Christine Rasmussen on Making Work at the Intersection of Belonging and Isolation
Always devoid of people, Christine Rasmussen’s urban landscape paintings adopted an especially eerie quality during the coronavirus pandemic. Global lockdowns left cities around the world strangely empty, an aesthetic the painter heightens in her latest body of work, And…
In early 2020, Rasmussen’s work shifted in a slightly different direction, a change she credits directly to the isolating effects of lockdown. “In the first months of lockdown, driving around LA or seeing photos of cities around the world, I had this eerie recognition, as if my paintings of empty streets had come to life,” she writes in her artist statement.
Removing even the symbolic suggestion of a human presence, Rasmussen transforms loneliness into a sublime experience, leading our gaze straight into a melted horizon. By focusing on recurring urban elements—cast skyscraper shadows, geometric silhouettes, metal and concrete divisions jutting into the sky—Rasmussen cultivates common ground across cities, and across cultures.
“A corrugated metal fence is a barrier, a boundary, a dividing space signifying the aloneness and disconnection common in today’s societies,” she notes. “But the fence is also a common building material used all over the world, often as shelter, and serves as a point of familiarity even in a foreign place, evoking a sense of connection.”
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Christine Rasmussen discusses “painting the in-between,” finding inspiration in the work of poets and musicians, and the folly of relying on youth to advance one’s career.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Christine Rasmussen: I’m not sure there is a must-read list for every artist since there are so many different paths, interests and backgrounds. That said, here are a few books on my shelf that I’ve returned to at various junctions in my career and recommend: The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharpe, and Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
CR: Actually, I would really love to have dinner with the writer Sandra Cisneros. I often find my best inspiration from non-visual artists, probably because writers (and poets and musicians) are so much better at putting into words concepts that I’m wrestling with in my paintings. On the outside, Cisneros is from a very different background than my own, yet her writing—both in her novels and memoir—hits on all-too-familiar notes around home, belonging, and family across borders and cultures that I identify with, too. I’d love to chat with her over some tasty, preferably spicy, food.
What are you trying to express with your art?
CR: I describe myself as “painter of the in-between,” which is a reference to the in-between spaces I often capture, but also to my experience of feeling in-between cultures and location due to growing up in three different countries and moving around a lot. While I’ve often felt like an outsider, I’ve been comforted by finding familiarity in every city I visit using my superpower: observation. In my paintings, I depict urban spaces, but I’m expressing psychological landscapes, making connections across time, place, and memory. I’m interested in the cracks, the nuance and ambiguity in life, which is not black and white nor necessarily how it appears on the surface. I purposefully exclude people, cars and signage, leaving the paintings open to the viewer’s imagination. I like that the viewer can bring their own experience and rich inner lives into my paintings, and often take fresh eyes back out into the world, where maybe they’ll pay attention to their surroundings in a new, more present way.
What do you wish you learned in art school but weren’t taught?
CR: I didn’t go to art school as such, but did get an art degree from a four-year university. I wish I had learned how to set up one’s studio and work habits to be healthier for my body and the environment. I know there’s a romanticism around artists dying young, but I’d like to keep painting into old age (like Cezanne, Dorothea Tanning, or Wayne Theibaud), and hope the planet is still around for me to do so!
I’ve already had repetitive stress injuries in my twenties and have worked in poorly lit, unventilated studios that I have yet to find out if there will be lasting effects. As I’m getting older, I’m trying to learn how to better care for my hands, eyesight, and body through better habits, tools, and studio setup. Some of this goes hand-in-hand with getting more environmentally-friendly materials too.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?
CR: The best advice I’ve ever received is: “don’t set any realistic expectations. That’s not going to cut it. Plan accordingly, yes. But when you’re in the studio, just rock it. Connect. Go higher.” This advice came from one of my mentors, artist Veronica De Jesus.
The worst advice I’ve received has to do with using my looks or youth to advance my career—no thank you. I think this plays into toxic societal norms around women as objects and ageism. Judge me by the quality of my work and genuineness of my character.
What does success mean to you as an artist?
CR: I love Maya Angelou’s definition of success: “success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.” This seems so healthy because it’s not outcome based. I aspire to follow it as much as possible.
If you had to pick one, would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist? Why?
CR: I don’t believe these are necessarily mutually exclusive, but if I had to pick just one, I’d say commercially successful. I know this may sound controversial or shallow, but hear me out. On a personal level, I don’t want to be ashamed to aspire to make a living at the thing that I’m best at and love the most. I think the romanticism of the “starving artist” is outdated, and I’d love to live in a world that valued artists not just for their output, but as living, breathing humans who also deserve to have their basic needs met. On a societal level, I think making more money from my passion and skill set is a great example for future creatives, especially other women. I believe creativity makes the world a better place, so I want to have more artists making a living from their creative output, versus having to work a day job to pay the bills. In my dream world, I want to live a comfortable life, and use any excess to start a fund to alleviate the needs of other artists like myself who didn’t come from financial privilege.
What’s your relationship with money?
CR: Getting healthier, I hope. I grew up with a scarcity mindset, but am trying to shift it to a sufficiency mindset: that I am enough and I have enough. When I’m in the studio making art, I try to put on mental blinders so that I can create the best work possible without thinking about its marketability. When I’m in business-mode, I try to value myself, my time and my years of experience (“try” being the operative word here).
Have you ever turned down an opportunity? Why?
CR: Yes. After many years of saying yes to everything and sometimes getting taken advantage of in the process, I realized that not every “opportunity” actually benefits me. So-called “exposure” is no longer enough of an incentive to use up my finite resources of time and energy. I’ve learned that saying “no” to one thing frees me up to say “yes” to something else that is a better fit for my goals.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
CR: I’m excited about my current series of paintings that hovers between familiar and imagined, and pushing this concept further. I’m now exploring getting away from my photo references a bit, simplifying my architecture into more geometric abstractions that still give the suggestion of an urban landscape. I’m letting more and more of the sky fill up the canvas, but also playing with colors from my imagination to make them a bit more fantastical. I’m not entirely sure what will emerge, but this is an exciting place to be in, when the idea is still forming and the paintings are alive with possibility.
What do you do to maintain your mental health?
CR: I have a dog who reminds me to play, take breaks, go on walks, and that every day is a new day to start fresh. I am also blessed to have an excellent therapist who I see regularly. I make an effort to maintain self-care rituals and habits that currently include daily movement, journaling, and setting digital boundaries. For the latter, I limit myself to one social media app; turn off notifications; leave my phone at home when I go on walks; and set my phone to go into a grayscale, do-not-disturb mode one hour before bedtime so that I sleep better.
How does your geographical location affect your work and/or success?
CR: Place is very important to me—I paint urban landscapes using photo references that I take of my surroundings, so where I live seeps into my work, for sure. In fact, almost all my paintings created during the pandemic reference a single city block surrounding my studio building because I hardly went anywhere else for almost two years. Since I moved to Los Angeles, my colors and compositions have changed because of the unique “movie” light of this city. For example, I rarely used pink or orange in paintings prior to living here, but the afternoon glow of what is dubbed “golden hour” changed that. In terms of success, for me, the consistency of living in the same city for six consecutive years—the longest I’ve ever been in one place—has certainly given me more opportunities.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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