J.A. Christensen, Maker at Walter Maciel Gallery


May 31st - July 3rd, 2014

2642 S. La Cienega Blvd.
Los Angeles, Ca 90034
310 839 1840

Opening Reception
May 31st, 6 - 8 pm

I think the press release says it best... 

Walter Maciel Gallery is pleased to announce Maker, a solo exhibition of new work by Philadelphia artist J.A. Christensen. Christensen’s textiles, sculptures, and drawings reflect upon the history of early twentieth-century American manufacturing and the politics embedded in historical and contemporary forms of labor and craftsmanship.

For this exhibition, Christensen references a number of visual and textual sources from the earlier part of the twentieth-century, a time marked by rising industrialization, labor disputes, assembly-line production, the advent of prohibition and international conflict. Sweet Perfections consists of a series of round wooden signs shaped and hand-painted by Christensen, which appropriate the short jokes and maxims found on pinbacks included in cigarette packages from the early decades of the 1900s.  Phrases like Oh! I Just Love Work and Don’t Give It Away are rendered in sign-painters enamel by a shaky hand that results in purposefully imperfect lettering. As such, their method and their image calls to mind the commitment of the individual maker and the conflation of his/her personal limitations with a then-developing (now established) culture of image and technology that promises efficiencies and standardization.

Christensen will also present ink drawings inspired by a Prohibition-era advertisement of animated liquor bottles careering out of control that then warned of the dangers of alcohol abuse. In Christensen’s drawings, empty bottles are stand-ins for people estranged from each other who either seek reconnection or confrontation: playing guitar (G-C-D), being arrested (The Arrest), and being fired from a job (We’re Going to Have to Let You Go). These interactions are drawn in a style that pays homage to George Herriman, Robert Crumb and Philip Guston.  The large wall painting Safety....Is People Not Getting Hurt references a sign seen by the artist hanging in a decommissioned city transit garage. Its re-contextualization in the gallery as a mural poses questions about physical health in relationship to psychological health within the regulated and mechanical production of Capitalist enterprise, a system that includes and often subsumes art.

All of the works presented in Maker are marked by an intentional hand-made quality that Christensen calls “home-spun.” As such, they pay homage to this country’s history of working-class immigrant labor and point to the value of the individual’s unique contribution to the whole.

J.A. Christensen lives in Philadelphia. He has exhibited his sculpture and drawings at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Institute of Contemporary Art, San Jose, Rena Bransten Gallery, and the College of Marin Art Gallery, amongst other places. He is the recipient of a Eureka Fellowship Award, and his work is included in the permanent collection of the M.H. De Young Memorial Museum. This exhibition will be Christensen’s second solo show with the gallery.

Brother Paul G. Wade

Finding real photo postcards of African Americans in their work clothes is a bit of a challenge; you just don't come across them that often. When you do, the cards are usually faded or in poor condition. The card of this man, indicated as 'Brother Paul G. Wade' on its back, was pretty washed out when I found it, so I had my good friend Noah P. Lang of Electric Works in San Francisco spin some digital magic to give the image life once more. Some images are just too good to let fade into the past...

Inventory Magazine Issue 09

For Inventory Magazine Issue 09, I wrote a short essay about my modest real photo postcard collection. The RPPC pictured above didn't make the cut for the article itself, but it's a favorite of mine. The current issue also includes a contribution from Andrew Post, making it well worth the effort to pick up a copy of your own.

Philadelphia, PA

At a certain point in life, you find yourself at an age where you start spinning all the random anecdotes from your past into some sort of coherent narrative. I’m forty-three, about midway through my life expectancy of eighty-five according to some palm reader I saw off of Philadelphia’s South Street when I was twenty-two. By now I'm pretty sure I've hit that 'certain point'.

Remembering that experience with the palm reader, I don’t think either she nor I could have painted a picture of my future, not even in broad strokes. The only thing she said that was even remotely accurate was that my life was about work. She inferred this, I believe, from the heavy callouses on my hands. My extramundane visit with the spiritualist didn’t predict that I’d leave the city I’d fallen in love with - Philadelphia - in six months, or that I’d leave it for Oakland, California, where I’d live for thirteen years, or that while living there I’d meet and marry the love of my life, or that I’d follow her to New York City (a city in which I never wanted to live), or that we’d have an amazing child together while living there, or that we’d leave NYC for Toronto just after our son’s birth. I’m being ridiculous, of course. I didn’t put any credence into the predictions that hopeful medium revealed. In fact, other than the thing about work, I don’t remember anything she said.
Predicting (or imagining) the future is the realm of the ideal. It can inform your present for sure, but you’ll spin your wheels endlessly if you spend too much time with those thoughts (I should take my own advice here). Mucking about in your past, revising its notable events, can seem equally fruitless but those editorial alterations are almost unavoidable against the backdrop of banalities that comprise the majority of your narrative. Retrospect can reveal, however, serendipity and synchronicity that could make even the most ardent atheist tinker with the idea of the extraordinary.

This summer I moved back to the Philadelphia area with my family for good, I hope. I am really, really tired of moving. My partner, Leah, inspired the move. She’s been hired to teach at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, the same school from which I earned my B.F.A. back in the late ‘80s. Returning to the area, I find myself in familiar settings, seeing familiar faces. Things have changed, but serendipity and synchronicity abound, challenging my secular constitution. I could go on ad nauseam about these magic moments, but... you know, I have an image to maintain.

A bit about the snapshot I’ve posted: that’s me when I was a couple of years old with my older sisters, Wendy on the left and Dian on the right, who were fraternal twins. I say were because Dian was killed in a horrific car accident when I was a senior at Tyler. I can barely talk about her death, even to this day. I think I saw this picture for the first time after Dian died, when my sister Wendy inherited a bunch of family photos. We’re all wearing sweatshirts that our neighbors’ son gave to us when he was attending Temple University in the early ‘70s. To most I guess the snapshot is quotidian, but its meaning to me (for obvious reasons) has unfolded in profound ways over time.

Quaker City Pant & Overall Co.

I'm in the middle of a move back to the States, sorry for the lack of posts...

Wear the "Iron Clad" Shirts, Pants, Coats, Overalls, Etc.

There's a mention of  the Quincy Shirt and Overall Co. in the Annual Report of the Factory Inspectors of Illinois from 1893; all that's given for the company is the address of Fifth and Jersey Streets in Quincy, Ill. It's hard to say, but my hunch is that this trade card dates a bit earlier, maybe to the 1870s, when Quincy was the second largest city in Illinois for a brief period of time. Quincy Shirt and Overall Co.'s use of "Iron Clad" as a trademark is the earliest I've seen, and it almost certainly alludes to the Civil War era USS Monitor, the US Navy's first ironclad ship.

The front of the card uses stock imagery of the sort that's common to many Victorian Era trade cards. I love the modest anthropomorphisation with which the frog doing the heavy lifting is rendered, even if it has absolutely nothing to do with anything but itself. The sad-sack knight on the back is equally amusing, looking pensive, as if his armor makes him more of a target than a protected warrior. I also appreciate that the company lists its products as "Shirts, Pants, Coats, Overalls, Etc.", leaving one's imagination to set the limit of the types of garments they manufactured.

Father & Sons in Overalls

This snapshot is small, measuring 1 3/4" x 2 5/8". The image area itself is only 1 1/2" x 2 5/16", making it so tiny that it's difficult to see without some sort of magnification. Regardless of its size, it is like many of the photographs I collect in that it only came to life for me after it was scanned and enlarged. By enlarging these images, I'm attempting to winkle some tidbit of information from their obscure corners, hoping to see a detail such as a garment label or maker's button more clearly, or maybe read the copy on a manufacturer's sign. The exercise is often a fool's errand, as was the case with this snapshot, but occasionally I find a detail that affects my interpretation of an image. The task is compulsive, and there are moments when I think I might prefer the digital files to the images themselves.

As I was scanning this snapshot a few years ago, I entitled the file 'Father & Sons in Overalls'. I haven't spent much time with the actual photograph since that moment, but last week as I was going through my collection it caught my attention and I set it aside. I think the title I chose exposes a dichotomy regarding the interpretation of anonymous photographs: there's the circumstances of the time in which the image was captured, but then there's how it is understood by us today, after it's been rescued from the dustbin of time. The 'truths' these images hold might not actually matter as our contemporary use of them has less to do with their veracity and more to do with our current circumstances: there's always a subtext to the reason we've chosen to engage with a particular image.

I was carrying my newborn son around in a Baby Bj√∂rn when I rescued this image from time's dustbin, and that has as much to do with my naming of the snapshot as its implied narrative. There is no way of knowing if the man in this picture is the boy's father, uncle, family friend - I don't even know if the boys are related to each other. Regardless, the image said something to me about fatherhood, and my commitment to my son and family, so until  proven otherwise, the snapshot will remain entitled "Father & Sons in Overalls."