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Painting Between the Lines

Northern California based artist, Linda Christensen, is not interested in showcasing the perfect human form, or in pedantically depicting in realistic detail a person’s exterior. Her sub-surface focus of emotional interiors is harder to reach, but for her, so much more worthwhile to tap into and express. 

Drawing first and foremost from human emotion, Christensen’s artistic process is deeply intuitive, subtle and spontaneous. Her evocative figurative paintings are the end result of the artist carefully transmitting the weight and evasiveness of her subject’s private realm, which is two-fold: while we are invited to observe the figure in her intimate personal surrounds, positioned, say, in her bedroom, a dimly lit study, or by a secluded shoreline, we are also drawn deeper into the works to contemplate the subject’s inner, mental life. Immersed in the ingrained motions of mundane activities – unreflectively setting a table, washing dishes, reclining in a familiar chair – the subject is free to turn inwards, losing herself in a stream-of-consciousness that is embedded within. For the artist, this internal roaming is what brings us closer to ourselves; a gentle tethering to ourselves: “There is something magical in seeing the humanness in others. What I see is that people come back to themselves; a check in.  I think they are coming back to their own source, their soul, their gift.” Occupying this stance, one is self-reflective but uncritical, free to explore imaginative associations, nuanced memories and a succession of fluid, interlinked thoughts that are inherently personal.  

But Christensen’s aim is not to pry open the internal worlds of her subjects. She knows too well that these realms are sacred and fundamentally subjective, exclusive. She merely depicts subjects in their environments gesturally, at the same time foregrounding and obscuring them. Often, the figures are faceless, or turned away, their emotional charge expressed via less conspicuous elements like the interplay of hot colour accents and cooler, broody washes in oil, which are together integrated in painterly areas that are deliberately abstract and incomplete. This invites curiosity but gives nothing away; it’s OK to not know everything about another. 

Working intuitively while applying paint, Christensen builds up the surface of the picture plane with layers of smooth brush strokes and swatches of thick impasto, only to then scrape back and slice into this foundation with the pallete knife. The knife allows Christensen to move quickly, spontaneously and without a lot of detail. While the artist pays attention to the balance of contrast between line, brush mark, varying shapes, open and space, as well as content of information, the process is by no means contrived: “While I am in the process of applying the paint, I have no destination.” There’s a rhythmic physicality to Christensen’s works because of this, which is paralleled in the figures themselves. Their inner perspectives are communicated through their physical posture and stance, their corporeality. As a dancer in her free time, Christensen appreciates the inseparableness of the mind and the body, and embraces the physiological nature of emotion. 

Importantly, these applied movements and markings are secondary to seizing on canvas the emotional reality of the subject matter. This is what’s most crucial to Christensen, in her work and in life: veridically chartering human emotion. This requires intuiting the grey areas of human interaction and observation – anticipation, regret, boredom, nostalgia and reverie – communicated through the nuanced gesture of a hand, an almost imperceptible sigh, the slight adjustment of a shoulder, and of course, through the telling omission of movement and words; stillness and quiet. More than a literal language, it is this emotional valency that the artist seeks to detect and transmit on canvas: “The painting is finished when I can feel its parts relating to one another in a cohesive manner with chaos still intact and the emotional content showcased.” Because the artist has established an emotional bond with the image early on, the work from that point does not have to be treated cautiously, but rather, creatively and uncontrolled. The artist, like the viewer, feels more so than thinks her way around the picture plane. Rather than directing and restricting the painting, Christensen is careful to let it lead her. When the emotion builds the painting takes on a life of its own. 

Unaware of being observed, the figures assume postures typical of those deep in thought or daydream: limbs are heavy and languid, torsos soft and slumped, forming silhouettes reminiscent of Greek sculptures standing in contrapposto repose. These women are clear departures from the self-conscious nudes of former times mindfully posing before an attentive, frequently male, eye. They are depicted as they are in their true state, uncontaminated and unobjectified by another’s gaze. As a result, we as the viewer are invited to connect with the subject’s private musings, but ultimately our inquisitiveness directs back onto ourselves. We are able to sympathize with Christensen’s figures because they imbue a timeless, quintessentially human pathos that we can so naturally relate to. This is certainly true for Christensen, who predominantly paints females, especially one of her two daughters, Emily, to which as a woman and mother she can intimately relate. Christensen serves as mediator, guided by the subject, perceiving and intuiting the scene before her. Speaking of her interest in reading emotion, the artist admits: “As a child I believed that I could see more than most people. I felt unnoticed which gave me power to observe with abandon. I thought I had special powers.”

In all of Christensen’s works, the figure, even when accompanied by another in the scene, is almost invariably alone. In “She Drifts” (2015), a brunette female figure sits meditatively on the sandy shore of a non-descript beach. Her blurred face, directed outwards to a horizon beyond the scope of the picture plane, is propped atop interlaced hands. We cannot see what she is looking at; we can only see her in the act of looking. A simplified, Matisse-like outlined second figure, perhaps the woman’s child, plays in the background, but there is no interaction between them. Echoing the colour palette of paintings in this 2015 body of work, especially “Together, Apart” and “Cooler”, a mixture of acidic chartreuse, blue-grey, burnt orange and muted undertones create an eerie, sombre and frenzied energy – the clashing colours of anxiety. This “checking-in”, this seeking refuge in the familiar realm of our inner self, purports with it visions of our past and uncertainties of a constantly approaching future. Christensen distils in her works a particular moment in time of her subject – a present that is dynamic, in flux, amorphous – temporally loaded with recollection, reflection and anticipation. Christensen’s message, it seems, is that being alone is not equivalent to loneliness; it is the way to feeling at home within yourself.

© Harriet Levenston 2015