It is not surprising to discover that Christina Empedocles finds Jules Bastien-Lepageʼs Joan of Arc from 1879 (at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) a transformativework. “It is beautiful and moving and well-executed,” she explained. “I get so excited seeing work of great precision and craft, [especially] when somebody has such flawless technique. Itʼs what Iʼm practicing every day, trying to get there.”
Lepageʼs painting straddled the line between historic themes of nationalism and the broken brushwork of the avant-garde. His rendering of Joan is exacting, but critics of the Salon of 1880 took issue with his depiction of the loose, airy saints in contrast to the plein-air milieu. Today, the painting evidences a key transition between European symbolism and Impressionism. Empedocles also straddles two divergent tactics in art. She is clearly an heir to the lineage of naturalistic drawing founded by John James Audubon and J. Fenwick Lansdowne, but her work takes cues from early pop art and contemporary post-modernism. While her drawings of birds are exact, Empedocles constantly reminds the viewer that they are looking at a rendering and not the real thing, by including turned up corners and the blank white side of a page in her drawings.
Drawing has always been a part of Empedoclesʼ life. “It was the way I played with my friends – we would draw characters that interacted together,” she said. Yet, despite this, she says the best advice her mother gave her came after the San Francisco Art Institute visited her high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her mother directed her away from art school, encouraging her to pursue other subjects as well. So Empedocles went to Oberlin College in Ohio and studied studio art and geology. And she did end up in San Francisco, where she lives now, and worked in geotechnical and environmental consulting for three years. “I thought Iʼd be a registered geologist,” she recounted. “But I didnʼt love it like I loved art.”
Another of her childhood passions also continues to inform her work. Though she put her guidebook and binoculars away at 12, she still considers herself a bird watcher. “Only now, instead of being out in nature I have a relationship with images of nature,” she said. “Itʼs a story I tell myself. Even though Iʼm in my studio looking at images of birds online, I realize that I am drawing other peopleʼs pictures of birds.” Yet she is still trying to be as realistic as possible, wanting the viewer to believe they can pick the bird up off the paper. Nevertheless, it remains a picture of a picture. “Iʼm never in contact
with the subject matter,” she clarified. “Itʼs a representation of a representation of a subject that has traditionally involved direct observation.” Empedocles has profound understanding of the difference between the representation and the real thing. “Itʼs a sad comment on the disconnect we have with our surroundings,” she lamented. “Itʼs a strange sacrifice to make that comment, but itʼs compelling enough to do it.”
When she left geology, Empedocles worked as a graphic designer before earning her MFA from California College of the Arts in 2008. Still, geology continues to inform her work. In large-scale scientific study, a lot of data gathering is involved. “We excessively pore over a million details even if the point seems obvious,” Empedocles explained. During one particular project, she counted and classified over 50,000 shells dug up from the Baja Concepcion in Baja, California, becoming an expert in the taphonomy of those fossil environments. From this unique vantage point, Empedocles learned that “with focused and determined observation you can obtain profound understanding.” And this is what her drawing is all about.
Using a wax pencil on Fabriano Artistico paper, Empedocles has simplified her art-making process, eliminating all the complicated solvents and materials of other types of art. Her chosen pencil is a Prismacolor that is blacker than graphite. “Itʼs the blackest thing Iʼve found,” she explained. “It makes a dramatic mark. The wax is very smooth and I can make a tone instead of a line. I can bend the mark the way I would with paint, but itʼs a pencil.” When she first picked up this pencil she said it felt much like painting, but with an important difference: she could put her hand down on the paper, which allowed her more control of the pencilʼs strikes. “I could make the moments more specific than I could with a paintbrush.” The paper, she added, also matters: “Itʼs a perfect blend of smooth and rough. Itʼs solid and hard to dent. Itʼs very forgiving. Itʼs hot pressed [and] flat, but has a tooth that allows me to make that shade. If I didnʼt have that, it would just
be a collection of lines and not a tone.”
Empedocles works on one drawing at a time, “But I work all the time, everyday,” she reported. “I have a daytime shift and a nighttime shift. Sometimes they blend together.” Often she will work on a larger drawing in the studio during the day and then bring home a smaller piece of paper and work on a small piece at night, mostly because she needs to have the sense of completion. Last year, she finished Flickers, a 46 x 34- inch drawing of ten images of the same bird, repeated around itself as if refracted in a kaleidoscope. Upon inspection, they are the same, yet very different. The drawing was about transferring an obsessive thought to paper. And while the final result wasnʼt planned and Empedocles thought it would evolve in a certain way, the drawing took on a life of its own. “It was mentally taxing and so painful to continue after the third or fourth
bird,” Empedocles admitted. “I love the results, but it was like a feedback loop. It was hell.”
This long, maddening meditation was transformative. She emerged from the process more committed to her art and less focused on the supplemental work that provided her an income. But she was exhausted. “I wanted to do tiny and quiet drawings.” So she drew a Thank You receipt from her favorite taqueria as a gift to a friend. “It was so fun and satisfying to finish something in a day,” she recalled. “Itʼs a kick.” But thereʼs a deeper thought process behind what initially seemed to her to be a hollow gesture – the simple Thank You on a receipt. “If I drew it, my labor would make it more significant, and infuse the message with meaning,” she said. Sheʼs created several of these pieces, each with a unique number, and utilizes them as tokens of her own gratitude. This led her into a series of ephemeral drawings of found memorabilia, including Brenda Starr comic strips and concert tickets found in her bedroom at her childhood home, These are all fossils from her past, crumpled up and deposited throughout her life. She considers what she is doing as unearthing bits of information
that will help her own understanding of the world.
For Empedocles, drawing allows her to record these artifacts with more detail than can be captured in a photograph. Her documentation is as exact and purposeful as she can make it, and serves to monumentalize the moments that they represent. The irony of her drawing someone elseʼs drawings (as is the case with the Brenda Starr comics) is not lost on Empedocles. The series has had three significant artists throughout its long life who are part of Empedoclesʼ excavation of strips she clipped from newspapers or her step-dad sent to her in letters. Dale Messick was the creator and drew the strip from 1943-1980, Ramona Fradon drew the comic strip from 1980-1995, and June Brigman has drawn the strip ever since.
“The quality of the drawing definitely changes,” Empedocles said. “Iʼm more attached to the artist who was doing the strip while I was in high school and college than I am to the original artist or the current artist. Brenda from the ʻ80s and ʻ90s seems like Brenda to me.”
And itʼs hard not to compare her to Roy Lichtenstein, who also used comic strips in his art. Adam Gopnick wrote in High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture (1990) that what made Lichtenstein into Lichtenstein was “the careful, artificial construction of what appears to be a generic whole…His early pictures work by making the comic images more like the comics than the comics were themselves.” The closer Lichtensteinʼs work was to the original, the more threatening and critical the content became. The same could be said of Empedocles. The more accurate her depiction of the fossils of her life – be they Brenda Starr comics, collections of concert tickets, taqueria receipts, or images of nature found in a non-natural environment – the deeper the truth of her own life (and ours) is revealed.
October 1 – October 30, 2010
David B. Smith Gallery
1543 A Wazee Street
Denver, CO 80202