Chris Costan Interviewed by Karen Schifano
Art by Chris Costan
Ever since Chris Costan began making her series of art interventions—hand-painted and lettered posters inserted into urban and suburban landscapes—I’ve been impressed by her dogged persistence and focus; she seems to harbor little thought of reward or approbation. And I wanted to know why she began this project during, of all times, the start of the pandemic when most of us were isolating in our homes and studios. We are now in year three of Covid, and still “she persists” with subject matter that spans Greek mythology, climate change, apocalypse, female anatomy, and anything that strikes her curious mind. She posts her pieces in odd places, like on the side of a gas station or in an abandoned shop window, where anyone can stop and ponder them. Her beautiful (and not-always-identifiable) imagery and intriguing short narratives are at the very least attention grabbing. She later posts photos of these interventions on Instagram, sometimes with video or sound. Hers is a dedicated and disciplined practice, insistent and educational, admirable at a time when talk about art tends to gravitate to the marketplace and career. So I decided to ask her a few questions . . .
Karen Schifano: Chris, we first got to know each other through a social media group that empowered artists; it was at a moment when the pandemic had disrupted our routines and appeared to offer an opening to new horizons. You were the main force within the group and asked me to join you. At the time, you’d begun this terrific series of guerilla interventions—“rogue” public art events. What was your initial impetus? Did you have a prior history with this form?
Chris Costan: In November 2019, right before Covid-19 descended upon us, I was on a residency in Berlin at Lichtenberg Studios, where a single artist is given a live/work arrangement in a small museum. The invited artist is asked to contribute to or interact with the local community by creating an outward-facing public project. Public art was not within the scope of my work, so for a moment I was at a loss.
But an idea eventually emerged. I needed to satisfy the residency request, but I also felt the need to say something meaningful that was of the moment. I’d been feeling deeply disturbed by national and world events, a disturbance that had always been there but never felt quite so clear—plus I’d never been a “politically-based” artist. Immigration was an ever-dominant topic in the media, and so I decided to develop a project around the issue of skin color. It entailed applying twenty-five different colors of paint to 30 x 22-inch sheets of heavy rag paper, each representing the skin color of an individual I either saw or imagined I saw living in the Lichtenberg neighborhood of Berlin. I created accompanying texts, which I had translated into German, and placed them (in both English and German) on each piece. Each piece held a different “skin color.” It’s a simple idea.
...colors exist on the exterior of our bodies and each color is different than the rest of other people’s bodies...
I pointed out that the interior colors of each body are the same as one’s neighbor regardless of their skin color. I hoped if I installed these works about skin color around town, they might resonate with different communities and maybe even reach those that hold anti-immigration sentiments.
Each day, after I completed a piece, I posted it on a surface in a public space. I used walls, doors, subway stations, store windows, fences. I watched the rain and weather begin to destroy the interventions, so I covered them with thin plastic wrap I found in the studio to protect them from the elements.
Eventually, each piece was either “acquired” or confiscated, usually leaving some kind of artifact behind. Great! I intended them as a way to communicate with random individuals in the public realm, and never had gallery walls in mind—I wanted to be free of art world parameters, and to communicate in an abstract way, but also in an educational way. I’m not sure where, if anywhere, this work fits in.
KS: The idea of creating art that was time-based and performative is something that I believe emerged in the 1960s and 70s. Does it feel radical to you, as it did at the time? Is it ripe for our cultural context now?
CC: I understand that what I’m doing is not radical. What I’m doing is “making art” and making it political. I’d never engaged in making art that was overtly political; now I find the performative aspect of this work deeply satisfying, even exciting. These interventions afford me “a holding pattern for living.” The holding pattern involves engaging daily with the many predicaments we’re in. For instance, we can’t make art if our environment isn’t habitable.
KS: Can you see a through line with your previous job in the fashion industry?
CC: I was a color designer and trend specialist for a fashion brand for thirteen years, so I know that the color palette is a serious affair! As a color designer, I analyzed how and why people wear different clothing styles or a particular color at a given moment. As an informed “spinner” of tales about trending colors for merchandisers, designers, sales accounts, and sales associates, I used the Pantone Color Matching System (a standardized color-matching method) to give my colleagues a technical and representative sense of why I was recommending one color over another during a particular season.
Eventually, I left my job in fashion, but the Pantone concept stayed with me. It surfaced in Berlin as I entered the roiling existential waters of social and national discord. I began to use the Pantone format, but removed it from its intended uses and applied the system to issues with real gravitas. The Pantone Color Matching System began to serve as a way for me to express with urgency what many of us were (and are still) experiencing.
KS: Did you get a response from people who saw and read the pieces? Did you feel it was successful according to your initial plan?
CC: My expectations were high, at first. But the more I thought about public art, the more I realized art doesn’t always change people’s minds. Much of the time, art viewers are like-minded and the artist is preaching to the choir—the artwork “talks to its own” instead of to the public.
But I still feel hopeful. My Lichtenberg project, despite the fact that it often entailed installing in the cold and wet, was oddly rewarding. The artists I interacted with in Berlin were interested and supportive of the project, and the residency culminated in the publication of a catalog to document it. Since each piece was signed and included contact information, an observant Berliner sent me a photograph of one of the still-standing Lichtenberg pieces a year later. It looked pretty good!
KS: Why do you think your project won’t change people’s minds? It’s an unforced conversation, isn’t it? Don’t you hope that a stranger will happen upon a piece, read it, and then think about it? There’s a utopian aspect to these series that feels fresh today to me!
CC: I always hope for a response. I’d like to make multiples of some of them and post those in key places. Or maybe make a billboard. So yes, I guess “utopian” feels apropos!
KS: What got you started up again once you returned to the US?
CC: Before I left Berlin, I realized I wanted to continue with the project in New York. I had more to say, and the interventions seemed full of potential. By May 2020, because of Covid-19, I was spending a lot of time upstate in Kingston. Ultimately, since public transportation wasn’t safe, I was stuck there. I began to think about the causes of epidemics and the human impact on disease, including the ones that awaken after millennia of sleep. I was thinking about humanity’s increasingly wide-ranging domination of the natural world—how flora and fauna are being sacrificed on an altar of greed, wealth, and power—about humanity as a threat to the natural world, and how Covid-19 fits in. We are a species that is destroying our home.
During the summer of 2020, I created twenty-three rogue events; each was painted red—the color of blood. I posted these interventions in public spaces in and around Kingston, including a large window in town in collaboration with Purple Window Gallery and another with PaperGirl, a community art project originating in Berlin. I left most of these red interventions to be degraded by the elements. Next came A RIVER RUNS TO THEE (Rivers of the World, or the importance of water), a series of twenty-three interventions. After that came more specific themes and references.
KS: It’s interesting that you call them “events.” Do you think about them as appearing, having a life, and then degrading back into the earth? Or is the event about you making them and placing them? Or both? I think you’ve mentioned that you now photograph the pieces and take them home, rather than leave them to “return to nature.” Does that change how you think about the project?
CC: Yes to all your questions. I do see them as events, since they “take place” and then (usually) disappear. I’ve left forty-seven of these pieces in public places in Berlin, New York City, and Kingston. In fall 2020, I shifted gears and started photographing them in situ, and keeping the roughly eighty versions of the interventions I developed since then.
KS: Some of the recent interventions seem not to be overtly political, more like discussions around a particular idea. For example, your recent “Sea Fan of the Deep.” Are you thinking about connecting stories and mythologies to large current issues? Or are the choices idiosyncratic? In other words: are you following your instincts rather than a logical agenda?
CC: I relate to the word “diary,” a record of the thoughts and influences in an artist’s life. I am making analogies, relating ideas, stories and mythologies, to large current issues. But the choices are often idiosyncratic and I follow my instincts.
KS: As an observer of your work, I’ve noticed quite a lot of wit in how you place the interventions. Some appear on shop windows, some are posed in a landscape (such as the garden in front of the Capitol building in DC). I noticed the compositional placement of one piece on a NYC bus shelter with a large fashion ad. You placed your piece on the item of clothing being advertised in a way so that the color matched! So, the particular site and context for each piece works with (not against) the subject matter.
CC: This series, which is increasingly important to my sanity, has resulted in some (rarely practiced!) self-exploration. The “wit” as you see it is part of art-making in general. The placement is often accidental, but also purposeful, perhaps even mystical, and often aesthetically in sync, all at the same time. When I leaf through the pieces, I wonder how such compositions even worked out, since I’m usually in a somewhat stressful situation on the street, in a crowd, and exposed to the elements. It’s never easy setting it up. I’ve been caught on a surveillance camera, confronted, and chased away a few times. So, is placement unconscious? Is the formal composition and context a result of luck or skill? After years of art-making and day-job demands, you acquire some degree of expertise.
KS: I’ve been musing over the idea that the great freedom of being an artist is that one can research and explore any subject. You seem to do that, while also connecting the dots to a larger picture, the personal as it relates to larger issues that are public, and seeing more connections than we do normally. In a way, I see your performance as a public service, and even without overtly political subject matter, the work is innately political.
CC: I see the interventions as performative, educational, public service–oriented (arguably), and also simply about making art. After working in the (commercial) world of fashion, the incredible difference between art and design is that as an artist you have total freedom.
KS: Early in your career you made large-scale paintings, and now you make tabletop sculptures and collages. When you’re not making Interventions, what other kinds of art-making are you involved with?
CC: I need to be fully engaged to make art; moving in and out of working with different media like sculpture, collage, drawing, painting, is natural for me. I have a love of materials—color, texture, pattern—and the irony, beauty, ugliness, humor, contradiction, and chaos in the world. So much to work with. Interventions incorporate these qualities as urgent, anguished, existential reminders that the effect we have on each other and on Nature can be horrendous, and even final.
Chris Costan has had solo exhibitions at Germans Van Eck Gallery, Windows on White Street, Avenue B Gallery, F.A.O. Gallery, Cheryl Pelavin Fine Arts (all in New York); Smith College Museum of Art (Northampton, MA); and Peter Miller Gallery (Chicago). She has been awarded grants from the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, NYFA, American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her exhibitions have been reviewed in ARTnews, Artforum, Flash Art, New York magazine, and other publications. Costan lives in New York City and spends time in the Hudson Valley.
Karen Schifano lives and works in NYC. She received a BA in art history from Swarthmore College, an MFA from Hunter College, and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She has exhibited widely in the US, Europe, Australia, and Japan. Solo venues include Tobey Fine Arts, Melville House, and Wagner College. Group exhibition venues include DC Moore Gallery, Deanna Evans Fine Art, Minus Space/MoMA PS1, Visual Arts Center of NJ, Alfred University, and CB1 Gallery. Karen is a member of American Abstract Artists.