Claire Christerson's new show is a dreamy depiction of teen angst
The artist uses vivid drawings, ceramics, and giant painted video sets to explore gender and identity.
Left: Claire Christerson photographed by Molly Matalon, 2020. Right: Claire Christerson The Hourglass Under the Stairs, 2019 Gouache/Acrylic on Paper 30 x 22.”
Claire Christerson has always found inspiration in the pairing of melancholy and whimsy. The 27-year-old artist and native New Yorker graduated from the photography program at the School of Visual Arts in 2015 and they have been a pivotal part of the art scene ever since, often collaborating with model and actor Bobbi Salvör Menuez and photographer Michael Bailey Gates on various projects that explore gender and identity.
Christerson isn’t afraid to use any medium to express what they feel inside and out. From dolls to ceramics to giant painted sets for videos, their work is dreamlike and sparkly with secrets and patterns hidden in every piece. Their latest show called Through The Window Up The Stairs! (open through March 21 at AALA Gallery in Los Angeles) is no exception and it invites us to step into Christerson's colorful world. The installation's inspired by childhood memories of running through their grandmother's house and it explores "the vivid and distinct stages of emotion that transpire through childhood."
Ahead of the show, Christerson told i-D all about their New York upbringing and how making art has helped with their anxiety.
Your work has this dreamlike feel to it. Where does your inspiration come from and how has it changed over the years? There are certain elements, like butterflies and fairies, that have stayed true throughout your process…
I make work in chapters and sometimes a symbol or a piece of imagery will stay for a while. Things with wings are definitely very inspiring to me. I’m interested in imagery that feels uplifting, and so it kind of carries throughout my work. I’ll get really obsessive about one thing and I’ll feel the need to keep repeating the image until it naturally comes to a close. A lot of the things I make art about come from me wanting to make things that feel inspiring. I like to tell stories. But I think that when I’m drawing I’m not always thinking necessarily so logically about it.
So, your artwork feels mathematic in a way?
Actually, I was looking through some old journals of mine from high school going into college and I found a drawing that I did when I was 15 that’s like foundation for the style in which I draw now. Often I feel like it’s me going through my life and like seeing something that inspires me. For example, when I went to Ireland for the first time in 2018, I was in this forest and I saw all these trees that were weird and geometric. But each one had a dying vine in the center of it and to me that was so mind-blowing and I just started drawing that vine a lot. I’ll see things and incorporate them.
Making work is just a lot of emotional processing. Personally, that’s where I feel like I can do all that processing because I’m not the type of person to share everything I’m feeling all of the time. If I can draw it out or I can put it on paper that to me is a more successful way of sharing something than if I were to cry a bunch about it. It’s easier for me to make art for the sake of processing an emotion or cataloguing a memory even, you know?
Who are some artists that inspire your work?
For this show I’ve been researching as I’ve been making the work because this work got made really sporadically. For a year and a half now I’ve been going to the drawing and prints library at the Met. It’s open to the public which is really interesting. I love the work of Louise Bourgeois and Odilon Redon.
What are you most excited about with this show?
For this show, I wanted to just go back to working with friends. The video is something I’m really excited about. It’s 25 minutes long on a loop, just casted using my closest friends and collaborators. For me, this show is like placing memories in rooms, which is something I learned in therapy and I think it’s a really inspiring way to look at things and create a house, which is essentially your foundation.
It’s funny because I actually approached this video wanting to not work with people I knew, and then that became super challenging. It was really special and the entire project was funded by a kickstarter campaign which was cool. It felt like a massive group effort where it wasn't really even just me, I had a really amazing assistant -- this artist named Madeline Billings. I’m really excited about that film, and it feels sort of nerve wracking at the same time to show it because I always feel like video is a really vulnerable medium.
Your work has a lot of colour and pattern to it -- can you talk a little about that?
In 2018, I created a whole body of work that was sort of like the very first draft of this work. The drawings I was making around these figures have very stark backgrounds. When I was first drawing these I would use an emotion or I would do a pose and think about things like, ‘What does that pose feel like to me?’ I would draw it out in a way that I felt represented it and I would just draw these characters in these patterns and textures and clothes, and to me, that just felt really fun.
I think that that’s kind of me being like ‘Okay, it doesn’t have to be so serious all the time.’ It’s really important to enjoy what you’re doing -- it doesn’t always have to be such a painful process. It curbs my anxiety if I can get into a repetitive motion or do something over and over again. I feel that I learned this habit from playing basketball in high school. I still play basketball. It taught me dedication, work ethic, patience, and to learn from mistakes. I feel that this funnily fits in well with making work that appears to be from an adolescent perspective because it's an awkward time of growth. In working with my friend Vanessa Soudan on choreography for the video piece, I wanted to include repetition to emanate that sentiment.
You also make your own costumes, right?
I made all of the costumes for the video. I drew a lot of the patterns for the clothing, the physical fabric patterns, I had them printed, and then I made the clothes. It’s really enjoyable to make everything as customized and unique as possible. I like to put things together that I think look good. I like clothing that makes me feel comfortable and most of the time I think that when I do draw clothing it’s because I want to wear it in real life. In the making of this work, I paid attention to color combinations that I found both extremely flat and odd. I think that the color grey is actually the center point of this show. I was looking a lot at how buildings and door fronts were painted. I am inspired by houses and how things are built. My dad is an architect so I think that growing up with him I was affected by how he observes buildings and structures and was taught to observe how things are put together.
Do you feel like becoming more comfortable with your own identity has affected your work?
Well, I feel like I’m in baby step mode with that stuff. I think it’s really hard. I don’t think it’s really so much about how accepting it is, but the pressure to be public and open about everything. I want to say that for the most part, the characters in this show are pretty gender fluid. I definitely drew some characters from the perspective of a boy. I don’t really draw things with the intention of it being gendered. I just don’t.
What advice would you give somebody who is struggling with their identity, but wants to put themselves out there?
Just be patient with yourself more than anything. I feel like I have to remind myself to be patient too. It can be really scary to be honest about that stuff with people outside of yourself. It can be really hard. I feel like I’ve felt that way for a really long time and I kept quiet about it because I didn’t really feel like it was my place to take up space in that way. I feel like over time I’ve been like, you know what? You need to stop putting other people first or like what you think other people need... you just need to stop being scared basically.
I feel like this year has been interesting because I have been more open about my gender and it’s definitely exhausting. It’s hard. I just feel like I’m not really in a place to give anyone else advice like that other than just be patient with yourself and make sure you have really good friends around you.
What’s next for Claire Christerson?
I want to keep making art. I like doing shows and I would like to do more. I also like doing workshops. I actually just got hired to be a substitute teacher at a school. I think that it’s cool to talk about the idea of comic books and telling visual stories without much dialogue. This show would not have happened without the support of my friends. I’m serious. It's not just one person putting on a show. There's a lot of help and encouragement and for that, I am truly grateful.
Through The Window Up The Stairs! is on display at AALA Gallery through March 21st.