A conversation with Lise McKean

Cut Outs, detail, Christine Wallers.

Christine Wallers and her work crossed my path in 2010 when we met at the Tai Chi Center of Chicago, where I had gone with a friend for a photo exhibition. The center hosted Christine’s aerie-like studio, adjacent to an expansive space for classes with a lofty ceiling and time-worn wooden floor. As we got to talking and I looked around her studio, I quickly realized that she’s an artist’s artist. Later conversations and viewings of her work confirmed my first impression. As slangsters say, “She’s all in.” The following exchange is from our conversation about In no time, her recent show with Rebecca Beachy at the Ralph Arnold Gallery.

Lise: Good thing for the person who’s going to transcribe our interview that the thundering in the dance studio upstairs stopped.

Christine: It wouldn’t be good for our interview, but it’s comforting to me. I share “the grey space,” my studio, with a dancer. The rhythm and the pounding are sounds I like to hear. Not so much above my head but in the space on a wood floor.

Dancer with Christine Wallers’ work at Streamlines exhibtion, Vaishali, India.

Lise: When I first saw these new works, I thought of the pieces you loaned for Streamlines, the show I brought to Vaishali, India. Obviously, your work has changed since then. Let’s start with how In no time relates to the works that were  included in the 2013 exhibition in India.

Christine: There’s a thread in this work, vestiges of the pieces that went to India and drawings that I started years ago, called things that sting. That thread goes all the way to the present—the space between drawing and sculpture. I like to call them “phenomena” because they’re not quite drawings and they’re not quite sculptures. They definitely become 3D, they become their own object. So, they are phenomena between those two forms.

Lise: It’s interesting that you say “between.” We hear so much these days about hybrid. Between is different than hybrid. It’s the grey space.

Christine: Exactly. z, the work on the left, is a piece I made in 2015. It took a whole year.

z, Christine Wallers.

Lise: With all its detail, I can see it’s not something that’s done quickly.

Christine: First I draw on the paper and then scar the shape. Then I come back and pull the shape away. Again, I was interested in the spaces between control and chaos. The thrill of completing one of these cuts, and ripping a whole section away, or leaving this delicate little line around the circle. You get beautiful areas where they hold and sections where they don’t quite hold.

Like my installation and sculptural work, here too, there’s an element of light. The piece changes as you move around it. The experience of it is fleeting. If you stand and look at it from this side, it looks eaten away. On this side, it looks completely different. Some color even pops up, some orange on one side. I was interested in it changing, and shifting, and holding a wall as you moved around the space. Almost hypnotically holding a wall. And someone recently pointed out to me that the more I take away, the more complete the piece is.

Lise: Could you expand on that dynamic?

Christine: The more I take away, the fuller it becomes. Meaning the more I cut away from the piece, the more visual weight the piece has—even though I’m subtracting from it. It holds a wall more completely.

Lise: What do you mean by holding the wall? It sounds poetic. Is it a technical term?

Christine: For a while I was doing these drawings that have all kinds of activity in them—starting with things that sting and moving to tattoo heart ink, and then light sleeves—there was a lot of activity on the surface. But if you were far away on the other side of the room, you couldn’t really see that. There was nothing telling you to come over and look.

For me, a piece “holds the wall” when I look across the room and I see that is has shape. Its form has weight. It holds. Of course, a big form can hold the wall but it’s a challenge to make something small that can hold the wall equally in a room with larger forms. Formally, that’s what I think makes a successful work. Formally, it hits my sweet spot.

Lise: You mentioned there are three phases to making these works.

Christine: First, I prepare it with ink.  I don’t like them any darker than z. I don’t want them to be a fully saturated black. There is an in between tone that I am shooting for: a silvery quality, harking back to photography.

z, detail, Christine Wallers.

Lise:  Are the white areas on the surface an effect of the scarring?

Christine: That may be me pulling away some of the paint. These are all done by hand using a little x-acto knife to scar the surface.

Lise: So, you scar it with the knife, and then go back and decide which ones to make into holes.

Christine: And next, I go back and cut deeper, and I start to pull away.

Lise: Are you saying that what looks like a drawing is the scarring?

Christine: That gives it the skin-like quality.

Lise: I see that, the scarred forms appear to be cellular.

Christine: Sometimes I use pencil and come in, scarring over and over very hypnotically. It’s like a meditation. I repeat the circle and then I go back in and scar with the knife. It’s intuitive and depends where I’m at in my head space. I keep working and working, then I cut deeper and start pulling them away. That’s the third phase.

Lise: They look similar in size. Are you going for that?

Christine: Sometimes. It’s all hand rendered. Again, it’s the repetition. I get in a flow.

Lise:  After you scar it, you pull it away. Is that done methodically?

Christine: It’s methodic, but I could start anywhere. I could start in the middle and work up. The space opens up.

Lise: The way that they’re hung with pins allows for movement. It’s like the movement of breathing, and the movement caused by the breath or a breeze. At moments it’s as if the work itself were breathing.

Christine: It’s like creating something that is living. In some ways it has movement and there’s the suggestion of movement. There’s movement in all the work, either by light, or your body moving around it, or your body being still to give yourself a second to see it. There’s a lot of interaction.

Genuine Fake Pages, performance still, 2017.

Lise: These works also invite the eye to look for patterns. And the patterns change with light and shadow and movement. About the movement aspect—we started talking about the thumping of dancers upstairs. How about you say something about the kinetic quality of your work? It’s become more prominent since you became involved with choreographer and dancer Joanna Furnans and collaborated with her as scenic designer on Genuine Fake and SIGNIFIER.

Christine: After meeting Joanna, I started to think about how lifeless and stagnant visual art can be. Even the idea of an opening as opposed to a performance. At an opening people come in, they scan the room, they see their friends, they leave.

When you go to a performance or a dance piece, the doors are closed, you turn your phone off, the lights are down, etc. You’re concentrating, maybe you start to hate it, then you start to like it. You think, “I don’t know if I can make it through this,” and then suddenly you can. You come out with this different feeling because it’s an hour, or 45 minutes, or 15 minutes of concentration on something.

I don’t feel like visual art gets that anymore—especially at an opening. It’s just a glance. The opening and the performance are the same spectacle. However, the concentration, what you allow yourself to go through within a performance, is a lot greater.

Lise: It’s not just what’s allowed, but what’s expected. Usually you don’t turn to your neighbor during a performance and start chatting. But that’s what is expected at an opening. The opening is a performance and the artist, the curator, gallerist, and visitors all have their roles.

Gallant, Christine Wallers.

Christine: Being involved with Joanna and getting an education in her form of expression has made me aware of the way that I move within my own work. I did a whole piece with 150, maybe 200 darts that I made. Then I threw them at the wall for a show. The piece was called Gallant. I was working with women writers as an influence, and Mavis Gallant was one. She was from Canada and died in Paris.

Lise: I remember seeing you with the darts in your studio when you had just begun making and throwing them.

Christine: The darts were a studio meditation when I was working on the earlier forms of this work, the work that you brought to India. Joanna was influencing me, and I’m glad because it brought my entire body and intention into the work.

p, detail, Christine Wallers.

Christine: Do you see the three little pins in p?

Lise: I spotted them right away. They’re playful. They caught my attention and got me thinking, what’s going on here? They remind me of porcupine quills.

Christine: I have little surprises in each one. This piece was also a year in the making, in between working on Genuine Fake. It was started after the inauguration of our current president. I was listening to a call-in show on NPR and everyone was trying to understand the other side. I was thinking about a lot of things at that time, migration, climate change.

p, Christine Wallers.

I wanted to see how far I could take it. Would it fall apart or would it hold together? All of these works have the sense of being about to fall apart. I was interested in moving that along in a formal way. Moving back and forth between the formal—having no edge, having the boundaries start to shift and hold together. It also felt topographical, like I was looking at it from above. Then it looked like a hurricane. It had this landscape, this storm. And a tumultuous feeling.

Lise: It started rising up at you. That makes sense since you work on them horizontally.

Christine: Yes, exactly. z is a lot more formal. I was making z after my friend passed away. I had to move out of my studio at the Tai Chi center and was working in a tiny space in my apartment overlooking a frozen garden. That was the winter we had like 81 inches of snow. I was mourning. I didn’t know where my next studio was going to be. This piece has that feeling.

In a way, z was asking, will it fall apart? It’s very thin. People have said it’s like a moth eaten sweater. The work has fragility, delicacy, ferocity. It’s holding on by a thread, but also looks like a living breathing entity. A skin.

z and p, Christine Wallers.

For this one, p, I started collecting some of the pieces I cut off and adding them back in different places. It was like I was feeding it back to itself. And the backside is painted making the shadow on this one very dark. I wanted to bring the color through as you can see. The darker oranges are coming through, the black-orange.

Lise: If that’s not the murky underbelly. The works have all sorts of metaphorical possibilities. From another angle, it’s a blurred form of a head with ears sticking out. It’s creepy. Like something might be lurking in there. This work doesn’t waver with the breeze as much. It moves differently because it’s heavier and more solid on the bottom.

Christine: It’s very emotional. Besides holding the wall, I find these pieces work both in daylight and at night in artificial light. I wasn’t able to crack that in earlier work. You could only really see them in daylight if the sun was out. These are silvery during the day and have a different quality at night. They may seem more foreboding in the evening than during the day.

Lise: The tones change according to the time of day and quality of the light. The skin reference is apparent too. Almost reptilian.

Christine: If you look at it sideways you can see that silvery quality. A friend said it looks like leaves blowing in the wind. Or a screen with dirt stuck in it.

Lise: It does have a haphazard feel to it.

Christine: It can be macro like atmospheric or micro like cellular.

Lise: With apps that allow us to scale in and out, we’re often hopping between a far-away and a close-up view. Your titles are minimal. Could you say something about them?

Christine: I consider myself a non-representational artist so titles are tricky. I wanted to avoid titling these pieces Untitled 1, Untitled 2, et cetera because that can get uninspiring. Instead, I decided on using letters as a naming convention. The particular letters assigned to each piece, p, AR, and AM, mean something to me, but are not pertinent to understanding the work. The ongoing series is loosely titled Cut Outs. Maybe that will stick.

AR + AM, Christine Wallers.

Lise: What about this group of works, AR + AM? Are they individual works hung together or do they form a single piece together?

Christine: I wanted to see how one piece worked off the next. I created a scorched quality by layering ink over the pulled and cut areas. I was thinking about embers, volcanic eruptions with their lava flows and molten rock, smoke and the crackling of fire, leaves in repose, the textures of plant material, dead insect wings. I was thinking a lot about images in the news of a devastating fire in a coastal town in Greece where a lot of people were killed. There were images of people who had fled to the sea to escape the fire, smoke in the air, and murky shapes of bodies.

Seeking refuge from wildfire in Mati, Greece, 2018, Reuters.

I’ve been thinking a lot about transformation. Even destructive volcanoes provide a rebirth for the soil. And what comes back after burning is a transformation of the Earth. While everything seems to be holding on by a thread, there is a structure that’s shifting and changing. I hate to use the word soul but I will.

Lise: A volcanic eruption can benefit Earth and be cataclysmic for humans. It seems to me that your work establishes compelling visual and conceptual referents to things such as smoke, volcanoes, and lava. And even more compelling is the way it creates a visceral sense of such phenomena using nothing more than paper and ink.

Lava flow in Kilauea, Hawai’i, 2014, U.S. Geological Service.

Christine: Someone visiting the studio once asked if these pieces were made from metal.

Lise: Another feature that distinguishes your work is the way it archives your practice—the movements of your hand and your meditative process of working. For example, the accretion in your work of the bodily rhythm of repetitive movement distinguishes it from a lot of work that is produced using digital tools such as laser cutting and 3D printing.

Christine: People ask, “Oh, how did you do this? Did you punch these holes out?” They’re surprised when I say that I cut them all by hand. The work is imbued with my emotional response and reflection to our country’s state of affairs over the past couple of years.

The hand rendering, the repetition, the meditative state I slip into while I am in the studio, help me absorb and process what I’m seeing, hearing, and experiencing on a daily basis—the beauty and danger of the natural world and the hope, power, and destruction of our political-commercial-social world.

Lise: AM has the feel of a classical Chinese landscape painting. It suggests tension between stillness and the eruptions of time. Maybe it’s the topographical quality of the ink wash. The way the surface is built could be an eroded hillside or a twisted, weather-beaten pine tree.

Christine: It’s interesting that you say twisted because I was thinking of a human spine.

In no time, partial installation view, Rebecca Beachy and Christine Wallers.

Lise: In no time feels like three shows in one. Your work has its own autonomy—the pieces hold the three walls and cohere as a perimeter, with the storefront windows opening into the gallery on the fourth side. Rebecca Beachy’s installation on the floor sculpts a distinctive interior space. And the piece Rebecca and you made together anchors the space as a whole. Tell me how the two of you were brought together and then collaborated on this show.

Christine: Nathan Smith and Kristin Abhalter of the Roman Susan Art Foundation curated this show specifically for Rebecca Beachy and me. Our show is part of One Thing Leads to Another, a multi-site programming series that they organized in collaboration with the Department of Fine and Performing Arts and the Ralph Arnold Gallery at Loyola University.

death of a moth, installation detail at Roman Susan, Christine Wallers, 2015.

Nathan and Kristin knew our individual work and thought we would be a good pairing. But Rebecca and I hadn’t met each other and we weren’t familiar with each other’s work. We weren’t given a directive or theme. We each pursued our own work. In that sense, our show wasn’t a collaboration. But the curators were right about the pairing.

Lise: And what about the wall over here? Wall. Right now, I hesitate to utter that word.

[Referring to the gallery wall painted by Rebecca and Christine.]

Christine: I know. We don’t want to say that word.  How about “the shape?”

“the large square,” Rebecca Beachy and Christine Wallers.

Lise: Maybe “the square?”

Christine: I’m going to call this “the large square.”

Rebecca and I weren’t thinking of splitting up the space and I didn’t want to fill every wall; I wanted there to be breath. But I thought it would be great if we had an architectural element. One sculptural piece— a shape—that would ground the space. So, I suggested we paint this part of the wall in the gray and silvery tones that we were both working in.

Lise: “The Large Square” has a lot of texture. How did you build that up with the paint?

Christine: Rebecca, who works with bone ash, said she’d be interested in making a paint with it and had the idea to use that, instead of a gray or silver store-bought paint, on the wall. First, she experimented. Then she came in and made batches of sifted bone ash powder mixed with water, gum Arabic, and talc that we applied to the wall. It ended up being like adobe. Smelling like it too. I was thinking about the energy of these beings, the bones of beings in that wall. It felt powerful. I love the way it glistens too.

Lise: You talked about ghostings earlier. The wall has ghostly forms within it.

Christine: People are kind of freaked out by this wall. The biggest response we hear from people is, “There’s something in that wall. I just feel it.”

Lise: What’s happening with this part of Rebecca’s installation that’s winding around the on floor?

In no time, installation detail, Rebecca Beachy.

Christine: She works site specifically. She’s mapping out the crack in the floor. And she liked the idea of a fuse.

[I step backward and almost tread on the installation.]

Christine: That’s what I was worried about. I was afraid people were going to step on the work. That’s why I felt we needed a grounding element.

Lise: “The Big Square” works brilliantly to unify In no time. Its palette and texture integrate the works on the wall with Rebecca’s pieces on the floor—and the terrazzo floor itself.

Christine: And this is a pile of magnesium, which is a fire starter.

Lise: There’s something very primal here, with burnt animal bones and fire-starter.

Christine: Something quiet, too. I just pulled out a couple of chunks of wood from my fireplace that I’m going to burn again. It’s just weird what fire does to things.

Lava flow in Kilauea, Hawai’i, 2018, U.S. Geological Service.