary in his base­ment that Chris­tensen of­ten vis­ited.

Many of the draw­ings on the books are self-por­traits, even if the fig­ures don’t look ex­actly like the artist. They can be an­i­mals or peo­ple, and some­times they don’t have mouths, “So they can’t talk,” he said, “or they don’t have legs, so they don’t func­tion well. Or they have too many arms and too many hands, be­cause they’re over­whelmed by what’s go­ing on. Or they have cac­tuses grow­ing out of their heads. Some­times I’ll draw a sock draped over their face, be­cause I can’t imag­ine any­thing more hu­mil­i­at­ing than to have to walk around with a sock draped over your head.”

Ev­ery in­stal­la­tion Chris­tensen puts to­gether is dif­fer­ent, based on the size of the space he’s given. When he first started show­ing his work he was very pre­cise, mea­sur­ing things out and making sure all the books were the same size, but he prefers to be looser about it now. The show at Ar­ti­fac­tory is the small­est space he has ever worked in, and he thinks it could give view­ers a sense of be­ing over­whelmed that is sim­i­lar to how he some­times feels. The books he uses come from yard sales, garage sales, es­tate sales, an­tique stores, thrift stores, and flea mar­kets. They date to as far back as the 1800s, but his ideal finds are cloth­bound text­books from the 1940s. Years ago, just as he was be­gin­ning to work in this medium, his par­ents un­know­ingly threw away hun­dreds of per­fectly suited books, but so many old books live in base­ments that he reg­u­larly re­ceives boxes full from peo­ple who see his art.

“I’d much rather use a book that some­one has al­ready dis­carded. That’s part of it for me,” he said. “They’re all books the li­brary has stamped ‘with­drawn’ on, or it’s some­thing some­one sold at a yard sale for a quar­ter. It has al­ready lived its life and if they’re will­ing to get rid of it, I really want it. The book it­self is a fas­ci­nat­ing, beau­ti­ful ob­ject. Some­times I can’t bring my­self to tear them up and make them into art. There are th­ese lay­ers of other peo­ple’s lives. If I add my layer to theirs, and then I ex­hibit that, that adds to the over­all depth.”


▼ Ob­serv­ing the With­drawn: Todd Chris­tensen

▼ Ar­ti­fac­tory, the gallery space at Ar­ti­fact con­sign­ment bou­tique, 930-C Baca St., 505-982-5000

▼ Open­ing re­cep­tion 4 p.m. Satur­day, Nov. 14; ex­hi­bi­tion through Jan. 4, 2016

Op­po­site page, Todd Chris­tensen: Plumb­ing the Anx­i­ety Ma­chine in­stal­la­tion view, 2011, mixed-me­dia book arts

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