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Diane Christiansen, “Secret Obstacles” (2013), oil on plaster, 12 x 12 in

CHICAGO — What happens when you make a Buddhist angry? “Aggression,” says artist Diane Christiansen. “I realized in the last year that I’ve been filled with all this aggression, from the political landscape and in some personal things too, and it began to come out in the art.”

Detail of Christiansen’s “Nut” (2012), oil on plaster (via the artist’s website)

This is a bit of a surprise to those of us who have known Christiansen’s work for a long while. In her paintings, sculptures, and animations, she has developed a language that mixes figuration and abstraction in ways that draw on Surrealist painting, children’s-book illustration, and Buddhist philosophy. So you might walk into one of her shows and see paintings filled with little figures in a fantastical landscape, a giant paper-mache octopus squatting on the gallery floor (the tentacles of our worldly attachments, of course), and peace flags strung on threads from wall to wall. It’s often wacky, but you always get the sense that the different media are held together by a delight in working out the contents of the unconscious, and going for the unexpected changes that can occur in the studio.

Diane Christiansen, “Drawing Stolen from John Henley and Others” (2013), Gouache on Paper (via

The new work is more abstract than before, consisting of layers of drawn and dabbed marks that have been erased, painted over, erased, added to, and ending in a final layer of mysterious gestural shapes. Some of the paintings (mainly oil on plaster-coated panels) have representational fragments, such as an arm, or an acorn, but Christiansen’s main preoccupation seems to be with painted marks that twist violently about on the surface of the panels, like they were painted in a mood of controlled anger. The accompanying five-minute animation (created in collaboration with Shoshanna Utchenik) has some elements of the off-beat narrative of previous work: in a fantasy forest filled with effulgent flora, a figure wearing a giant eyeball mask dances around with a figure wearing a deer’s head. Deer-head opens up her shirt to reveal her innards, then Giant Eyeball pokes her fingers into the fleshy morass, which causes some brightly painted animal heads to fly out of her chest and float around the screen for a while. I still don’t know what that means, except that it maybe reinforces the new feeling of the paintings — whimsy containing a degree of lurking horror.

A mixed media sculpture by Diane Christiansen

“The deal with Buddhists,” Christiansen says, “is that we can observe our anger and get curious and loving with it. I’ll be working on that till they throw the first fistful of dirt on me.”

Cup Freaketh Over, recent work by Diane Christiansen, runs through November 16, 2013, at Kasia Kay Art Projects (215 N Aberdeen Street, Chicago).

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Philip A Hartigan

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