Inside the Artist's Studio
by Clare Elliot
William Christenberry distinguishes himself among artists, and perhaps most particularly among photographers, by simultaneously pursuing several media: photography, painting, drawing, and sculpture. Christenberry's Washington D.C. studio, where the various permutations of his art practice exist undifferentiated by media, provides an incomparable position from which to gain a greater understanding of his work.
Christenberry's use of the found object, a formal strategy fundamental to 20th century art and not fully explored thus far in his career, is well-illustrated by his studio. A large collection of found objects extends to the shelves and surfaces of the studio and also into his home. The most apparent and remarkable aspect is a wall entirely occupied by a carefully arranged collection of found signs.
"Artists are always seeing things," he has said - where? "Obviously your eyes are always open, but you're always sort of looking at natural things, found objects, and associating them in one way or another with what you do. You are perceiving. I'm always looking around. I think most visual artists are visual animals in a way. We are avaricious. The eye must be avaricious. Everything can be subject matter. Anything can be subject matter."
In the early 1960s, Christenberry started incorporating found objects - particularly metal advertising - signs into his sculpture and his painting. At the same time, he began taking his photography seriously and his sculptural practice began to emerge. Although he had begun studying commercial art and quickly discovered an interest in painting, by 1963, photography and sculpture eclipsed painting as the focuses of his artwork. Today, he is most widely known for his photographs.
Christenberry's first camera, a simple, inexpensive "Brownie," produced a soft-focused image that he found analogous to his own visual memories. Although he has adopted more sophisticated cameras over the years, he continues to use Brownie cameras, for which he has film custom made. (He thus far has refused to go digital.) A large closet in the studio holds these cameras, modern and archaic. It also holds meticulously organized binders of negatives and proof sheets as well as boxes of prints in various sizes. From time to time he will revisit old proof sheets finding compelling images he had previously overlooked.
After Christenberry moved away from Alabama in the early 1960s, he began to form the content work around his memories of the region, and in turn the essence of memory itself. As Walter Benjamin wrote, "Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector's passion borders on the chaos of memories.the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past...are conspicuously present..."1
Christenberry's photographic practice takes place nearly entirely offsite. His photographs are taken exclusively in the rural south, mostly in an area of Alabama where his family lived, and occasionally in neighboring counties in Tennessee. He has built an iconography of the region's landmarks, and also of the changes, subtle and dramatic, they have undergone.
Although familiar with Duchamp's breakthrough presentation of found material as art, Christenberry uses the object trouve in a manner that has little to do with Duchamp's ironic Dadaist gesture. Rather, like all of his art, the found objects constitute another approach taken by Christenberry to make sense of, or perhaps only to make concrete, his formless recollections.
A distinctive elongated triangular shape, reminiscent of Klansmen's robes, surfaces throughout Christenberry's work, a subtle reference to his fascination with the KKK. But noticeably absent from the studio is Christenberry's controversial installation The Klan Room (1962-present), a work that now includes over 300 discrete pieces, including Klan dolls (both home-made and GI Joes in sewn Klan costumes), photographs, found and constructed objects, and Ku Klux Klan ephemera. The beginning of this project in the early 1960s coincides precisely with his twin discoveries of sculpture and photographs. As he does in all his work, in The Klan Room Christenberry explores his roots in the South, in this case unflinchingly examining what the artist calls its "strange and secret brutality."
This rarely displayed environment is housed off-site for good reason. In a 1979 theft, several of the dolls and other Klan memorabilia were carefully removed from the studio. To this day, Christenberry does not know whether the intruder was someone hostile to the artwork, or protective of the Klan. In either case, The Klan Room now warrants some distance between it and the artist and his family.
In less deft hands, the range of media employed by Christenberry may generate nothing more than distraction. Yet the very strength of Christenberry's work lies in its heterogeneity. Despite its variety, Christenberry's oeuvre exists as a remarkably focused and evocative whole.2
Vivid Vernacular: Christenberry, Eggleston, & Evans is on view at the Menil Collection from January 11-April 20, 2008.
1. "Unpacking my Library," in Walter Benjamin, Illusions (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 60.
2. William Christenberry. Christenberry Reconstruction: The Art of William Christenberry, (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi and Tucson: Center for Creative Photography, 1996), 149. Christenberry had several formative encounters with the Klan in the early 1960s see also Allen Tulos "Into the Territory: William Christenberry's Klan Room" in Suzanne Lange, ed., William Christenberry (Dusseldorf: Richter Verlag, 2002), 84-95