An Interview with Artist Andrew Christofides

September, 2008

JK: Despite seeking simplicity, you avoided the highly reductive aspects of Minimalism.

AC: Yes, that’s true. As the scale of my work increased, I became more aware of the large spaces around the shapes. I felt I needed to activate these spaces without necessarily adding more elements. I gradually began layering the paint very thinly. This layering subtly introduced an element of expressive gesture and was a way of visually activating these “empty” areas.

Increased gesture served as a metaphor for the presence of the self. It became a way of moving from the rational and minimal towards the more romantic. This seemed a way to humanize the work without it becoming any less geometric.

JK: You used wide frames around the mapping paintings.

AC: As my work became increasingly intuitive, I incorporated frames as integral parts of the work. I’ve always had a deep regard for the substance and monumentality of Renaissance art. These paintings were quite large, and the frames enhanced the feeling of monumentality that I wanted.

Artist with 2 large mapping paintings at left
Andrew Christofides with two large mapping paintings at left

JK: The frames could also work against a reading of the painting as object—thus functioning like the borders around your prior mathematically based work.

AC: I felt introducing frames was another way to oppose Minimalist reductionist tendencies. The frames reintroduced the Renaissance idea of the painting as a window onto the world. In this way, the frame also indirectly made reference to space, which I thought would personalize the work without it becoming any more overtly referential. While in hindsight I think these works really look terrific, I do think that the frames were a little too obvious; something more subtle, such as a border, would have sufficed. As a result, I stopped using frames after Red Painting Number 5, below. I was at the same time consciously moving towards developing evocative qualities of the surface.

Red Painting Number 5
Red Painting Number 5, acrylic on canvas,
178 x 178 cm (70 x 70 in), 1991

JK: In the mapping paintings you reduced the number of individual elements.

AC: In work from 1990-91, I moved to a greater simplicity of both form and placement. I reduced shapes to very elemental forms—vertical slabs of color, checkerboards and vertical lines, as can be seen in Red Painting Number 3. I wanted the monumental simplicity that I admired in Renaissance painting, monumentality that spoke of a classical, rational order without the overtly mechanical quality of my earlier number-generated works.

Red Painting Number 3
Red Painting Number 3, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 cm (12 x 16 in), 1991–92

The colors in paintings like Red Painting Number 3 came about almost by accident. After many layers of thin paint of different colors, it became quite difficult to control the final color. I used yellows, reds, blues, but they were always tertiary, never bright. Especially after 1994, the backgrounds wound up being a fairly neutral grey, and the paintings were titled accordingly.

Grey Painting Number 40
Grey Painting Number 40, acrylic on canvas,
101.5 x 101.5 cm (40 x 40 in), 1994

JK: In Grey Painting Number 51, below, you overlapped shapes and areas of pattern, inviting a more spatial reading.

AC: Yes. There is a figure/ground reference generated by the large vertical elements on the right side. A number of people have suggested that these are quite figurative in feeling. They tend to float in the space to the right of the large vertical checkerboard. They also stand in front of the smaller horizontal checkerboard at the bottom, enhancing the sense of space. The squares of the checkerboards on the left are larger than and overlap the smaller ones at the bottom. This further generates space as the vertical checkerboard tends to come forward and the horizontal checkerboard recedes.

Grey Painting Number 51
Grey Painting Number 51, acrylic on canvas,
198 x 136.5 cm (78 x 54 in), 1994-95

In Grey Painting Number 70, in addition to overlap and differences in scale, landscape is suggested by the horizontal checkerboard with small floating ovals that could be seen as stars above, despite the fact that the ovals are repetitive geometric forms in a patterned alignment. Thus all the elements are purely geometric, but when placed in certain configurations, they allude to figure, ground and landscape. This is a strategy I’ve retained.

Grey Painting Number 70
Grey Painting Number 70, acrylic on canvas,
50.5 x 50.5 cm (20 x 20 in), 1996

AC: The title First Journey reflects the introduction of two new features. First, the squares of the horizontal checkerboard are now aligned diagonally. This, I thought, gave a greater illusion of depth as diagonal lines tend to penetrate space whereas vertical/ horizontal lines tend to flatten it out. Second, for the first time I used organic linear elements in the top part of the painting. These relate to the boundary lines used to delineate regions in cartography.

First Journey
First Journey, acrylic on canvas, 76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 1997

Dreams of an Alzheimer’s Patient is probably the most literal painting I’ve made. The idea for the painting first came in 1998 when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. During one of our conversations I asked her if she still had dreams and if she ever remembered anything of these. She said she did, and this started me thinking about the oddness of possibly remembering during one’s dreams, but not during one’s waking hours.

The painting is divided into three sections. The horizontal section is a diagonally oriented checkerboard dominated by a large black ellipse that represents a sleeping figure. Above, the dark checkerboard represents the outside or night, and at right are floating linear organic shapes. The irregular organic forms allude to the liveliness or apparent “realness” of the dreams in contrast to an otherwise inert situation; that is, reality only exists in the dreams.

Dreams of an Alzheimer's Patient
Dreams of an Alzheimer’s Patient, acrylic on canvas,
84 x 76 cm (33 x 30 in), 1999

JK: You did a series of works on paper in which you continued to use mapping imagery.

AC: I was interested in extending my visual vocabulary. Random Constellation is based on a map of the Greek Islands that I saw at the British Library in London. There is a small grid of randomly generated white shapes that lies on the blue grid within the circle, both within a larger, numerically generated outer grid. I saw the grid of white shapes as representing the accidents that befall one, the blue grid our immediate sphere or universe, and the numerically generated grid outside the circle the greater sphere or universe, which is outside our control and possibly our understanding.

Random Consellation: Western Hemisphere
Random Constellation: Western Hemisphere, watercolor, ink
and acrylic on paper, 56 x 63 cm (22 x 25 in), 2000
Random Constellation: Western Hemisphere detail

Night Fishing is one of many images I made based on maps of the Mediterranean Sea and the Greek Islands. I combined the island image with a stylized celestial chart. The small repeating cream ovals on the grid represent stars against a blue/black ground.

Rivers of Paradise is taken fairly closely from an early Islamic map. The forms above the grid include geometricized shapes representing lakes and towns.

Night Fishing
The Rivers of Paradise
Night Fishing, watercolor, ink and acrylic on paper,
30.5 x 22.5 cm (12 x 9 in), 2001
 The Rivers of Paradise, watercolor, ink and acrylic
on paper, 30.5 x 22.5 cm (12 x 9 in), 2001

Western Gate was also derived from an early Islamic map of the Western Mediterranean Sea. Islamic map makers show west at the top of their maps, so turning the image 90 degrees counterclockwise allows one to see it represents Africa and Spain. This image is highly geometric just as Islamic map makers tended to geometricize their maps.

Dark Continent is based on a 17th century map of the east coast of Africa. The dark checkerboard on the left represents Africa, and the organic shape on the right represents Zanzibar. It was from Zanzibar that the slave traders embarked on their journeys into Africa to capture slaves. The title Dark Continent reflects not only the fact that most of Africa remained unexplored until the 19th century, but also this dark aspect of its history. Another work, which has the same reference to Africa through color and title, is Nubia, shown below.

Western Gate
       Dark Continent
Western Gate, watercolor, ink and acrylic
on paper80 x 54 cm (31 X 21 in), 2001.
Dark Continent, watercolor, ink and acrylic
on paper, 73 x 54 cm (29 x 21 in), 2002

In the end, however, these works, as with all my work, are about abstraction rather than maps. The maps have been vehicles for expanding my visual vocabulary. They have provided both individual pictorial elements as well as different compositional strategies for juxtaposing elements.

JK: With paintings like Nubia, you abandoned more irregular organic forms.

Nubia, acrylic on canvas,
152 x 101 cm (60 x 40 in), 2001

AC: That’s true. Nubia has its roots in my paintings from the mid 90s that were made up of vertical bars of checkerboards and solid slabs of color. Here, however, I extended the vertical bars from the bottom to the top of the canvas, which tends to bring the bars right up to the picture plane and, I feel, generates a greater sense of space.

JK: Your titles often suggest real world phenomena.

AC: Frequently the reference is simply based on the colors in a painting. When I was a child, we had a jasmine vine growing over our doorway, and I remember its strong scent on summer evenings. In Jasmine, the white recalls the flowers, the green their leaves and the mauve/pink their centers. The lighter mauve/pink of the background is a warm, sensuous color evoking balmy evenings mingled with the strong scent of jasmine—powerful memories from my childhood.

Jasmine, acrylic on canvas,
152 x 102 cm (60 x 40 in), 2003

Jasmine was included in my 2004 Sydney exhibition entitled Odyssey. The work in that exhibition was dedicated to my mother who had died the previous year. The title of the exhibition refers to both the great epic, The Odyssey by Homer, and to the fact that our family, as migrants leaving Cyprus in 1951, had embarked on an odyssey of our own that would take us to the other side of the world to a new country and new experiences.

Odyssey, acrylic on canvas, 152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 2004

From about 2003 onward, my colors became richer and more vibrant. They were allusive to a large extent, and I incorporated a wider range of colors with no predetermined restrictions. As we’ve seen, early in my career I had used only the three primaries and black, white and grey. This was because these colors were irreducible and were part of the tradition of early European abstraction. In hindsight, I think the change in how I used color helped create a greater sense of space in my work and activated it by generating quiet optical effects. The addition of crossing horizontal bars also heightened the feeling of space. The enhanced spatial and optical qualities helped establish broader contexts in which my work could operate, thereby expanding its potential meaning.

With Sanctuary and other pieces from 2004-06, I’ve used a lot of blues, tertiary yellows and oranges—colors I relate to Cyprus and the Mediterranean: blue for the ever-present water and sky, yellow for the soil and orange for the terracotta earthenware. The title, Sanctuaryalso refers to Aphrodite’s Sanctuary, a historic site I visited in Cyprus with my family, as well at to the fact that it overlooks the Mediterranean Sea and has a great feeling of peace and quiet.

Sanctuary, acrylic on canvas, 50.5 x 50.5 cm (20 x 20 in), 2004

In this and subsequent work, I’ve used elements from various sources and move freely between more hierarchical and more all-over compositions. The color has become richer, and there is a greater use of gesture in the mark making. Though subtle, the surface is more atmospheric.

I feel that the degree of gestural activity in a work signals to the viewer the artist’s intention to have a personal presence. If I want to make an area inert or matter-of-fact, I will eliminate all gesture, sense of touch and variation in paint application. If I wish to evoke a more sensuous or romantic quality, I will activate the paint surface through gesture and greater atmospheric handling.

Tavil, acrylic on canvas, 152 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in), 2006
Looking back over the last thirty years or so, I suppose what I have tried to do is to operate within a visual aesthetic that is close to my heart; that is, formal abstract painting and, in particular, geometric painting. I feel that the language of geometry is a metaphor for seeing and responding to the world in a particular way.
Winds of Change
Winds of Change, acrylic on canvas, 152 x 213 cm (60 x 84 in), 2006

Geometry and geometric abstraction deal with stripped down structures and simple visual and numeric relationships, relationships that do not speak of the real world as we normally see it, but rather as a set of underlying structures and relationships which could be seen as an essence of what surrounds us. Furthermore, I have felt over the years that my experiences, which have been rich and varied and which have crossed both geographic and cultural boundaries, could be expressed through the language of geometric painting and its history and conventions.

Byzantium, acrylic on canvas, 50.5 x 50.5 cm (20 x 20 in), 2008

My work was initially very mathematically based and rational in its making. This was largely due to my experiences at the time. Over the years, however, it has become increasingly intuitive, not because I have felt that the intuitive is superior to the rational, but because I believe the two can operate together. I see the intuitive as the romantic aspect of my work and the rational as the classical aspect. I see these as areas between which, as an artist, I can operate and which can be drawn upon at will whenever required. I think all great art is the synthesis of the two.

Studio 1  Studio 2
View of Andrew Christofides Sydney studioAnother studio view

Increasingly I have felt less inclined to work within the confines of particular imagery, pictorial strategies or historical conventions. Over the last one hundred years or so, ideas about painting have moved enormously and so, too, has the scope of geometric painting.

Geometric painting has before it, by virtue of its rich history and the experimentation of artists who have made up that history, a vast array of visual vocabulary and visual strategies, and we should feel free to utilize all of these to enrich the field.

Andrew Christofides
Andrew Christofides

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Interview images and text copyright © 2008 Julie Karabenick & Andrew Christofides. All Rights Reserved.

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