Ages of anxiety Artist Todd Christensen
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 His first solo exhibition in Santa Fe, Observing the Withdrawn, opens at Artifactory, the gallery space within the Artifact consignment shop, on Saturday, Nov. 14.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