Kent Christensen is an acclaimed artist, illustrator, and designer as comfortable in New York City and London as he is Sundance or the Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake City. For more than four decades he’s been making art from all of those places, as we see in Absurdly Familiar, his delectable retrospective of pop-infused work at the UVU Museum of Art at Lakemount, through Mar. 2.
Sculptor Frank McEntire got there first, and emailed that the show was, in a word, “extraordinary.”
And it proved to be all that.
Plus, playful, thoughtful, and well-laid-out (it couldn’t have been easy covering the entire second floor of the former Bastian mansion—crammed with rooms both tiny and enormous—with a hundred pieces of your best artwork). Excellent paintings are everywhere, his depictions of desserts and other edibles capable of inducing an ocular sugar rush. Plus there’s a small room containing several pairs of stiletto high heels that Christensen collaborated on with fashion designer Camilla Elphick. Quite a concept. The ultimate effect is almost dizzying in its impact.
Downstairs, in the now filled and elegant gift shop that went unutilized for a long time, are fine signed prints by the artist. Other treasures can be found here, too, from candles to Alice in Wonderland greeting cards. It’s a lovely space run by a competent young woman who handles ordering for the shop as well as sales.
The idea for a retrospective, Christensen says, came about when Lisa Anderson, previous director of the UVU Museum of Art (who recently moved to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.), became aware of his work. “[She] realized—the way sometimes only an outside observer can—that it would make a great narrative/learning exhibition, perfectly suited for an academic institution situated in the very community that has inspired so much of the work I’ve done since 2004.”
You’ll find work from before that date—from when Christensen was making his career as an illustrator in New York—and plenty since it. Dinosaurs, temples, taffy, Brigham Young, Spiral Jetty—all make cameos. As we wrote about Christensen’s work in a previous profile, he likes “to play games with his art. He hides things in it, pays homage to other artists and different cultures, often has a darker meaning to his charming images and appreciates viewers who take the time to uncover them.”
“My work is so deeply rooted in storytelling and so uniquely quirky that it evokes a kind of curiosity, especially when seen as a whole,” he says. He has astounded and sometimes confounded his local audiences with his mix of religion, history and, of course, sweets. “What was most astonishing to me [about the retrospective] was just how overwhelming it was to view work that had never been seen together, sometimes painted decades apart, hung side-by-side in a new imagining of a presentation by the brilliant exhibition designer, Taylor Wright. He was able to make choices I couldn’t have, being so close to and invested in the work. It was thrilling to see my work through his eyes.”
Christensen adds that his favorite moments at the show have been “eavesdropping on conversations between couples who are trying to sort out their (often divergent) reactions to things like a temple made of Coke bottles or a mandala made of eight buff, gay PEZ ‘Rainbow Missionaries.’”
Born in Los Angeles in 1957, Christensen graduated from Art Center College of Design in 1986 and embarked upon a career as an illustrator for TIME, BusinessWeek, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone and many others. He determined to move to New York City after first visiting there in 1985. “I was able to make the move from Los Angeles in 1988 to a small apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, then (fortunately) was able to purchase a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in 1994 when the real estate market dropped for a minute. That apartment nearly quadrupled in value by the time it sold in 2010, so I felt lucky to have been able to raise my kids in an apartment and not have to move for 15 or so years.” He continues to think of New York as home, he says, “since it’s where I spent so much of my professional life, raised my kids and met most of my closest friends.” And, he adds emphatically, “I was a lot younger and able to do the things you can do in a physically demanding place.”
He recalls that his family thought he was crazy to move to Manhattan with a 2-month-old baby, “but at the time I was so single-mindedly determined and had a ‘now or never’ mindset about moving there that it wasn’t until I had a grandchild (within the last two years) that I realized how my family must have felt when I left that idyllic garden apartment at Park La Brea in Los Angeles. To be honest, I used to have dreams where I would go down into the gritty New York subway and magically emerge back in lovely Park La Brea,” Christensen recalls.
He relocated to Utah more than two decades ago, and for most of the time since lived and worked out of a property he built at the Sundance Resort (with occasional teaching stints at Utah Valley University and the University of Utah). He was by no means off the grid—he had neighbors, including artist Jann Haworth, whom he could see through the trees from his home studio—but the idyllic mountain setting was a major change from living in the city.
“I miss New York, and prior to Covid I was returning at least annually. Last October I returned after a four-year absence, accompanying my artist daughter so she could attend the wedding of one of her friends. Now I am experiencing my kids going back to the place where they grew up more frequently than I do, but that’s OK,” he observes. “Between the highs and lows of those 25 or so years: The richness of culture, the vibrance of the art scene, the dear friends made there and experiences like September 11, 2001, New York will always occupy a large piece of my heart.”
But for the past seven years or so, London has replaced New York as the big city Christensen spends the most time in. His mother is from Glasgow, “so I grew up learning about the UK from my Scottish relatives while eating sausage rolls, mince & tatties, stovies and shortbread over the holidays, listening to Kenneth McKellar records with them on Sunday afternoons in Southern California.” In 1981, Christensen met his relatives in Scotland on his first trip to the UK. “That was over 43 years ago,” he adds, seeming amazed at how time flies.
This year marks 18 years since Christensen has been with Charlie Phillips and Eleven Fine Art in London. “Charlie assembled about a dozen artists to make up the core of the gallery artists, and he did a great job of choosing a compatible and professional group of wonderful people with a wide range of styles and media. It feels like a family, and by extension many of the people who have bought work through Eleven have also become good friends,” says Christensen.
In recent years, he’s found more reasons to visit the city. “A couple of years before the pandemic, I found myself bumping into Utah friends who also happened to be in London, running the ‘London On Stage’ GoLearn program for the University of Utah during the spring and fall breaks. It occurred to them that [since I was already over there] they might be able to include me as a guest speaker who could talk about a couple of museum exhibitions to sort of round-out the program and give the group a little more structure during the day.”
He now goes to London at least twice a year, sometimes for long stretches, a guest of various friends as well as a brother who has lived there for the past eight years. “I have really enjoyed putting on my ‘art history hat’ and talking about the current big shows,” he says of his involvement with the university’s program. “The hard part is keeping it to two or three. There are always so many things going on in London. Since 2018, I have covered major exhibitions on daVinci, Holbein, Warhol, Hockney, Raphael, Surrealism, The Pre-Raphaelites, Hals, and so forth. It’s truly an embarrassment of riches, and has become my favorite thing, not least because I have met many wonderful new friends who (mostly) live in Utah and collect art. A triple-win for me!”
In 2021, Christensen left Sundance and moved to the Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake City. “Everything is so very walkable, I feel like I’m living in New York again,” he says of the move. Most of the time, however, you’ll find him in his Millcreek studio at the Baldwin Radio Factory. “Finally, I have a place where I can leave big projects and not have to look at them,” he says, referring to the fact that he has always worked out of a home studio, where you see work on an easel when walking to the fridge or the bathroom. “There’s a value in walking away from work and letting it sit for a while and coming back to it.”
His large space at Baldwin is divided into two sections. Behind a false wall you’ll find the studio proper, where he does most of his painting. Works by friends and deceased artists he has collected elbow for room with boxes of old slides and stack of books. (Like many artists, he’s a bit of a pack rat.) On a desktop easel, he is finishing a painting of the Great Salt Lake where dinosaurs frolic in the wings while three ice-cream sandwiches float like a heavenly apparition above Black Rock. Classic Christensen. On the standup easel next to it, he’s just begun a painting in which four large ice cream cones mark the cardinal directions. The acclaim for his UVU retrospective is still coming in, but he’s already preparing for a show of small works at his gallery in London. He compares it to a greatest hits remix—a revisiting and reinterpretation of some of his classic motifs.
The studio setup includes a gallery/work space that is actually larger than the gallery he is with in London. He plans on putting it to versatile use. Currently, a trio of snowboards is propped against one wall, waiting to be picked up by his children. Opposite them, a large Paul Fjellboe lies on its side, waiting for Christensen’s restorative hand. (Working as a conservator is just one side hustle of this multi-talented man). When he’s been out of town for longer stints, he’s allowed artist friends to work in the space. And he plans to host weekly painting lessons and a monthly sip & paint night in the space starting in late March.
Right after he gets back from his next trip to London.
Kent Christensen: Absurdly Familiar, Utah Valley University Museum of Art at Lakemount, Orem, through Mar. 2
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.