by Terry Messman
[dropcap]C[/dropcap]hristine Hanlon’s beautifully composed images of outcast souls struggling to survive in barren urban landscapes seem to be ripped from today’s news stories about increasing poverty in America. Yet, her deeply felt paintings also are timeless in their portrayal of classic themes explored by great painters through the ages.
In “Wet Night On Sutter Street,” a homeless man sleeps under a cardboard box outside Wilkes-Bashford, the ultra-expensive clothing store where Mayor Willie Brown shops. Three stylish suits dwell inside a luxurious store — warm, dry and protected from the elements — while a living man is locked outside in the cold and rain. The suits seem to cast eyeless gazes at the homeless man, as unseeing as the eyes of the rich when they overlook the poor in their midst. Bars of gold on the doors separate the two worlds of rich and poor.
“Rhonda’s Place” depicts a homeless woman reduced to living in a sidewalk encampment just around the corner from the opulent Sheraton Palace. The gap in our society between lavish wealth and desperate poverty has become a chasm.
On the surface, Hanlon paints vivid images of isolation and alienation in urban America, so her work is sometimes compared to Edward Hopper’s stark paintings of loneliness in the impersonal city.
But Hanlon’s art goes far beyond that. She offers a revelation of the intense alienation of destitute castaways barely surviving on hostile streets — people almost never seen in the work of other artists. She paints riveting portraits of people we usually pass by with eyes averted.
In a striking artistic paradox, Hanlon has created beautiful paintings of subjects usually considered so unsightly they must be shunned. She has given places of honor in art galleries to the very people who have been rejected by mainstream society.
Although certain of Hanlon’s paintings may seem like topical political commentary, a closer look shows she has created timeless, classic images by using some of the same compositional techniques as her beloved “Old Masters” — painters such as Leonardo da Vinci and Piero della Francesca who used the esoteric art known as “sacred geometry” to create harmonious and beautiful ratios and proportions in their art and sculpture.
Through the centuries, artists have portrayed the dehumanization and suffering of people trapped in inhumane social orders. Van Gogh painted hunger-ravaged peasants in “The Potato Eaters.” Goya painted stunning images of the horrors of war, poverty and pestilence. The German artist Kaethe Kollwitz drew heartbreaking sketches of prisoners, war victims, and the hungry, sick and jobless. Ben Shahn created unforgettable portraits of the victims of Nazi brutality, radioactive fall-out, and hunger.
Hanlon’s soulful paintings keep that tradition of art with a social conscience alive in our time. Her art gives a human face to those who have been rendered nameless and faceless by social prejudice.
Hanlon’s body of work is both an indictment of an unjust society and a symbolic act of restoring the humanity of people who have been discarded by an economic system that has no use for the poor. Her paintings break the silence of a society that tries to cast homeless people into oblivion, and neglect them to death.
Fittingly, it was Richard List, a formerly homeless artist, who brought Hanlon’s paintings to the attention of Street Spirit. List, the artistic originator of Plop Art, has been a roving art correspondent for Street Spirit, constantly finding vital new art with an unerring eye.
List has undergone long bouts of homelessness, and is sensitive to the misrepresentation of homeless people by artists. It is all the more significant, then, to hear how greatly he values Hanlon’s artwork.
List said, “There’s a great deal of gravity in her work and there’s more there than meets the eye. I looked at her work and asked myself, ‘Why does she do it?’ I think she wants to focus our attention and then perhaps we’ll have more compassion. After looking at her art, I did start having more compassion, and I extended it beyond homeless people to other people as well. And it makes my life better.
“I truly believe she’s got a tremendous intellect which is informed by her good heart; and the two together make an incredibly potent combination. I hope she gets the MacArthur genius award someday.”
Hanlon’s paintings have been chosen for exhibition in many regional and national juried shows; and she has received first-place awards in several museum shows. At the Berkeley Art Center, 500 artists submitted over 2,000 slides to a national juried show; Hanlon’s art was one of only 40 pieces chosen.
While working on her Master of Fine Arts at the Academy of Art College, she received several faculty awards. Hanlon now teaches at the Academy of Art College and gives technical seminars at colleges and universities in the Bay Area.
Street Spirit: Why does your art focus on images of homelessness, poverty, urban isolation, especially in a culture that wants to ignore homeless people?
Christine Hanlon: Good question, and you’ve actually included the answer to the question in your question, which is: I specifically chose that subject to get people to look at the subject of homelessness. I also have been a social activist and a political activist for many years, but I had never included that imagery in my work. I would say I was more of a traditional landscape, figurative artist.
But when I decided to go back to graduate school after 20 years, I realized that, in order to create a body of work that had deeper meaning for me, I had to bring more of what was really important for me into the painting. So I was going to school in San Francisco, and I became keenly aware of all the homeless issues because I was just seeing people on the streets; and I decided that, as an imagery that would have a strong impact on people, and as a social issue that I could comment on, I decided to choose homelessness. I really didn’t choose it based on the salability of the images that I was going to create.
Spirit: You weren’t concerned about whether you could sell these paintings?
Christine: In terms of the commercial viability of the imagery, I began to feel I didn’t care.
Spirit: It almost seems like a death sentence for a serious artist to focus on homelessness. People don’t want to see it in real life. Why would they want to see it in paintings?
Christine: Exactly. So that actually again points to the answer. In just the way Richard List once took a picture frame, went into a museum, and stood behind the frame with himself as the subject, I knew that it is much easier for people to look at the image of something than the real thing, and especially issues of poverty, homelessness. All that is easier to deal with when it’s removed from the actual subject. So, my intention was to create images that were beautiful, in the sense that they would pull people in. But when they were pulled in, they would realize they were looking at a homeless image.
When I first showed the pieces in 1995, the feedback I got from people was that they are disturbing because it’s a homeless figure. At the same time, I didn’t want it to be in your face — people on the street that are overly disturbing to people. That’s why I made the figure just an element within the whole context of an urban environment, because I want it to be a strong place to which people have to visually move, and then they discover what it is.
Spirit: That’s exactly what happened to me in looking at your painting, “Rhonda’s Place.” When I first looked, I saw the lights of the downtown, and I thought Rhonda’s Place must be a late-night café or a place to hear music. Then, as the painting draws you in, you see what Rhonda’s Place is: It’s a homeless woman in a sidewalk encampment, barely surviving through a bad night in the big city.
Christine: Well, “Rhonda’s Place” was one of the images where I basically wanted to comment on the social class element to homelessness. Actually, what’s in the background is one of those super-long limousines, and then the Sheraton Palace Hotel. Anyone who knows that area of the city knows where that is. I was definitely making a comment — you know, you got that. It could be a café or something, but actually it’s her encampment. And then I wanted to show extreme poverty, someone living right on the street.
Spirit: Living on the sidewalk right next to extreme wealth.
Christine: Right. Right around the corner from extreme opulence. One of the most expensive hotels in the city is right around the corner. And this is true everywhere in the world, that the highest-end financial districts and the fanciest hotels are always right next to the people in the most poverty. It happens everywhere. I was trying to make that comment.
I know Rhonda, and that’s why I called it “Rhonda’s Place.” I fed her for about a year when I was in graduate school. I had my school studio right around the opposite corner when I was at the Academy of Art. I used to come out and see her there, and I would bring her food. My partner and I would routinely give her money and food, because that’s where she’s living, and she’s still living there. She has seen the image. I gave her a copy of the painting, and she knew I was doing a painting of her, and she was fine with it. She is a pretty amazing woman, actually, that she has been alone on that street, or the next street over. She is there five years later.
Spirit: Your paintings show great empathy towards homeless people, yet you went beyond that by giving her food, too.
Christine: I would be a social activist full time if I didn’t have to make a living. I’ve always been into volunteering and activism.
Spirit: What issues have you worked on as an activist?
Christine: Anti-nuclear. I worked really hard against the Gulf War in 1991. I organized. I marched at that anti-war rally on Saturday, October 26th [the huge rally in San Francisco against war in Iraq]. It’s just so strange. It’s like déjà vu ten years later. I’ve always been an activist. I was involved with the Shadow project. I have worked actively on electoral issues.
Spirit: What was the Shadow project?
Christine: It was sort of a performance art piece done by groups of people all over. We got up in the middle of the night before Hiroshima Day, and made full-body outlines in white on the street with people that day, and this happened all over the world. When people woke up that morning, they saw on the street these white outlines shaped like people’s bodies. So, it was an anti-nuclear action, commemorating the people at Ground Zero in Hiroshima who were vapoirzed, but left a real shadow on the ground.
Spirit: Reviewers have written that you paint images of urban isolation, akin to the painter Edward Hopper. One review noted that your painting, “Waiting for the Go,” showed a man immobilized at a street corner, separate from everyone else. But the reviewer didn’t mention that the man was holding a sign asking for alms. How strange that the review missed that man’s real isolation and destitution, the same way that man is isolated in real life from the cars driving by that ignore him.
Christine: Well, that image was the second homeless painting I did, and I was definitely influenced by Edward Hopper. I looked at a lot of Hopper. He did a lot of bird’s eye view, but also worm’s eye view perspectives. He painted figures in urban environments. I was a little disturbed that the reviewer thought that was a man reading a newspaper, but the reviewer got it right that the figure in another painting was a homeless man. But, once a review is written, and someone reacts to your work, you can’t change what’s been published. That’s it.
Spirit: It’s illuminating, though, that here is this image of urban isolation, but the review itself contributes to that isolation by not recognizing this is a man in poverty asking for help.
Christine: Yeah, I saw the irony of that myself. I thought it was sort of interesting. To me, it was utterly apparent that this was a man holding a cardboard sign with a cigarette in his hand, just waiting. I mean, “Waiting For The Go” is the title. What’s he waiting for? He’s waiting for the cars to move, and then they’ll stop, and then he can ask for help. It’s about your awareness of people.
Once you become aware of something, you’re always aware of it; but, you can’t expect everyone else to have the same awareness of an issue all the time that you may personally have, although you assume that people will. Now, when those paintings are all in a group, and it’s nothing but urban scenes with homeless figures, then nobody’s going to mistake what it is.
Spirit: Are Edward Hopper’s lonely images much of an influence on your art?
Christine: I would have to say that I have looked at lots of Edward Hopper; and I’ve seen how he uses perspective, and the selection of just one or two figures within his compositions. I think he’s a better watercolorist and printmaker than painter. Technically, I think there are much better painters with oil paint than Hopper, but compositionally he is fantastic. Great perspective. He is very, very good.
Spirit: Many artists have portrayed alienation. But only a very few portray the intense form of loneliness and suffering that poverty and oppression breed.
Christine: Right. Well, I can talk about one of those artists. There are a couple of artists, both contemporary and in the past, that I just feel so passionately about, and one, of course, is the German woman…
Spirit: Kaethe Kollwitz? Was she an inspiration for you?
Christine: Yeah, she totally is and was. Oh! I mean her work was so full of intense emotion, and comment on human suffering, basically.
Spirit: And poverty, war and injustice.
Christine: And poverty and war, and everything. At the same time, if you look at images she has done, like her self-portraits… To me, it really doesn’t matter what subject the great artists are focusing on, it’s really their sensitivity. Their sensitivity, period, in the sense that they can turn the view back on themselves like she does in that self-portrait, and still make an emotional statement that just transcends her and time. To me that’s one of the greatest self-portraits ever done.
Another artist who is a contemporary artist that I feel really passionate about and who actually inspired the piece, “Serenity Base,” is Jerome Witkin. Jerome Witkin is a painter who deals with very intense subjects, from homelessness to torture to domestic violence to the Holocaust; and does these huge triptychs and major-sized pieces that are just unbelievable. He is an unbelievably fantastic painter, but he also attacks the most difficult subjects. They are just so beautiful. If you like that piece, you should go see Jerome Witkin’s work, and you would be blown away. He’s fantastic.
Spirit: Has anyone else especially inspired you?
Christine: Of contemporary artists, Jerome Witkin was the strongest influence. I would say, looking back to historical artists, I think Goya, because he dealt with, again, extremely difficult issues of his time, and he experienced them himself. He was anti-war. He dealt with poverty. He dealt with the isolation of the individual. He dealt with a lot of the things that I’m always keenly aware of. It doesn’t matter what time you live in.
Goya dealt with insanity and madness. He didn’t deal specifically with homelessness, but the people he chose to deal with, the imagery that he really wanted to do, not the commissions that he had to do, but he was expressing his true values about people who were pretty isolated, I mean, in insane asylums. Just really intense, difficult subjects. And then he died in poverty, alone, which is just too ironic.
Spirit: The ever-popular starving artist effect.
Christine: The ever-popular starving artist, yes.
Spirit: At first glance, the painting “Serenity Base” is an almost idyllic look at being homeless — like Huck Finn was homeless, but he was in nature, where it was pretty. You see a man camped under a tree, and it says, “Serenity Base,” so you get the idea that maybe it is a kind of meditative place for him and he’s peaceful in his little camp in nature. Then you look at the vast landscape leading to a view of the city in the background; and you have an entirely different thought that this person is exiled far away from his own city. He’s an outcast. He’s looking far away at a city where he doesn’t belong anymore.
Christine: Absolutely. That is part of the interpretation that I wanted people to get from that painting, and there are other layers to the piece. The name “Serenity Base” is actually a little bit of a takeoff on “Tranquility Base,” the base on the moon. All that stuff that you just said is added onto the idea that someone can be living in an urban area yet they feel like they are on another planet, a complete outsider. So, that was sort of a tongue-in-cheek way of alluding to a homeless person being on the same planet, in the same city, but they don’t even feel like they are part of the society.
Yes. And the other thing is that, in all my imagery, I love using San Francisco just because I love this city, and the source of a lot of my images is that homeless population and the encampments and the reality of being homeless in this city.
So, when I did that piece, I wanted to bring together all of the concerns that I was creating: How the homeless live, the process of being homeless, the idea of time, an expansion of time. Because that’s actually the same figure in the encampment, and walking off in the distance. It could be two different people, but one of the things that Jerome Witkin does with his paintings is he uses doubles, because he is a twin; he has a twin brother.
What I was doing was showing the process of being homeless where someone is outside. They are in their encampment where they are living. They are isolated, but they are next to the city, and then they are going towards the city because everybody revolves back to the city for so many services, and it shows the process of being homeless. Then from a sort of an emotional point of view, the city is dark and sort of threatening-looking, because there was all this fog, and the sun was going down, and I wanted it to look like the homeless figure was moving through the light, but towards a darkness.
Spirit: Towards the darkness he experiences in the city.
Christine: The darkness of the city, yes. So, there are a lot of different things going on there. It doesn’t really matter all the influences that went into that for me. It’s more important what your response is to it. Your response is definitely something that I wanted people to feel looking at that painting — the sense of isolation, and outside-ness, dealing with the elements. People are living outside when they are homeless. I loved how you expressed what that painting means; it was really well-expressed, better than how the reviewer expressed it in the S.F. Weekly.
Spirit: Do you feel painting images of homelessness makes it more difficult to get the public to look at your art, and galleries to exhibit it, and patrons to buy it?
Christine: That brings up the whole problem of artists making a living in this society. You’ll notice that my images now are the urban landscape, but they are not specifically homeless. That’s because the gallery that represents me here in San Francisco — specifically, the owner of this gallery, Karen Jenkins — was attracted to “Serenity Base.” She’s shown it in her gallery and has shown other homeless images, but she can’t sell them to her clients, and that’s the case for most artists making social comment imagery.
When you have national or international status, you actually have a lot more freedom to create art that is provocative and really socially stigmatic. But until and unless the artist gets to a certain stature of recognition, there is a really small demographic of people who will buy that kind of work. So that’s why I am still doing urban images with figurative elements. They are still atmospheric. There is still a sense of isolation. They are very urban in feeling, but they are not homeless figures, because I need to sell my work.
The work I’ve done has been in a lot of museum shows. A lot of times when artists are in museum shows, there’s less of an urgency for the work to be sold; in other words, it’s more about public education and people seeing the work. Galleries might want to show the work, but most of their clientele doesn’t want to buy stuff like this. They might really like the work, but what they want is something that is going to make them feel good.
This work doesn’t make people feel good. It makes them think, and it makes them feel stuff that they might not want to deal with. Although I have sold a lot of the work, it’s to specific collectors that want this kind of work, and there is a much smaller percentage of people who want to spend money on this stuff than a painting by Thomas Kinkade that is a nice, nondescript, impressionist painting.
Spirit: Pictures with pretty lights.
Christine: But people want that. People want images that are going to make them feel good and take them out of their own reality. So, I know that people don’t want to buy stuff like this. But I also know that the work needs to be created; and, in reality, if my gallery could sell this kind of work, I would still be doing strong social comment work. The good news is there is a gallery in L.A. that actually just saw my work, and they love dark work that is making social comment. So that gallery is going to want to find collectors for this stuff. But, at the same time, I feel that my work should be in some public collections. I want people to see the work. I don’t just want a private collector to buy it, and then it never gets seen again.
Spirit: So it’s important to you that museums put these images of homelessness before the public.
Christine: I want the work to be in collections that can be accessed by people. Because when it was at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, a lot of people saw “Serenity Base.” And I was ecstatic that it got into that juried show. Actually, the curator of Yerba Buena, who was one of the jurors, liked my work.
Spirit: In an earlier painting, you won an award for painting images of footwear on benches. “Faux Street Revisited” shows a similar close-up of the feet of passers-by; but in the background, someone is sitting at foot level, partially hidden behind a pole. A human being is sitting on the same sidewalk where all those feet are walking, yet she’s living in a different world — left behind and stranded. You used perspective to show the face of a homeless person on the level of everyone else’s feet — literally under foot.
Christine: That is a really complex painting geometrically. It’s the square root of five, the ratio; the size of that piece is 37 inches by 84 inches. So, it’s a big painting. It’s a totally created environment done from about 50 different photos. I posed myself as the homeless person. These are all different people I photographed on the street (pointing to figures in her painting). This is a friend of mine wearing my coat with some flowers. This is my hand holding the Guardian. This is a homeless guy I photographed in San Rafael pushing a shopping cart. I totally created this environment, but I did that after painting the bench, and the bench painting was called “Faux Street.”
Spirit: I didn’t realize the titles were related, but I flashed on their connection.
Christine: Yes, you got the connection. But the picture in the Chronicle saying it was about footwear just made me laugh, because it was not about footwear (laughing). It was a competition. Ten students at the Academy of Art were offered park benches. It was sponsored by Park and Rec, Ghirardelli Square, and the Academy of Art, and it was a big publicity thing, and we were to do benches on any theme, and they were going to sit for a month in Ghirardelli Square and get voted on by the public and a panel of gallery judges.
I said, “What can I do that is still going to tie into the homeless theme, but is going to be kind of whimsical and is going to be different?” What I did to get those images of the feet, was I laid down on the sidewalk in front of the building where my studio was, and I asked people if I could photograph their feet as they walked by. So, I actually was down on the ground photographing people’s feet from ground level. I got dozens of images, and then I selected the ones I wanted to make the composition.
And the bench actually showed trash on the street, so that when someone sat on the bench, they were sitting in the trash on the street, and what people saw on the back of the bench was a possible view of a homeless person. So, that was the connection. The reaction was so strong, and the people loved it so much, and I got the top prize, and got all this ridiculous publicity. Then after that I said, “Well, I’ve got to do another painting that expands that view, but it’s still going to be from a low point of view.”
Spirit: So in “Faux Street Revisited” we see a little further up peoples’ legs, and a homeless person is in their midst.
Christine: Yes. You’re going to see a little more of people. It will still be anonymous, but I didn’t want [the homeless figure] to be a guy, and I didn’t want to go find women on the street to photograph, so I had my partner photograph me as a person with a can just sitting on the street. It’s sort of an androgynous-looking figure, but it’s definitely a female; and, when you see the painting, a lot of people recognize that it’s me. But it’s not a self-portrait. I just posed myself as a homeless person. So, that’s how that piece evolved.
Spirit: How did you come to make the two “Homeless in Kyoto” paintings?
Christine: That’s a fantastic story. A friend of mine who lives in Bolinas is a very famous performance artist, Shasha Higby. I took stills from Shasha’s partner’s videotape that he did in Kyoto of homeless people when I ran into them at the opening of the Realism show at the Bolinas Museum. They saw that I was doing homeless images, and we got to talking, and I said, “I really want to see the people you photographed in Kyoto because I didn’t even realize there were homeless people in Japan.”
So, I got this videotape. I went into the lab at the Academy, and I would stop the video at certain points and then take still photographs from the monitor. That’s how I created those two pieces. I did it to comment that homelessness is not just here. It’s not just in developing countries where there is Third World poverty. It is even in Japan, which we always think of as totally prosperous, and that was back in 1998. It definitely had that response. When people looked at the images, they said, “Japan?”
Spirit: My first thought in seeing the Kyoto paintings was that this is exactly what homelessness in the U.S. looks like. It was that shock of, “It’s over there, too!”
Christine: It’s over there, too. I was trying to make an international comment on the issue of homelessness. Other prosperous countries like Japan, and countries that we don’t think of outside the United States, have homeless issues. It’s universal, the issue of poverty and homelessness.
Spirit: In “Home On Wheels,” the title sets you up to see a comforting image of home on the streets, at least a vehicular home. But it shows a little guy stranded among huge, grim-looking, faceless buildings with no doors or windows, no way to go inside. His tiny shopping cart is his only home in the whole indifferent city.
Christine: Right. It was based on a homeless person that I saw at that location which is on Dubose, turns into 13th, under the freeway there in the South of Market area. I didn’t get to photograph the person, but I wanted to recreate the situation so I hired a model. Actually, I photographed a shopping cart, but not the person. So, I hired a model to get details of this pose that I saw. I feel like my titles, they’re either tongue in cheek, or they’re meant to be interpreted several different ways, just like you said. So, it could be, “Oh, that sounds nice!” But, actually it is his home, the shopping cart that he has — everything he has is in the shopping cart.
Spirit: Yes, everything. And instead of being at home, he is lost in this vast, faceless landscape with no doors to go into.
Christine: Yes. Also, if you notice, there’s the weight of the big column, and then over it is the freeway overpass. So, the very first homeless image I did was called, “Where Do You Live?” It was a homeless figure under a freeway overpass, and you saw a lot more of the overpass, and really felt just the weight of what was on him and his isolation, and the fact that that was his home right there.
Spirit: Living under oppression as heavy as a concrete overpass.
Christine: Yes. With all this traffic going over him. Right at Ninth and Brannon was where I photographed it, before they started clearing homeless people from under the freeway overpasses.
Spirit: “Waterfront View” is another ironic title. You expect to see an idyllic seaside view, like the ones seen by millionaires in the Bay Area who buy homes near the water. Instead, a man with a shopping cart is looking out on the water. People flock to the Bay Area for its scenic beauty, but the poor are here, too, and they see an entirely different perspective. This man’s view is more like Otis Redding’s in “Dock of the Bay” when he was stranded and lonely and homesick at the water’s edge.
Christine: Exactly. Well, I definitely was trying to make a somewhat tongue-in-cheek or sarcastic class comment just the way you explained by saying, “Waterfront View.” In fact, the structure that you see was at the end of Market Street — it is now gone because they’ve redone the whole waterfront — but that structure actually was a shelter for a group of homeless guys for a long time. In that painting, the homeless figures are actually right next to where they camped every night, and I used to see them all the time.
I just realized that the most favored image by people who buy art is images with water in them. So, I thought, I have to do at least one homeless image with a water view. So, that’s how that evolved.
Spirit: Couldn’t you be a normal, happy artist and draw a really affluent couple looking over the pretty water? You had to put all this social meaning into it.
Christine: But, you see, I’ve done (laughing) — I did nothing but traditional landscape and academic figurative work and still life. I’ve done even traditional cityscapes that are what tourists like to buy, but I didn’t feel that was what I wanted to continue to do. I wanted to bring together more of what meant something to me.
Spirit: Art and activism intermingle in your work. Why is it important for art to express your activist concerns?
Christine: I feel that really good art transcends the time and the place and the historical conditions under which it is made. If there isn’t art created during the time in which people are living, then there is never an historical record of that time. Photographs are one thing, but artists have a different role in society.
I know there are a lot of artists who feel that art comes from a transcendent place, so it should be transcendent and mysterious and non-literal and all of that. But I personally feel that narrative images, images with a story, images that people can actually read into, I personally feel they are very powerful, and that’s why I use them. That’s why I paint narratively; that’s why I feel I want to produce art like that, because my goal is to draw people into images in a way that they can understand. Most people don’t understand abstract art; they have a feeling for it. Most people don’t understand a lot of conceptual art; they might understand part of it.
Post-modernism allows anything to occur. And I really like art that speaks on many different levels, that points to psychological, emotional, historical as well as personal issues, because nobody can look at a painting that depicts something and not self-reflect. They either reject it, or they feel into it. Do you know what I mean? That’s why I feel narrative is important. And see how powerful narrative is — look what Hollywood does with films. Narrative imagery is by nature recognizable because there is a story. There is something people can get into and see what’s happening.
Spirit: How do you define yourself as an artist? Your art has been exhibited with collections of realistic art. Is it social realism? Is it impressionism/realism?
Christine: That’s a good question. I do call myself a realist painter, but I am clearly not a photorealist. I know a lot of photorealist painters. The gallery that represents me is Jenkins-Johnson [in San Francisco], and they have shown many internationally renowned photorealists. But I am not a photorealist, because photorealism is making a comment on the way people see and the process of painting and photography. Their images can look narrative, but they are not really creating narrative images. They are taking an image created by a photograph and perfectly replicating it in paint.
Spirit: What does realism as an artistic style mean to you?
Christine: Realism allows many different styles. There is social realism, photorealism, hyperrealism, and there are all kinds of realisms in between. Jerome Witkin is a realist painter, but large areas in his images are like expressionist paintings. They are very, very loose and expressionistic. So, realism is a huge category. It really should be called representationalism, because the style in which someone paints is different than the broad category within which you can lump that.
Spirit: How did the classical painters’ use of “sacred geometry” influence you?
Christine: When I started my graduate studies at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco, I met a professor named Mark Reynolds who has been studying and teaching this geometry for almost 20 years. This was something I had heard about for years, and was interested in studying; so when I met him, I realized I could begin to study this and try to incorporate it in my art. The Old Masters used this geometry to create images with ratios and compositional elements that made the work stronger and more harmonious.
Spirit: Are you thinking of artists like Leonardo da Vinci?
Christine: Yes, but I would say Piero della Francesca, who was actually a mathematician before he became a painter, and many artists from the Renaissance period. It was an esoteric science. It was like secret information that was passed on that artists used to express the manifest beauty and harmony in the world. The way the Old Masters used it was as a compositional element. When I was studying it in school, I analyzed many of the Old Masters’ paintings. I would do grids over them, and would find out exactly where they placed specific elements, based on this geometry.
So that’s how I created my paintings. I would figure out exactly where I was going to place specific elements based on this geometry. I can tell you how I designed certain paintings based on this geometry. This one is “Wet Night on Sutter Street.”
Spirit: This painting is such a strong image of someone homeless right next to opulence — the golden gleaming door handles and all the fancy suits.
Christine: Well, this painting is a “golden section.” A golden section is a specific ratio that is considered the most perfect ratio. A ratio just means a proportion of one length to another length. If I showed you a hundred rectangles of different shapes and proportions, this golden section is the one you would pick most of the time because the ratio is based on the proportions in our body, and the way plants grow.
This ratio is a number that goes on forever. These are called irrational numbers, and what that means is they are numbers that are infinite. They never repeat themselves, but they can be rounded off, and they can be created geometrically with a compass and a straight edge. This was the knowledge that Pythagoras and the Old Masters passed on, that these ratios come from. It’s the energy that manifests nature, the ratios inherent in these proportions. It sounds really abstract, but it’s not. It’s based on natural forms and growth patterns, and the ratio in our body. And, you know the da Vinci image of the guy standing like this (stands erect and stretches out arms)?
Spirit: Right. That’s why I asked if da Vinci used this geometry.
Christine: Yes. That’s based on the pentagon, which is five-sided — five is the symbol of living things. Da Vinci was showing the ratio of the human body, which is based on the golden section, and you can create the golden section out of that form. The division of our belly button, from the floor up to the belly button, and from that point, to the top of our head — that’s the golden section of the ideal form. Michelangelo’s famous statue of David, and the Greeks, all those proportions, the way they designed their temples, i.e., the Parthenon, used the golden section and many of these proportions to create those monuments and temples. They are all about harmony and beautiful ratios.
So, I use that specifically in my paintings just as another way to draw people in; because people don’t know they are looking at a golden section, but I don’t care. They are still drawn into the image.
The head of the homeless person [in the painting “Wet Night on Sutter Street”] is actually in something called the “occult center.” That is a compositional device. It is four points that float around the dead center, and many Old Masters used the occult centers to put important elements of their compositions, like the flame of a candle, or the tip of Christ’s finger, or a watch being held by somebody that is dangling down, and it will fall right in these positions called the occult centers.
Spirit: Why place the homeless person’s head in the occult center?
Christine: I tried to put my homeless figures or aspects of the homeless figures in the occult center, in one of the occult centers, of almost all my paintings. That was again to comment that the homeless are outside; they are hidden. Occult basically means a hidden, or obscured center.
Spirit: The painting shows a homeless person sleeping in a blanket outside of a very expensive-looking clothing store.
Christine: This piece shows where Willie Brown shops on Sutter Street. It’s Wilkes-Bashford on Sutter Street.
Spirit: The image of having a homeless man camped out in the doorway where Brown buys all these expensive suits is powerful. It’s very important to show that poverty and heedless affluence coexist right next door to one another.
Christine: Absolutely. Well, this was done in 1997, right around the same time I did “Rhonda’s Place,” and I really wanted to comment on the weather conditions that homeless people have to deal with. So, it’s starting to rain a lot, and it starts to get wet on the street, and it just gets miserable for people on the street.
I was driving up Sutter Street one night, and I looked to my left. That was a time when there were a lot of homeless people encamped in doorways all up and down Sutter Street, actually more than there are now. I looked to my left, and I saw this person, and I just went, “Oh, my God!” And it was such a striking image. I pulled up, and I didn’t really want to wake this person up to ask permission to photograph them, but, at the same time, I really wanted to paint this image.
So, what I did was, I got out of my car, and I walked down the street, and I just stood there, and I was thinking, “Oh, my God. This is just an amazing image. This says it all.” There is this opulence behind this person in a cardboard box. There is their umbrella — they are clearly sleeping in the doorway because it’s raining. And I just made the decision: I’m going to give back to the community somehow with these images, but I’m not going to ask permission because it won’t be the same once the person gets up. So, I took two or three photographs, and I drove on, and I never disturbed the person.
I felt a little weird about it, but, at the same time, I thought, “You know, I’ve got to have this image. This is just too intense.” Then I thought about it for several weeks, and I had the photos, and then what happened was I painted it in five days. It just poured out of me, and it was one of those images — I didn’t struggle with it at all. The way the whole thing was situated was just a perfect composition for what I wanted. It fit into a golden section and the way I wanted to compose it. It just happened. So, I felt like this painting was meant to happen, because I just painted it effortlessly in five days. It’s one of my favorite paintings that I did in 1997.
Spirit: Why is it your favorite?
Christine: Because I think it’s the most like an Old Master painting to me — the light, the dark, the chiaroscuro, the class comment, the poignancy of it. I just love the image. It’s so strong to me. It’s kind of like “Rhonda’s Place,” that too. There’s a poignancy about it, because there are clearly social status issues. Sheraton Palace is around the corner, and there is Rhonda. A guy sleeping in a cardboard box, and there’s Wilkes-Bashford right behind him. You know, same kind of thing. So, I really love those two paintings. Those are my favorites.
Spirit: It says it all about the rich and the poor.
Christine: It says everything about the relationship of the homelessness issue to wealth, the decadence of our society. I mean, these people don’t have to be on the street. They could all be in shelters. We’ve got the money for it. And where do people go for shelter? They go in the doorways or around the corners from hotels and stores that the average person can’t even walk in and consider buying something. That’s why it says it all to me.
Spirit: What kind of paintings are you working on now?
Christine: I feel that the issue of homelessness is just one social issue that I chose to focus on and, that, in reality, there are any number of things I could have used, so I have done paintings since that comment on environmental degradation, or paintings that comment on the business relationship to the economy here. The imagery I’m interested in always has some social relationship.