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Exhibit uses unsettling details to explore psychology

By Michael Lowe

Jan. 12, 2009 9:16 p.m.

If you have ever wanted to be buried in a book, now may be your chance.

Today, the Hammer Museum will open its exhibit doors to artist Christopher Russell’s lobby installation, making the idiom somewhat a reality.

Russell, a graduate of Pasadena’s Art Center, has taken his latest work, “Budget Decadence,” a non-event-based novella detailing the psychological processes of a four individuals, and brought it to life by filling the Hammer’s art space with his text, photography and design, creating a life-size thematic environment reflexive of the novella.

“When you walk into the installation, you’re literally walking into the novella,” said exhibit curator Darin Klein. “He’s posing questions about what a book can be, what writing can be, and how text and images can be conceptually linked.”

The exhibit is comprised of geographically separated but conceptually interconnected pieces including a back wall covered by patterned wallpaper designed by Russell, a set of 10 photographs and four handmade books, each containing one chapter of “Budget Decadence” attached to wooden chairs by lace.

While the objects and environment is connected with every other piece in the installation, they can both stand alone or combine to create the experience of the novella in its entirety. Through this fragmentation of the exhibit, viewers are left to absorb the installation at their leisure as a whole or in parts, take it or leave it.

“If you walk in and spend 45 seconds (inside), there’s something to be gotten. But there’s also these additional layers depending on how much time you want to spend,” Russell said.

Russell’s use of layering and attention to detail was developed from his contact with the Decadent movement, a late-19th century art period focusing on the minutia and detail of everyday life. In his five-chapter novella, Russell contemporizes the movement’s themes and applies them to what he calls an “Anywhere, USA family” of today.

The text is scattered throughout the installation and, although literally fragmented, can be read in full after some inspection and a careful look at the very details Russell writes about.

“It’s hunting and piecing together a story. You’re trying to figure out how to read the situation, quite literally,” said Russell. “Similar to looking into someone’s psychology, it’s about asking people to dig deeper.”

The wallpaper viewed from afar first appears as a simple pattern but upon closer examination shows the pattern is actually individually colored text that is, in fact, the first chapter to Russell’s novella. This necessity of investigation is the basic theme behind Russell’s exhibit: an overall pleasant installation from a distance, but one that reveals a darker and even unsettling personality with enough scrutiny.

“It’s not (bright, showy) Las Vegas sort of art, it’s a dirty hotel room kind of art,” said John Knuth who exhibits Russell’s work at his Circus Gallery in West Hollywood. “You might have really exciting things over there, but the macabre reality of the world exists in Christopher Russell’s work.”

Russell’s 10 photographs are individually enhanced with cleavers, X-acto knife etchings, and semen, applying a sense of violence and violation to the banal photos of empty interiors and peaceful patterns.

“Russell looks on the dark side of life and explores things that are decadent and Gothic in nature,” said Klein. “One of the key attributes to decadent writers is the intense attention to details that are often unsettling, gory or bloody. They don’t spare any expense at describing these things in detail.”

Although Russell doesn’t necessarily view his work as particularly dark, he admits that conceptual artist Jack Goldstein called it “some of the darkest work ever seen,” and, perhaps, that is exactly how it should be.

“When there’s something unsettling, it leaves you with more questions than you even realized you had to begin with and it sits with you and takes on a life of its own,” Russell said. “The exhibit here leaves stuff unfinished and people can continue to think about it afterward.”

Through Russell’s intense and abnormal artwork, he provokes questions and leaves viewers thinking, rather than satisfied. An exploration into abnormality might deter some people from experiencing the installation, but Julian Hoeber, Russell’s former classmate while at Art Center, argues instead, it is art’s duty to stretch aesthetic boundaries.

“Remember that when Monet first showed his paintings it wasn’t considered so normal,” said Hoeber. “The things that were considered not normal 100 years ago are on tote bags that everybody’s grandmother has today.”

With Russell’s etched photographs, his artwork exposes itself and its materiality while its form, such as the violence of attacking a photograph with a cleaver or ejaculating on a picture, exposes a graphic reality that is often ignored.

“This isn’t Disneyland,” Russell said. “At Disneyland, you’re not expected to leave with anymore thoughts than when you went in. It takes you away, you don’t think about the money you’re spending or the argument you had on the drive down, you just go and let things out of your mind.”

Russell’s art, on the other hand, demands participation, revealing complexities of the individual psychology through intricate systems of layers, some of which are darker and perhaps more disturbing than others.

“Yeah, it’s dark work,” Hoeber said. “But why not?”

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Michael Lowe
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