Contemporary art can be simple, starkly minimal and austerely reduced, yet still offer hidden universal truths, hosting a complexity of meaning and serving a valued purpose of relevance as an important work of art: a basis for rich conceptual art. By contrast I’ve seen plenty of art that is ugly, confrontational and purposely overdone, but that has nothing to say, no clear reason for being and having no association with the conceptual. Brian Christensen’s work, which is on display this month at Salt Lake’s Finch Lane Gallery, can be hard to approach. It is arguably not pretty. It can be coarse and crude, and even, using the artist’s own description, grotesque; yet his large-scale pieces are the groundwork and form for a symbolically complex web of conceptual thinking that invites ongoing investigation.
Christensen’s current show is a conceptual wonderland waiting to be investigated and enjoyed. This collection of installations and sculptures is tied together by a common, though not readily apparent, theme rooted in the ideological realm of the conceptual. His liberal use of a variety of media, that may or may not be visually appealing, allows the artist great freedom to work with the conceptual aspects of his sculpture. Through the play of material and symbolic constructs, Christensen works towards one of his primary aims as an artist: to articulate the vicissitudes of phenomena in contemporary existence. Like a modern-day Plato, he examines the faulty and fragmentary knowledge we use to construct our sense of reality: in Christensen’s work the image of the video camera often replaces the fire and puppet show of Plato’s allegory of the cave, where chained prisoners, unable to turn their heads, know reality only by the shadows cast on the wall before them. Plato’s allegory suggests that, in mortality, we have only so much vision, only so much truth, only so much knowledge. All we know are fragments, images of a pure reality that supersedes us. In this limited capacity we are doomed to a life of trial and error, learning through experience the nature and the truth of pure reality. Similarly, with his sculptures and installations. Christensen examines modes of contemporary living that fragment and impede our understanding of true existence.
Christensen’s complex sculpture “Filtered Perception” erupts conceptually in a many-tiered perspective of the contemporary experience that synonymously addresses the limitations of all of humanity. It is a sculpture on a grand and theatrical scale, dominated by a group of four male figures created of an inner core of urethane foam with a urethane resin coating and an exterior of colloidal silica slurry incorporated with silica sand for a form that looks solid, rigid, stone-like. The figures are identical, their frames measured in direct proportion to Christensen’s own. Each stiffly rendered figure wears a suit; each has a frozen face. A tarnished brass shackle on their left foot binds each to a chain.|1| The men are prisoners. They are slaves. To what, is the question Christensen is addressing. Where in Plato’s scheme there would be shadows on the wall, Christensen places a vintage video camera that displays a sequence of arbitrarily chosen segments of the popular visual media. The implications are expansive.
The work functions like a piece of theater complete with its own resolution. The four men are completely homogenous and represent humanity in general, or what Christensen believes is the result of the leveling and distorted impact the popular media has on humanity. Where the humanist Plato would have appreciated the potential and individuality in each unique person, “Filtered Perception” has an implication that this humanist vision has been lost, that because, as Plato signified, we are limited in our sphere of reference, we draw our meaning from artificial sources, like popular visual media, to compensate for truth. As the visual media perpetuates its ideology, we in turn perpetuate it further by allowing it to take the place of truth, to form our thinking, to solve our problems, and define existence for us.
There is a positive conclusion, however. To the side of the quartet stands a white figure, like the rest but for one difference: he wears a purple, Venetian-style mask. He stands at the foot of a giant white stalagmite, while another video camera, connected to the first, films him. In Plato’s allegory, the figures were eventually freed, and as they left the cave they found that their entire construct of existence had been completely false and that there is a pure reality that exists beyond their fragmented conception of shadows. In Christensen’s work this is represented by the arbitrary imagery of the first camera with a measly cord being the only connection to reality, recorded by the second camera. The fifth figure wears a mask since he has seen reality and in fact stands before it, represented by the stalagmite. He has transcended the media, has found truth and defined his unique existence. The sculpture suggest that even in mortality a taste of pure reality can be discovered by living authentically. As people make their own choices, decide their own thoughts and define what existence means to them individually, they are freeing themselves from the shackle by ending the controlling and polluting didacticism of the media. It is a sculpture of caution, mystery, hope, possibility and the kind of humanism that Plato advocated.
Though the figures in “Filtered Perception” are stiff, they are at least accessible. By contrast “Surveillance Beast” would be hard to describe as anything but grotesque. Conceptually it can be understood as a corollary to “Filtered Perception.” It has an elongated, bulky, caterpillar-like shape that twists upwards. From the surface, golf ball-sized eyeballs peer out from every occupyable space on the form.
“Surveillance” inverts the focus of vision in “Filtered Perception” — where the figures were chained physically and metaphorically to viewing media — from seeing to being seen. In a world of advanced technological surveillance and data access possibilities, it is a mystery as to what relationship and what access to privacy various institutions and “powers that be” have to the general public. The grotesque sculpture with bulbous and peering eyeballs casts a dark shadow of paranoia and anxiety that is a creeping and pervasive phenomenon of contemporary experience. This social paranoia might lead to other phenomena, such as a loss of trust in the “system,” a loss of hope, a loss of faith, a complete state of disillusionment as paranoia casts doubt upon everything it touches. It is an ugly sculpture with an ugly message, but is important in its meaning. Like “Filtered Perception,” “Surveillance Beast” serves as a conceptual caution and a warning about the dangers of the fallacies, traps and lies that can overpower the happy experience of contemporary existence.
The heavy strain in this exhibit, of works like “Filtered Perception” and “Surveillance Beast,” is lightened by other works like Christensen’s “Insider Joke.” This singular piece, an ode to contemporary aesthetics, is a sculpture that might look crude or haphazard, yet it possesses insight and explains much of the raison d’être for Christensen’s own individual and very unconventional aesthetic philosophy, as well as a statement on the condition of contemporary aesthetic norms. Inside a glass box covered in drip marks of red paint sits a pair of worn-out boots. The box sits atop a filing cabinet. Inside one drawer of the filing cabinet is one perfectly rendered sculpture, and in the other, one reduced to fragments. What could this cacophony of symbols possibly allude to?
Departing from a background of High Modernism (the glass box), Christensen now likes to work with a very un-Modern range of material that includes “relational aesthetics not tied to a specific material” (the worn out boots). This is an implication of a free range of material possibilities in an aesthetic philosophy that stresses the importance of the conceptual. In this philosophy, the liberal use of the material encourages a free play of the conceptual context, which is linked solely by the idea. This piece considers the polarity between aesthetic norms, one old and the other new. “Insider Joke” refers to a statement that runs across the top of the filing cabinet: “relational aesthetics are deskilling and reskilling me.”|5| This aesthetic outcry offers a conclusive resolution to Christensen’s work and is a touchstone for the entire show. The philosophy suggests that contemporary artists are better equipped without academic training and didactic art dogma, and are encouraged to allow the conceptual to play the prominent role in their work, married with a limitless range of the material.
Brian Christensen |7| has sincere concerns about the contemporary experience and in this Finch Lane show the limits of mortality are a sure foundation for his conceptualist framework. He develops these ideas in numerous works, that are spontaneous, adroit, intelligent and concerned. After considering the aesthetic relationship of the cryptic and the conceptual as signified in Christensen’s work, this art becomes less intimidating, more accessible, and, in its own way, touched with beauty.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.