The last two books I’ve read, both left in my possession by houseguests, take place in multiple or alternative universes. I don’t typically read books set in magical and science-fictional worlds, so I wasn’t really accustomed to the elaborate world building of, say, China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. After reading endless pages oozing with analogies and descriptive modifiers, I wished I could just see a picture, or better yet, a five-minute filmic rendition of the fantastic world – something that would economize the visual ideas and leave more room for story. Maybe that’s horribly lazy of me. Probably. But I’m certain an image could confer waaaay more than a thousand of Mieville’s liberal words, or at least do it more efficiently.
Amsterdam-based artist Nik Christensen cites literature as an inspiration in his work, and while I doubt my recent leisure reads were on his syllabus, it is their type of spectral fictional worlds, fraught with tension and the potential for disaster, that his black and white sumi ink paintings conjure up. His new series of oversized works, now on display at Gabriel Rolt, are haunting, otherworldly. They’ve got their own casts of characters and environmental logic. Christensen’s paintings do what I wish my non-existent book illustrations did – they visualize the scene of a story. They build worlds not quite like our own and leave us to dream about the plots and dramas unfolding within them.
Funny and suggestive titles plant the seeds of narrative in Christensen’s eerie worlds, but even these latent stories can’t overshadow the technical achievements of the work. The scale strikes us first. Then the balanced compositions filled with rhythm, pattern, and texture draw us in. While the artist says he works organically, seeing where the willful ink takes him, the pictures seem fully planned, with sight lines radiating out from the center. The particularly uncanny Maybe You Heard of Us folds down the middle with centrifugal light held in by dark foliage framing the image.
The landscapes reveal liminal and primordial spaces. We aren’t necessarily arriving before or after some destructive event (as we were in Christensen’s last Gabriel Rolt exhibition), so much as we’re standing on a ledge surveying fragments of a universe, one populated by mysterious beings only slightly unlike ourselves. The scene depicted in None Shall Pass looks like a colonial outpost at the margins of a forbidden world. Figures sit in front of tents before a dense forest. Some wear frightening masks. Are they there to block our passage into what lies beyond? Or do they guard the boundaries of our dreams and nightmares, keeping something less desirable out (or perhaps in)?
Indeed, we aren’t entirely privileged enough to gain purchase in these worlds. We are never fully present in these landscapes, but observing them from a slightly removed distance. We are on the precipice of something – somewhere – and instead see them through the prisms of Christensen’s kaleidoscopic picture planes. Translucent rectangles hover above the images, fracturing them, and making it seem as if we’re looking through a window or a reflective pane of glass.
Christensen’s paintings leave you at once repulsed and enthralled, like the trailer to a gruesome psychological thriller that will never be released. Really, doesn’t Would Be Good If I Could Wake Up sound like the title of psycho-drama or a frightening short story situated within the uncharted cosmos of the mind? Christensen’s works establish the scene, then leave us on our own with our imagination. Their plots will never be resolved, and perhaps that makes them all the more haunting.
~Andrea Alessi, a writer living in the Netherlands.
(Images: Nik Christensen, Maybe You Heard of Us , 2011, Sumi ink on paper , 259 x 238 cm; Sleep Patterns, Sumi ink on paper, 120 x 151 cm, 2011; None Shall Pass, Sumi ink on paper, 234 x 302 cm, 2011; Would Be Good If I Could Wake Up, Sumi ink on paper, 200 x 150 cm, 2011; Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Gabriel Rolt)