Christenberry on the Landscape
September 21, 2006
Bill Christenberry's Southern accent is immediately apparent when he talks; so, too, after listening to him for a few minutes, is that unmistakable Southern charm. He skips lightly past his own professional training (he received an MFA degree from the University of Alabama) while dwelling with pride on his son's degree and art-world status. His father practiced whittling, and his mother was a seamstress; Christenberry grew up in a home in which things were made by hand but without any expectation of artistic recognition. You get the sense from listening to him that he's very aware of the generational bridge he occupies between one arts tradition that paid no heed to the commercial art world and another for which credentials have nearly become the price of admission.
Speaking earlier in the month, the artist discussed the range of topics presented in the survey of his work installed at American Art. Among the subjects discussed, one broad theme emerged over the course of the talk: landscape, as an influence on the artist and a recurrent subject in his work.
Christenberry began his lecture at American Art by speaking about his family, primarily as a way of introducing the topic of folk art. The artist grew up around folk art, and it influenced and formed him as an artist; the themes that recur in his artwork—commercial signs, vernacular architecture, and folk sculptures and paintings—are all drawn from the tableau of his home of Alabama. Christenberry transitioned from general comments on folk art to his own work; the artist lingered only briefly on the American Art folk art installation, which he curated, noting especially works by Bill Traylor, an artist who scrawled drawings on the cardboard flats that came tucked inside laundered shirts. (“You can't think of a more fugitive material,” said Christenberry.) He also stopped to describe the Hampton Throne as the “greatest piece of folk art in America.”
His discussion of his own works followed a sort of template: with regard to almost every photograph and sculpture in the show, Christenberry (a storyteller with your great-uncle's cheesy jokes and your grandpa's charisma) waxed eloquent about the particular time or circumstances that led him to do the work or, more specifically, led him to the image. Many of the pieces, such as his "Topps" series, include physically appropriated objects—ads, signs, dirt, and other rural happenstance. But even Christenberry's photographs could fairly be described as appropriated material. For much of his early career, he shot with the simple Brownie camera he picked up as a child, and even after adopting a large-format camera, the artist never did much to alter the image. He returns again and again to the same sites—the church depicted in Church—Sprott, Alabama, for example—to record the changes that buildings and places have undergone. He builds sculptures that are modeled after these buildings (but are not, he's quick to point out, models of these buildings). He also spoke about a series of photographs of crosses made from egg cartons that were used to decorate graves—folk works by a woman named Pearly Wiers. (A photograph of Ms. Wiers, one of the rare Christenberry photographs to feature a person, was included in a recent show of Kodachromes at Hemphill Fine Arts.)
Christenberry's notion of time and memory is one he hopes to convey to audiences: “Not longing for the past, not wallowing in nostalgia—but fond memories.” That's why the Alabama of his photographs is rooted in the past. He said that today's vernacular architecture doesn't spark his interest: “Maybe someone will find the same bizarre interest in mobile homes, but not me.” (Funny: A few artists come to mind who have depicted mobile homes or used them thematically, in particular the vintage Airstream trailer, a symbol of Americana.)
Christenberry spoke only briefly about artists who have had an influence on his own work; he mentioned Goya in particular. He did say that he created Alabama Wall I as a response to pieces by Kurt Schwitters. The distance between Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Hannover, Germany, might not be as vast as the difference in these artists' sensibilities—but the patterned way that Christenberry applied found materials to a panel in a collage vein casually recalls Schwittters's Merz work.
But that's the extent to which Christenberry cites art historical influences—far more significant to the artists are the Alabaman sources that he's poured directly into his pieces.
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