“The divine is made evident through tangible and sensual experience; without our physical selves, we would not experience moments of wonder and the mysterious.”
Bryan and I first met when I was working at Soho Art Materials. While making his regular purchases of wooden panels he would engage us with updates on his progress in the studio. Unguarded, he never hesitated to speak with us about the self-doubt, desperation, struggle, and perseverance he experienced. He often articulated problems which are universal to all those who are pushing their creative pursuits into realms unknown to themselves. In a field where so many try to compensate for their insecurities, his blunt honesty was at once full of black humor, visceral, and compassionate. Soon our conversations evolved to encompass not only our studio practices but struggles with depression, love of music, and philosophy.
It didn’t take long before Bryan invited my coworkers and I to his studio. I was shocked by not only the amount of work he had in piles around his studio, but by the rich feeling the pieces carried with them. His beautifully crafted anatomical paintings immediately caught my eye but to refer to them merely as such is limiting. They could also be nebulae or super novae bursting apart in deep space. The resemblance to x-ray photography and Hubble photography both carry forward a scientific aesthetic, but his ability to encompass both in a single breath qualitatively broadens the aesthetic into an expression of deep spiritual feeling. The cosmic body and the individual body melt together seamlessly reminding us that the atoms which build our seemingly concrete form existed in space long before us, and will again long after we are gone. For me these works are honest attempts at expressing the wonder of the human condition as we understand it in the light of contemporary scientific discovery. This marriage of the scientific and the spiritual, or as I often think of it the analytical and the sublime, recur in Bryan’s work in multifaceted ways and I encourage the reader to bear this duality in mind through the following interview:
I have a vague understanding of your process. I know you use a combination of both digital rendering and encaustic. How did you arrive at combining a process so contemporary with a process so old? and how does the technical construction of your paintings relate to their content?
I’ll first describe my process. Using 3D software I create renderings that are visually similar to MRIs. To create the imagery I pose an anatomically correct human model with its internal system in virtual 3D space. I spin the camera around the figure and make renderings at every 30-60º. I then composite 3-12 layers in photoshop. From there I print each individual layer on silk. Covering a panel with encaustic I lay a layer of silk on it and then weld it to encaustic using a blow torch and heat gun. I the add another layer of silk and repeat the process. I don’t use pigment in the wax. All of the imagery is created digitally.
I began experimenting with this process about three years ago. I wanted to add warmth to the the cold and precise 3D medium I work in.
In regards to the technical aspect relating to content: by using layers I’m obscuring some of the imagery. My experience of life is that much is obscured; from the emotional to the physical to the spiritual. Our epidermal layer obscures our fat and musculature and skeletal system. Emotionally I am unclear most of the time with what is bringing up the feelings I experience. I rarely experience the wonder and mystery of life; this is obscured by the grind of daily life and the realities of corporeal existence. I believe this obscuring and layering is what physical existence is all about. I believe my ultimate purpose in life is to cut through these fleeting experiences (layers, if you will) in order to experience our ultimate reality and hopefully be a beneficial force to the people in my life. I consciously attempt to connect to this intent every morning before I get to work and pick up a paint brush.
Your work while very new carries a timeless sense of existential searching. How do you see yourself in relation to artists of the past? Do you have any kindred spirits?
Painters from the Italian renaissance are my greatest influence. Da Vinci spent time in morgues dissecting corpses and drawing in minute detail what he saw. This, and his scientific study of light, completely informed every brushstroke of his painting. This scientific exactitude was the bedrock upon which da Vinci expressed profound aspects of the human spirit. I feel a kinship with him; my background as a medical and scientific illustrator has informed the art I make. The imagery in my paintings are derived from anatomically correct 3D source files. In fact, they are the same models I use for the medical and anatomical illustrations. I’m not deviating from human anatomy or “making anything up” so to speak. But within these constraints I’m hoping to depict the human form in all of its emotional and spiritual splendor.
The majority of your paintings, or at least from what I have seen, were composed with a central iconic form. Are these pieces icons for you in the religious sense or just in composition?
When I began painting I was working intuitively. After a while I realized I was approaching my pieces from a “religious”, or if you prefer, “spiritual” perspective. I looked at my works as meditations on our hidden infinite nature. Also, when I first started making these pieces, I was predominantly drawing inspiration from sculpture. I was painting as a sculptor and not a painter; I was not paying much attention to the edges and not thinking much about compositional harmony on the picture plane. At this time I was mostly interested in creating pictures that had luminosity and depth. This led me to placing the images centrally on the panel.
In your most recent work you have moved away from this. The new work has darker dissonant elements which bring your following statement to mind:
“Our lives start with trauma as we are brought into the world from the safety of our mother’s womb. We eventually die, experiencing the loss of all that is dear to us. Yet transcendence and the experience of the sublime are rooted in this fleeting material existence. The divine is made evident through tangible and sensual experience; without our physical selves, we would not experience moments of wonder and the mysterious.”
Are you allowing more trauma into your work?
I think so. I’m interested in conveying the full spectrum of human emotion and experience. And unfortunately trauma is a integral aspect of what it means to be human.
I recall our conversations about Fra Angelico’s use of black in his otherwise pastel compositions and wonder if you feel discord is a necessary element in capturing life authentically?
I think of it more in terms of tension. But this translates well to “discord”. Most western music needs the tension of the dominant’s tri-tone. Without this tension (or discord) there would be nothing to resolve to. So yes, I think tension is an important aspect of my new work.
You are a trained Jazz musician and a big fan of Thelonious Monk. What instrument did you play and has music influenced your work?
I played tenor saxophone and piano. When I paint I think in groups or variations on a theme. Bach is my favorite composer. The fact that he can write an infinite amount based on a single short theme is beautiful to me. I feel a relation to him in that I am reusing the base 3D models of a human to create all of my work.
Now I want to talk to you about one of your films. Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to see one at a gallery in the lower east side. It was a black and white film where the viewer moved through cross sections of the human body as if navigating three dimension x-ray scans. The body itself was still as if turning slowly in space, but one only got glimpses of it in its near entirety. Most forms, a head, a spine, a foot, came in and out of view like ghostly apparitions. Scored by Bach’s final fugue, the piece was long, meditative, and tender.
This film is clearly about mortality, but it is also about the miracle of existence. Is this work another expression of your statement that “transcendence and the experience of the sublime are rooted in this fleeting material existence” and what impact do you hope it makes on the viewer?
I look at the world as having three aspects: creation, sustenance, and dissolution. This could be looked at as birth, growth, and death. The emerging and dispersing forms in my video work are informed by this concept. I’m trying to hint at the unchanging infinite divinity behind this ever changing aspect of our physical world. I believe this ever changing and fleeting nature is what brings beauty to the world.
Some might expect a film like this to have a more experimental or atonal soundtrack. Given the interconnectedness between the technical development and content of your work, it seems safe to say that this particular piece carries significance to how you wish to represent the human body in the film. Could you tell us about this piece of music, and why you chose it?
I chose Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s final piece, The Art of The Fugue (Contrapunctus XIV). Bach died as he was working on it so it abruptly ends with no resolution. It’s quite haunting. I see a similar intent and process with Bach’s work and mine. Bach, especially with his fugues, is taking a theme that is stripped down to it’s essentials. The theme’s the “bones” of the piece. Once the theme is stated he explores it, turning it around, transposing it, playing it backwards etc. I’m using anatomically correct structures and systems of the body in my paintings and videos. Using these “bones” I’m able to make abstract imagery. I explore the body from different angles and perspectives. The video travels through the body forwards and backwards. Bach’s piece has a manuscript. By reading and playing this manuscript over time the music is created. I look at the body in my videos as the “manuscript”. Like Bach’s manuscript, the body doesn’t move on its own and is inert. By changing the focal plane over time the imagery is created. Metaphorically I look at it as strumming the inner strings of the body.
What are you working on currently and what can we look forward to seeing in the future?
Lately I’ve been attempting to activate the picture plane in a more deliberate way. I’m thinking about pushing the edges. I’m being more intentional with color and have begun to develop a consistent color pallet that I’m exploring and seeing how far I can push it.
I’ve recently started making works on paper. These works are more figurative and they go back to the more “iconic” works you referenced. I’m excited by how the process is made more evident with the paper; the layering of silk is more apparent because the edges of the silk aren’t registered perfectly.
When you state that “the divine is made evident through tangible and sensual experience,” are you denying mind-body dualism? and if so how would you define transcendence and hope in the face of death?
It’s a matter of perspective. As I navigate through life I experience my mind and body as two distinct and separate entities. Yet the same energy that composes my body composes my thinking faculty. I look at it as divinity existing in a timeless, objectless space that isn’t constrained by anything, including the rules of Newtonion physics. This divinity then concretizes itself into the physical world including my psyche and body. These two aspects of ourselves are built from the same “stuff”.
Physicists and mystics have been gently suggesting to us we are composed of infinite energy. In physical death my “energy” will merge back into itself. My “small self” will die, certainly. But I believe my Self (with a capital “S”) will never die. So it becomes a question of what am identifying with. Am I identifying with the ego, with all of its likes, dislikes, and desires? Or am I identifying with something greater? Am I identifying with the the timeless, spaceless divinity that I believe is the “DNA” of everything including my mind and body? THAT state is how I see transcendence. I’ve had a handful of these experiences. Twice it’s happened around art: when I saw Michelangelo’s Pieta in the Vatican and when I saw the Rothko retrospective at the Whitney. In these two incidences, as my statement says, “the divine was made evident through tangible and sensual experience.” These experiences changed the direction of my life; they galvanized my intent to make art. My job as an artist is to attempt to create things (that are experienced by the senses) that act as windows we can look through to get a glimpse of who we truly are.
For more of Bryan Christie’s work pleave visit http://www.bryanchristie.net/