Christiane Shortal is a Christchurch-based artist who uses illustrative techniques to create surreal, unearthly visual narratives. In her latest body of work, she creates relics of a lost civilisation, depicting creatures and figures whose struggles supernaturally reflect modern life. Ahead of her exhibition SUPPLY she discussed her artworks with City Art Reader editor Cameron Ralston. SUPPLY opens on the 16th of February at 5.30pm at City Art Depot.
Cameron Ralston: One of the first things people might notice about your work is their otherworldliness. When you’re building these worlds, where are you drawing your imagery from – eye balls, plants, things on fire?
Christiane Shortal: I like to think I’m world building, like in a video game. I hadn’t drawn figures or plants for ages – my previous exhibition was mostly anthropomorphised scenes, drawing from my memory of what things looked rather than from real samples. For this collection of works I’ve incorporated more humanistic things which create a weird clash when you have strange otherworldly things around them. I really wanted these works to feel like they’re elements of a civilisation so I intentionally world-built more for this show.
Often before I start a body of work, I go to the University library and look in the art books on the floor and sift through. I was really inspired by a book of ancient Chinese woodblock prints which showed the process of making ceramics in that time period and trading with the West. I really liked seeing the different processes in every image. There was a common goal or educative purpose that each image was connected by.
‘Wash!’, Christiane Shortal, gouache, acrylic & pen on paper, 299x224mm, 2020
Some of the works do seem to catalogue scenes of domesticity, such as collecting food and hunting. The people are quite alien too – what is their relationship to the beasts or god-like creatures?
It’s all implied. I don’t have a written down system or built mythology, though I did have an implied hierarchy in my head. I’m not sure if this is being too transparent, but there is an imposing dominant force which is the scary alien-looking things and then there are the blue people followed by red people. It’s not concrete, but through the creatures I wanted there to be a dominant force. A lot of this exhibition comes from my angst from working in retail. I felt at the bottom of the chain, I felt I always had eyes watching me and there was an imposing force over my shoulder waiting for me to do something wrong. I think that’s where a lot of the relationships between figures come from.
There is a feeling of surveillance in the works, with their eyes, reaching tentacles and overbearing creatures. Are the characters representative of you?
I feel like the system in the works is reflective of how I was feeling. Big retail companies have a lot of protocols and ways you have to suck up, but I can’t buy into that very easily. It’s all presented under the guise of doing things for the work ‘family’ but they’ll never give you anything back. I was just there to make them money whilst pretending that I loved it. It felt so dishonest.
‘Food!’, Christiane Shortal, gouache, acrylic & pen on paper, 299x224mm, 2020
Were you working that job while making these works?
I started making these after I quit my job. I struggled a lot with my mental health before, when I lived in Auckland in 2018, then I came back to Christchurch and was really broke and had to find a job. I was at my limit and was pushed to do extra. For me, to show up to work was an achievement. There’s no mercy in retail, people don’t relent, and people don’t believe you when you’re not well.
So, is capitalism part of the horror that’s embodied by the monsters?
I think a lot of my art is about the struggle of making art. When you live in a capitalist society, where does being an artist fit in? It’s not really profitable. It feels like it’s self-indulgent. I have so much I want to contribute culturally but I have to fight for these normal life things like shelter and food.
Is your art at all therapeutic for you?
It is, it’s given me some long-term goals which have kept me moving forward.
‘Found object #6’, Christiane Shortal, gouache, acrylic & pen on paper, 185x145mm, 2020
You call some of the works ‘Found object’. Are you trying to emulate finding an artefact that is somehow connected to our own world? The past? The future?
I wanted them to feel like archaeological finds. Last year I went through a phase of reading a lot about Egypt and the politics of Egyptian culture. It’s one of the only cultures we know so much about because of things like the Rosetta Stone. We know that there were customs and rituals but we’re still not 100 percent sure what those were, –the whole ideology of the civilisation is still a mystery. I wanted to emulate that feeling of looking at something that reminds you of what you understand of domestic life while being totally in the dark about what the whole civilisation means. I don’t know how to name that feeling.
It almost leaves you yearning to know more. Are you leaving the relationships and world within the works up for interpretation because the not knowing is part of the intrigue of the works?
I’ve tried to embrace that feeling of not knowing, I wanted the works to be not quite legible so a lot is left up to the imagination. I think of it as creating a visual language that I don’t quite understand, but I’m adding more words to.
Is it somewhat instinctual when you’re painting?
Yeah, a lot of it comes back to shapes I like. I think I work initially in shapes because I’ll come up with a composition and won’t really know where it’s going but can work in shapes to fill the space. I feel like I’m discovering it as I go. It can take me ages because I’ll draw something then realise it doesn’t work and completely block over it. I didn’t know if I would be able to save a lot of the works because a lot of them didn’t work for so long, so I had to just ruminate on what the works wanted me to put in it. I’m carried along by the composition.
‘Found object #95’, Christiane Shortal, embroidery on aida cloth, 97x88mm, 2021
How does that work with the embroideries? Do you have to be more planned with these?
I did a bit of unstitching. To be honest I had the same approach, but I had a chalk pencil and I stitched over the lines. I never drew something and traced it.
Have you shown embroidery before?
My first proper attempt at embroidery was for my 2019 exhibition ‘Mitosis’ at Absolution. I wasn’t sure I would include embroidery in this show, but I feel like it works with the ideas of the exhibition. I really wanted to make tactile artefacts of the civilisation.
You’ve mentioned before you admire the work of Jess Johnson. Her works are similar to yours in that they walk this line of being dark but also somewhat comical. Do you see that in your work?
When I first saw Jess Johnson’s work, I thought that if this was in black and white parents would be shrouding their children from looking at it. But because it’s so colourful people perceive it as playful and a bit fun. People thought my last exhibition was dark – there were no figures, just black and white landscapes. Colour isn’t my strong suit but I wanted to use it in these works because it opened more room for how much I could push the fun thing. It’s a bit fun despite being aggressive.
Some of the eldritch Lovecraft elements are something you see increasingly in popular culture so some of that initial scariness has been tamed perhaps. Do you think it’s more accessible?
I feel like it is really mainstream now so I’m almost embarrassed that I’m still into it. In my last year of art school I listened to a few H.P. Lovecraft audiobooks. One of my favourites is ‘Mountains of Madness’. In that book, explorers find ruins and markings how an eldritch civilisation worked. There’s something imposing and ancient that’s come before the universe. I like that mysterious feeling.
‘Hunt!’, Christiane Shortal, gouache, acrylic & pen on paper, 299x224mm, 2020
I did a little reading on how Lovecraft horror is defined, some of it is in discovering humanity’s insignificance on the cosmic scale. I think that comes through in the hierarchy that you mentioned in your works.
It’s also wanting to fight feelings of individual insignificance. Part of that comes through reconciling the damage humanity has done to the environment.
Do these works also have an ecological aspect to them?
The imposition of power structures and the effect on us and how we relate to our surroundings. We’re destroying the world, but you and I are at the bottom. It’s not like we want to have a bad effect on the environment, but the one percent controls the systems. We have no choice but to be involved in destroying our surroundings in some way. It’s very hard to not contribute to capitalism. It’s something we have to live with.
The expressions on the figures’ faces are quite blank. Is that tied to those feelings of losing autonomy?
I never thought of that. I want the figures to be like a stamp on the environment. I don’t want the works to be from the figure’s perspective. I drew a lot of ideas from religious iconography and Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints. These gave me a format and elements such as the size of the figures. I would have done woodblock prints if I knew how.
Did you do any research into different religions? What drives that interest?
I definitely have a very complicated relationship with religion. I grew up a pretty hardcore Catholic. In 2018 I went to a discipleship college in Auckland which had a rigid timetable of like two hours of prayer in the morning, then lectures, then lunch, then evening prayers. I kind of threw myself into that and at some point I just burnt out. I had a lot of pressure on me and it became too much. I had a massive existential crisis and lost my mind. So that’s part of my journey with mental health. I’m not practising religion now and I don’t really know where I’m going with it, but there’s still a lot I loved about it. When I came back to Christchurch, it was weird because I had spent a year isolated mostly outside of society with 12 other people. Jumping straight into a retail job which almost imposed the same levels of loyalty and expectation was difficult. I was pretty trapped in that environment in Auckland where I had to personally invest in my faith and be loyal to the church, but then I felt trapped in my job because not only did I have to do it to survive but I also had to emotionally invest in it.
‘God!’, Christiane Shortal, gouache, acrylic & pen on paper, 299x665mm, 2021
You mentioned the influence of Japanese ukiyo-e prints, I’m interested to know if you also looked at art such as illuminated manuscripts or Persian miniatures and their use of decoration and borders? You’ve taken on a visual language that’s been around for centuries.
I love those visual languages and compositions. When I look at those manuscripts and miniatures everything is so satisfying to look at. In terms of composition, I think the Persian miniatures are the highest standard. They really know how to weave patterns and create eye breaks. They evoke that feeling of there being a story or implied narrative behind them which I try to recreate in my work.
A lot of preserved historic art is instructive or part of illustrating a story or history. I’m thinking of art like you might see preserved on temple walls in Asia which tell the story of their particular religion. There’s a bit of theatricality that goes into those images in the performative actions of the figures and closeness of the backgrounds.
I really like the functionality of that. I want the works to be engaging and fun to look at. I’ve drawn a lot of ideas from looking at those images. Sometimes I think people will think I’m bad at perspective but it’s definitely an intentional choice.
I think there’s certainly a lot of joy in discovering interesting little moments you’ve put into the works.
Because art is so immediate and people often don’t spend time with the work I wanted there to be things that people can come back to. Little details, like in ‘Where’s Wally’. When you make art, it’s so hard to imagine how others might see it, people bring their own associations to them.