Chris Lujan (1982) is a Detroit based artist best known for her painting and single-channel video performances. She has been showcased in such magazines as 944 magazine in 2009, Ambassador’s Art Addition in 2008, and the Detroit Free Press in 2006. Lujan has been a working artist for over 10 years and was first commissioned in 2000 to create five large scale paintings for a local church. Since then, she has showcased work in such cities as Detroit, San Diego, Houston, and St. Louis. She has also been involved in a variety of art related projects including serving as a props artist for Warner Brothers as well as working as a designer/sculptor for a Ford Motors billboard project. In 2005, Lujan, along with fellow artist Yanina Shoykhet received the Detroit “Art on the Move” fellowship to teach inner city kids about the arts as well as to create an outdoor installation at the Detroit Youth Center. In 2014 Lujan received a Master in Fine Arts from the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. For the past five years she has been represented by See Art + Design Gallery in Detroit.
Mothership: You have mentioned an “expressive process of mark-making” in your paintings and video work. What do you mean by this?
Chris: When I speak of mark-making, I speak of the human relationship with the object, in that through the handmade process of creating the mark there is a documentation of a kind of chaos and control that occurs between letting go and honing in on the image—on the mark.
MS: And how does the mark relate to gesture, which is another of your concerns?
Chris: I see the page as a pre-existing work of art. The art is about activating something that is already there. The best way I can describe this is looking to a favorite quote of Michelangelo in which he speaks of how he arrived at the sculpture of David: He said something like “I just pulled it out; I just pulled the image out of the stone.” There is also a great quote from him about how to know when to stop sculpting, and he said “You carve down to the flesh, and then you stop.” Gesture is honing in even more on our core characteristics of being human because it is focused on the body and the body as this ever-expressive, evolving form. Gesture is a language of expression—you can go back to how we read each other without words. It goes to what words can’t describe.
MS: We’ve talked about your artwork having “the function of ritual,” and agree that ritual can be understood as a between space, a space of dialogue between conscious/unconscious, between mind-body-spirit. Can you describe this process and your materials?
Chris: For me, the process of making the image is the art. Throughout the years I have honed a process that is the basis of my creative making, which is based in painting. And the ritual of creating an artwork is just as important if not more important than the image that is left behind. In fact, the image becomes more an evidence of moment in time, a relationship between an idea and the moment of making. Because the process is what defines the language of the work, I have set up certain structures and rituals within my process of creating. Within those structures, I go through a ritual of laying the paper/canvas on the ground, then starting by making a large uncontrolled line or pouring liquid like coffee or ink on the paper so that I force myself to work with something I cannot control. And through that I build a gesture that has life.
MS: Can you say more about your materials?
Chris: The materials I am most drawn to are materials that are of an organic nature or are fluid, so that there is less control and more motion and openness to chance. Through the ritual, I set up my own structures and boundaries to provide a plot-form for the element of chance and the possibility of compromise with what the materials are trying to say and what I am trying to say. But also of course I set up structure to break the structure.
MS: This uncontrolled nature of your materials brings us to your main subject: the body. What is “body” for you?
Chris: For me when I see a person or I see an animal, I see a soul. And I’m curious about the history of that soul, and the whole world that exists within that body. There’s a whole world that exists there that I can only slightly communicate with but never know. There’s some isolation in this. It’s curious that each of us has our own perspective, our own world, which is defined by the body. The body is our whole reality; the body itself defines our reality in a blend of our sense faculties, mind and bodily structures. I am also very interested in the body in time. What drives us and our cultural structures is our own mortality, and this scares us and gives rise to our desire to control or move beyond our bodies.
My work is about understanding and not about control. The body is nature and our culture tries to dominate nature. Why I am interested in painting living organisms as opposed to other objects is that there is a lack of connection of seeing the body as the self—we are mammals, we are mortal, we can be grotesque; our bodies are not perfect. These are things we keep trying to hide. It feels important to push the body into focus, to isolate it in white space so we can see it and learn to read the language of it, to become reconnected with it. My paintings take the body a part to study it, in order to see it more fully, to see it for what it is outside of time and culture as much as possible. To see it as something fleeting and also timeless. Western culture values the mind as the ultimate over the body. And what has happened is that we are losing the sense of who we are.
MS: Your paintings offer a way through animal bodies to reconnect with our own essential embodiment. In fact, in your image of rams’ heads, I saw pelvic bones, and this seems significant. Here the animal body and the unseen—and in our strangely disembodied age, often unfelt—human body come together. What is the meaning of “animal” for you in your work? And how does it relate to the body?
Chris: In all of the works that I’ve done that involve the human figure there are primal elements to the figure where it is trying to connect with the animal element of that body. So from this I went towards the animal. It is something that is other, yet is of our identity. So I started studying animal behavior and human cultural behavior and began seeing that we are closely aligned. We need community, we need to eat, we kill to survive, and we die. There’s disconnection from the animal because of the way we have designed our world to use and dominate animals and nature. And so we have made it convenient to disconnect from the animal body. And this has made us disconnect from our own body. We are taught to be ashamed of the body and to hide elements of the body, and to me this is a cultural disease. My work uses the history and language of art that abstracts the body while keeping the biological body in mind.
MS: And yet, your bodies often have an etheric quality. Your group of wolves stepping out of the ether. Your bears filled with space/a play of light within.
Chris: This is the energy. The living body is not just meat. And so my paintings present the body as more of an outline with more open space. This is also means they are more of an imprint, more of a memory; they present a ghost-like quality because they are paintings of changing bodies.
MS: This idea of changing bodies brings to us video. You speak of mark-making or gesture on paper and in film. You have mentioned that your video art is built on the foundation of your painting. What is mark-making for you in video? What does this medium allow you to do?
Chris: All of my work is based on the isolation of a gesture. By gesture I mean even a slight movement that shows the power of the moving body. This is the language of the body. In video I try to create a work that is as simple as possible, as a way to focus in on the complexity of these gestures. For instance, in “The Void,” I wanted to create body that would feel as if it was foreign. That it could be animal. It could be nature. It could be human. It could be male; it could be female. It could be different races. It could be all of these or none of them. This was very difficult in video work. It took me a couple years to get this down, and many attempts at how to isolate body so that it could read as the self as well as other. I used the framing of the camera’s eye to my advantage, by isolating it down just to the movement of a mouth. This along with lighting and the texture of paint on the flesh create a moment that become something of another world. It’s important to me that this other world was shot in real-time. That the fantasy is happening in real time. That the other is actually us.