Chris Anderson: A conversation on shalom
Second in a Comment series on under-appreciated artists.
Chris Anderson with her Family Stories installation
Where are you from? What place do you consider home? What images come to mind when you think of your home? How does your home affect-effect-reflect your life?
These are the questions that pop up when you encounter Chris Anderson's artwork. They are the questions that she asked me directly when we first met. Questions of home and place continuously emerge in both Anderson's art and life. You can easily observe it in the installation of paintings in her studio or at a gallery, but you can just as easily experience it through her inquisitive personality. She wants to know who you are and what you are about.
For most people, the answers to these questions might be quick and easy. I don't think I've ever gotten a quick answer from Chris. Not that she can't get to the point (she'll easily cut to the chase when necessary). But she takes time to consider, and to give you a real answer. Like C. S. Lewis, Chris Anderson has a reputation for cutting out small talk in favour of real interaction.
Born in coastal California, Anderson lived in many places throughout her life and career as an artist. As a child, she lived in a different house every year until the age of thirteen. She later began exploring ideas of house and home in college, studying art in California at Scripps College and Claremont Graduate University, then in New York at Pratt Institute, and in Rome at the Tyler School of Art of Temple University. Her professional inquiry took her to Germany on a Fulbright Award, to Austria for stints as artist-in-residence, and to Washington, D.C. on a National Endowment for the Arts grant. She now lives in New York City.
When I tried to catch up with her to talk about her artwork and practice, I found her in Florida, caring for her parents. She had expected to be back in New York three weeks prior, but got caught up in the 'stages' of life. "I cannot be doing anything more important than what I am doing right now," she said to me. For Anderson, attending her elderly parents—he proprietors of her first home—is an important part of life. After all, cultivating conversations about an American notion of house, dwelling place, and home is what her work is all about.
Exploring "dwelling place"
Anderson's artwork consists of a rigorous exploration of imagery through painting and drawing and mixed media collage, often grouping multiple canvases together, from a catalogue of hundreds, to form what might be called "visual sentences." The pieces truly are a form of visual communication, reflecting the sheer volume of images prevalent (or perhaps exemplified) in American culture. Each sentence, a conversation about life and place, reflects and often literally displays, in a signature icon (such as a silhouette of a ranch-style house), the notion of dwelling place. Each canvas works as part of the grammatical structure of the whole.
The pieces can range from the meticulously representational, as in the recurring pair of eyes that stare out at the viewer (Is this the artist, herself, looking at us, or is it a stand-in for you and I as we stare into a mirror?), to the purely abstract, bringing to mind David Reed's swirls or the active gestures of Joan Mitchell. The variation is intentionally indicative of the diversity of experience of domestic life. With titles like "My Home Is My Castle: The Resurrection Man," "Family Stories 21 / Home & Garden," and "The Journey" and "Of Heaven and Earth," you get the sense that Anderson is interested in more than a cursory exploration of the notion of place.
Perhaps the breadth of her travel and experience informs her intense pursuit of the nature and cultural significance of the concept of home. She lights up when sharing her love for the landscape of Italy, or of working the soil with her hands in the Pacific Northwest, or of physically caring for her grandmother, now deceased. Anderson is eager to share with you how she has connected to each place and how that experience might help you find similar connections. Perhaps it is a strong sense of her own roots in New York, or the confidence that comes from her relationship with God, that gives her the desire to explore what it means to claim a place and make it your own.
But it goes further than that. She is describing with her art the longing and striving for shalom that we all reflect in our dwellings. The Hebrew shalom translates to English as peace, but carries much greater connotations—hat of wholeness, connection with God and the Earth, true inner peace, calmness, or safety. These are all descriptions ideally associated with what we call home. When you look at the images composing an installation by Anderson, you are looking at elements of a conversation about shalom.
The place we live is also the place where we are most comfortable, most vulnerable, most ourselves, and most at peace. Anderson's artwork is an ongoing dialogue about the elements that inform, occupy and embody our dwelling places. Her website claims that "she explores the concept of 'dwelling place,' the search for cultural authenticity, the longing for spiritual and historical roots, and the beauty in life's 'ordinary places'". These ordinary places most often end up being our homes.
The castles we build
Anderson's imagery is full of the trappings of American culture—pictures that trigger memories specific to her upbringing—yet are ubiquitous enough to trace our experiences as well. "How did Mickey Mouse shape my home?" she asks. This conversation is eminent in the piece, "Essential Mickey," where an image of the iconic mouse is paired with one of Madonna and an ice cream cone. They are seemingly disparate images, yet when carefully placed in proximity to each other, they bring the connotations of those elements into a conversation about the castles we are building.
Anderson brings together the commercial detritus of American culture with the symbols of nature and earth to give us glimpses of our homes and the ideal of home. They are what we build and bring together (consciously and unconsciously) to identify our houses, our dwelling places, our homes.
The autonomous suburban home is linked to the outside world by way of our TV sets and computers. Television shows were the predominant form of connecting isolated households to the outside world in the 20th century. New technologies in gaming and relational information have since given us new links to other people while maintaining our anonymity—virtual communities. Our houses have become largely homogenous, indistinguishable from the others on our cul-de-sacs. So, Anderson asks, how do we make them our own?
While Anderson hints at resolution, often enough she leaves us with more questions. How do we structure our houses in order to make them our homes? She shows us the repeated ranch-style home in varied backgrounds and with diverse accompaniments. Are our relationships and experiences what differentiate one house from another? She gives us pictures of her "favourite uncle" and silhouettes of a couple kissing. Is there something universal in what we strive for? The answer is implied in the work itself—a painting of a '57 Chevy and wallpaper patterns. The types of objects she depicts reference specific timeframes and also our pursuit of the latest and best.
The abstract panels in her pieces seem to imply the things we are striving for: harmony, beauty, expression, peace. A conversation with the artist quickly reveals her belief that we are unique and precious in the eyes of God. That in the frail and fleeting things we grasp, we recognize a deeper longing—a longing for the ideal home, a household where we can find heaven and earth co-mingling in shalom . . . "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."