[image-1]Talking with Paul Cristina for more than an hour in his upper King Street studio, I nod emphatically as he explains his process for several pieces which will appear in the upcoming Beresford Studio exhibit, We Were Never Told the Truth About the Dying of the Sun, debuting tomorrow from 6-9 p.m.
You know that thing when you nod, and try to process what someone is saying, while also trying to come up with something remotely interesting to respond with, all the while sort of missing the point the other person is trying to make? There was a lot of that on my side. Because Cristina is incredibly bright, and his work is complex, to say the least. And he isn’t afraid to go off on a few tangents. Reading over my transcript, though, a shiver went up my spine, and something resonated that hadn’t before. When I was standing across from Cristina, my feet starting to tire, my coffee cup runneth empty, I didn’t have this visceral bodily reaction. Which, come to realize, is exactly what he was trying to tell me: things are not always as they seem.
“A lot of artists are doing work and they’re concerned about all of the mistakes, the early stages,” says Cristina. “They’re constantly striving to attain this level of perfection or completeness.” Cristina has struggled with this same perfection-seeking endeavor himself, but over the years, he’s been able to eschew that futile journey.
Imagine, for example, devoting four weeks to something, anything, be it a project at work or on your new house or some kind of creative collab with a friend. Then imagine destroying four weeks worth of that work. Hell, maybe it was four months worth of work. Terrifying, right? The thought alone is equivalent to nails across a blackboard.
“You have to do shit that will be incredibly difficult and uncomfortable,” says Cristina. “I might experiment for hours on something that ends up being a disaster” — he points to a four-foot long oval shaped sculpture of paper mache, on its side, abandoned in the corner of his studio — “Some people think that’s wasting time. But I look at it like I need to waste that time in order to develop and grow. This work means a lot to me because it means being able to have this freedom of saying ‘Hey let’s try it.’”
This is Cristina’s first show to focus exclusively on works on paper. Unlike paint on canvas, the medium which Cristina was most recently immersed in, works on paper are more conducive to the ‘Hey let’s try it’ method.
We walk over to the first piece, a large, fragmented face; one can discern skin tone-colored fragments forming part of a nose, a chin, twe eyelids. The piece started as a charcoal drawing, then through a subtractive process, Cristina used a box cutter to slice into pieces of thick cotton multi-ply paper, stripping away sections of the face. Other pieces of paper are yellowed, weathered looking, torn from old books Cristina found at thrift stores. Cristina actually started on this piece a year ago, and it served as a launching point (one of many, more on that later) for this series. Cristina wanted to subtract from the face without “losing it altogether. I wanted to try to find that breaking point — how far can I push this thing before it completely falls apart?”
All of Cristina’s works on paper in We Were Never Told the Truth About the Dying of the Sun attempt to strike this balance — how do you take something slightly disturbing, something uncanny, and present it in an approachable way? “I want to find that balance of chaotic fragmentation and deterioration but also maintain a clean and solid structure,” says Cristina. All of the works are set against light-colored canvas so that “the background is way of contrasting how dirty and abrasive it is with all the shit going on. It feels familiar but also strange and grotesque.”
This contrast is akin to a realization, a slowly festering disturbance in your mind that grows and grows until, one day, you question, “Is the sun dying? And why did no one ever tell me?” Questioning of surface truths was another inspiration for this series, and stems back to Cristina’s childhood. Growing up in a Catholic family in Cleveland, Ohio, Cristina says he was always a precocious kid, and would ask questions his Catholic school did not try to answer. “One time, maybe 1989 or 1990, an astronaut came to class. It was a big deal then, we were seeing the rings of Saturn, it was all brand new. And I remember a specific moment when I asked a question about black holes. For some reason I was interested in them, saw it on PBS or something. And the astronaut totally dismissed it.” Cristina says he doesn’t recall how he felt at the time, but as he got older, he started to ruminate on this moment, “It got me to entertain the ideas of things being swept under the rug. We’re given this superficial idea of what we do know, of what reality is, what you’re supposed to do with your life.”
Another piece, Indoctrination, addresses these seeds of truth through figures instead of faces. Skin-tone pieces of ribs, fingers, an elbow, folded over a cocoon shape, set against a black oval, all laid atop cream-colored canvas. “The work doesn’t have to do with Catholic school specifically it just has to do with whatever you’re being told as a child and how down the road you turn into a critically thinking adult and look back on what you were told.” The cocoon, which one may perceive as a symbol of safety, of home, of nesting and growth, is very much the center of this piece. This is the first time, Cristina says, that he’s really tapped into personal experiences to create art. “I usually just tap into life around me, human behavior, mortality. I think to tap into your own life, you have to work up to doing that, at least I did. I had to work my way up to ‘Is this important enough of a thing to really base a series of work off of?’”
And yet, even with such a personal connection to this strong theme of truth-seeking, employing a medium which he loves, Cristina is not afraid to tear shit up, to abandon shit, to say ‘screw it, on to the next.’
“You can’t get attached to the work,” says Cristina. And, as I read over my notes, that was what shook me, but it took some time away from the studio, from the up-close meeting with Cristina’s canvases, for this feeling to take hold. “I’m creating puzzle pieces then challenging myself to put it back together in some interesting way,” Cristina says about this multilayered, fragmented, stripped down and built up series of works on paper. “When something is really done, your mind, eyes and gut know it. Even if I really like it, there can be an intangible feeling of something not being locked in. I question a lot of times too, with this kind of process you could potentially go forever and ever. Relayer and strip off and relayer and strip off. There’s a weird thing when you’re working and working and working and you’re like OK it’s there. I don’t try to think about it too much.
“But sometimes, walking away for 12 hours and coming back, your gut feeling will change. Sometimes my eyes see things I don’t understand consciously. I don’t go about things in a technical manner, because I’m not formally trained. Letting the image blur around the edges, my eyes are seeing things that are causing my hands to do things, then you step back and say oh shit how did that happen. Your eyes will lead you in the right direction.”