If asked to name an artist they know something about, most people would probably reply, ‘Vincent.’ They might well defend their nomination by pointing out that he was precisely what comes to mind when someone says ‘artist.’ He was notoriously daft: inspired, driven mad by the very passions that made him so great, incendiary, and an absolute visionary.
In short, van Gogh was crazy.
But if substantial artists must be dysfunctional, erratic, self-absorbed and solipsistic, what are we to make of James Christensen? Successful in a profession known for unbridled selfishness, including the abandonment of children and their mothers, what is Utah’s most beloved painter really like? One answer—and a pretty convincing one—can be found at one of the two entrances to Curiouser & Curiouser, a multi-room exhibit on display at the Springville Museum of Fine Art through April 6th.
Curiouser & Curiouser is subtitled The Artwork of James Christensen, Cassandra Barney, Emily McPhie & Family. It will surprise few readers that Christensen has two married daughters who are successful artists in their own rights. And as room after densely-hung room here proves, these offspring are as prolific as their father. Not only that, but while some influence is probably inevitable, each of the three has adroitly crafted a unique, personal style. In a comment quoted on a wall sign, Christensen expresses pleasure that his daughters’ works cannot be confused for each other’s, and one could add that, but for a ‘family resemblance,’ they are also distinct from their father’s. Add that his influence is really most evident in the infusion of high standards: if none of them paints like a Baroque master (and who would want them to?), they nonetheless demonstrate that painting of ‘old world’ quality still has something to say to a modern audience.
What that is will be the subject of a review in the February issue of 15 Bytes. But meanwhile, what about that reference to ‘family?’ The Springville Museum, in collaboration with the artists, has set up a couple of rooms that take those viewing the art back upstream towards its source: not to the studio, but virtually into the familial abode, where they can sample the atmosphere that sustains the art-makers. Surrounded by a ‘Sensory Dispensary,’ where visitors are invited to join in what appear to be favorite family art games, and ‘Cabinet(s) of Curiosity,’ which are filled with creative talismans selected by the artists from their personal collections, a gold-leafed ‘Christensen Family Tree’ grows in one corner, spreading its branches over two walls. The twenty-eight individual portraits that adorn it are each, as one quickly learns, a double portrait. It seems everyone drew lots, so that each member received a commission to produce a portrait of a random son or daughter, brother, sister, or cousin. Complete freedom to approach the task guaranteed that each portrait would reveal the maker as well as the sitter. Any suspicion that the 90% of them who did not become popular, well-known artists were simply not blessed with originality is quickly dispelled. In fact, some of the objects—a doll, boxes, trays, medallions—are splendid, creative examples of how to play with the professionals without treading on their turf.
Today, when the old days of gathering around the fireplace, then the radio, and finally the TV have given way to not gathering at all, but scattering, each to an individual digital device, the days spent in such pre-fab activities as assembling jigsaw puzzles or filling in crosswords seem almost a lost paradise. Compare, then, Cassandra Barney’s flannel board, which encourages those who lack the time (or ability) to draw to at least assemble their own, original images—ones that tell their own stories. What prevents many talented persons from becoming artists is failure to cope with a lonely life devoted to hard work. But the cure for loneliness is solitude, as Marianne Moore says, and in the Christensen family corner of Curiouser & Curiouser, we can glimpse how starting out in the right family can—instead of robbing a future artist of angst, suffering, or whatever is supposed to make successful artists according to this year’s theory—make real the vital difference between lonely and solitary, and in so doing, foster a good artist, or at least a happy and successful person.
Curiouser & Curiouser: The Artwork of James Christensen, Cassandra Barney, Emily McPhie & Family is at the Springville Museum of Art in Springville through April 6.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.