If Sculptor Christina A. West is staring at you, she’s probably picturing you naked.
Well, maybe not literally, but that joke from her biography may ring true in some of her expertly-sculpted figures. Christina’s attention to the most minute intricacies of human body language and themes of alienation stem from the artist’s everyday observations and attention to detail.
Like any number of my current favorite artists, I first found Christina’s work on Instagram, and it’s stayed with me ever since. The way she blends a pop of contemporary color with traditionally figurative sculptures makes her work wholly unique.
I got to talk with Christina A. West about the importance of space, her common themes of isolation and working through her social anxieties.
As a working artist and a professor, you’ve really immerse yourself in all facets of the artistic process. At what point did you realize this was the right path for you?
Well, being good at something and feeling like you could take it on as a career are two very different things. I was sculpting with clay very early on. Even as an undergrad when I was a painting major, I started taking ceramics and really fell in love with it. I’d taken more traditional sculpture classes with welding and metal casting which was this really loud and intimidating environment. But, once I went into working in ceramics, I found this quiet and funny environment where I could push this lump of material around and just make whatever I wanted. Even right from the beginning, I knew I wanted to make figures. When I saw pictures of figurative sculpture, I just felt this impulse of like, “That’s what I want to do.” What really got me was the presence the objects had. It’s different from painting or 2D work, which has a distance to it and it’s like looking through a window at something that’s far away. Sculptures, though, sit in my space with me and confront the viewer in a way that I find engaging.
The theme of space is very prevalent in your work, especially the shows you put on. How important is the placement of your pieces when you’re putting an exhibition together?
Particularly in my installations, I have the most control over a space. I’m always trying to think about how people are going to move throughout the space and encounter the sculptures. More and more, I’m trying to create a complex revealing of my sculptures.
What types of experimentation do you do with space to help push your work to new territories?
I’m leaning more towards breaking up the space, and that helps create this sense of isolation and alienation in my work. I think of alienation in terms of the way I stage the figures in the space. I like them to be in close enough proximity or have their gazes directed towards each other in such a way that there’s this sense that they’re part of the same situation or trying to engage with each other, but their gazes never really ever meet and there’s always this subtle disconnect between them. That idea, plus having the viewer step into this alienated world of the figures where they are out of place adds to that sense of isolation.
Looking at some of the body language of your figures, that sense of alienation shows up quite frequently. Some other artists I spoke with mention how they come into their work with one small idea and the piece’s overall emotion starts to take shape out of nowhere. Do you see that with your work?
The idea of alienation is definitely more of an overarching idea in a lot of the work. It’s something that always seems to find its way into a lot of my work, and in some ways is probably the impetus for creating the work. But, each piece could be talked about in more nuanced ways. My studio practice is important to my work because I figure out a lot while I’m working. So, I’ll have an idea of where I want things to go, but while I’m working, I’m continually paying attention to what’s happening and allowing things to change and shift. I’m always assessing whether the direction I started with is still right for the specific piece I’m working on. There is a lot of labor in the work, but there’s also a lot of discovery and questioning as well.
As an artist who puts on a lot of different showcases and exhibits, do you ever hear an interpretation of your work that is way off base, or are you open to any personal interpretation?
It depends on what kind of interpretation they have about the work. Some people look at my work and view it very simplistically or from a perspective that oversimplifies the experience of my work. So, it’s common for people to say how creepy the work is or—with figures that might be fragmented or sanded down—they might talk about how violent those figures are, and take it into a more visceral place because they just think it’s a deformed person or something. That sort of gets away from what I’m interested in. I don’t want it to seem like “Halloween Art” even though sometimes people interpret it that way. The creepiness of the work is a very fine line for me. Creepiness in terms of an uncanny feeling—like an unsettled feeling you might get in your gut when you’re next to a piece—is something I really like. But if people just look at my work as creepy like, “Ew, that’s gross,” in a more knee jerk reactionary way, that makes me cringe. But, if someone has a response that sort of opens up the work in a way that I hadn’t thought of, it helps me see my own work in a different perspective that’s complex and interesting, I love that.
You mention the sanded-down faces, referred to as archeological excavations. How did you initially come to find this process?
I started integrating more molds into my practice and experimenting with different materials in my work and I made a mistake. Something went wrong with the material, where I had this pigmented plaster where I put way too much pigment and it didn’t cure. So, I had to scrape out the uncured plaster and started recasting more plaster in that was a different color. When I removed the piece, I was able to see this contrast between the two strata of color, which led me to figuring out this process of purposely casting multiple colors inside the piece. From there, I just sort of started thinking of how the interior spaces could be built up more elaborately. Oftentimes when we think of casting, we just think about pouring a mold full of plaster. That is what I do, but I do it over a period of a week, where it’s a little bit of plaster with differing colors over time. So, that all started with me doing something wrong and finding the potential in that mistake.
I was looking at your bio, which reads, “If she meets you and stares too long, she’s just picturing you naked.” Is the people-watching aspect important in your figure sculpting process?
Well, I wrote that just so it could be this funny, light-hearted bio, because most artists are super serious about their bios. To be honest, when I’m around people I experience a lot of anxiety. I often get too nervous or worried about how people are receiving me and trying to interpret their expressions and how they’re looking at me. So, when I’m right next to a person, I’m totally not thinking about them naked. If I’m in a situation where I’m more relaxed or anonymous, I may—if I’m bored—do that. But, if I’m staring at someone too long, it’s just an awkward silence that comes from my social awkwardness. I like going to malls and street fairs and walking around New York City and places where there are people everywhere. It’s fun to just be anonymous and observe how different people interact with one another and simple things like their posture. I don’t go out thinking, “I’m gonna go people-watching today!” But, those are really good opportunities for inspiration.
You’ve mentioned experiencing anxiety and social awkwardness when your around people. Has sort of honing your craft and the working as a teacher helped you deal with your own anxieties?
Things have gotten a lot better since I started teaching, actually, because I was basically thrown into this situation where I had 20 people staring at me and expecting me to talk. I’ve just had to just do it a lot and it’s sort of this thing where you have to face your fear and get over it. It hasn’t completely gone away, but it’s definitely at the point where people don’t really notice it. I’ve also begun to realize when I do put myself out there and let myself speak my mind, nothing bad comes from that. As for honing my craft—that’s just been years and years of working my ass off. Basically all I do is teach and work in the studio.
Some students in colleges might be talented in their particular fields, they approach certain assignments with a laziness or don’t actually take the time to hone their craft. Is this something you’ve noticed as a professor?
I have a lot of students I know aren’t going to continue. I don’t know why they are there, but they don’t put enough effort into their work to show me they truly care. If they’re not putting in the effort when there’s pressure to do so, then once they leave it’s just going to fall away and not be a part of their life anymore. So, I just go into teaching with that realistic expectation that maybe 80 percent of my students aren’t going to continue. So, I try to hold them accountable as much as possible so they could learn other useful skills like meeting deadlines and doing a good job. But the other 20 percent that really show a lot of promise and initiative, I give them the most attention. I try to get as much as I can out of everyone, but the people who you just know have the drive to do this usually get most of my encouragement, ‘cause those really are the ones who make the most of it.
Over the past few years, you’ve gotten recognition from some pretty noteworthy publications like Juxtapoz and Hi-Fructose. I found your work through Instagram, and I assume a lot of others have too. How has that helped you get your work noticed?
Instagram has really been amazing for getting noticed. I started using it three or four years ago. But I was slow to using social media. I really didn’t understand why people did it and was like, “I don’t wanna post pictures of my lunch.” But with Instagram you can reach so many people so easily. All of these features I’ve done with magazines like Juxtapoz and Hi-Fructose are pretty surprising when they happen because they just pull images from online to do them. I like because I feel like it gives me a little bit more control over my career, in the sense that I can decide what images are out there, how much I’m letting people see of my practice and I know people are actually seeing it.
One aspect of your work that I enjoy is the way you use these vibrant, neon colors against a lot of your neutral, traditional figures. Could you talk about that splash of color a bit?
When the sculptures are just a very neutral color—like white or grey—they seem like a very traditional material color. They could be concrete or clay or plaster or marble—it’s kind of hard to identify the materiality. But, when I add the color to that traditional material, it pulls the work into a much more contemporary realm, for me. Especially the very bright colors—there’s something about the neon next to a white that’s referencing marble that just seems like a combination that really works for making the piece toggle between historical and contemporary. The so-called dipping of the sculptures—which is done just by taping off the edges, really—is a way to unify a bunch of figures. I like to think of that as a water line, of sorts. I’ll have the paint line stop at the same height on all the figures, regardless of the scale. So, a 7 foot figure looks like she’s wearing anklet socks, while a small figure looks like they have knee-highs on. That really pulls them all together as a cohesive group, and gives a sense of the space when you might be walking through a show. I often also like painting the walls that same height so it becomes a more literal water line that’s activating the space.