Baltimore-based artist Christina Barrera.
How would you define a universe? What does a universe mean to you?
I think that like everyone else I have a more superficial level where I think of the universe in this very basic way as everything that we know of and everything that we do not know of, including planets, and stars, and galaxies, made up of a finite number of elements that is potentially limitless and expanding.
When I’m really thinking of the universe in the kind of grander terms that I always want to be thinking in I think of it as everything existing as an energy field where we and our atoms and everything else in the entire universe and its atoms; made mostly of air, so much more blurred in our boundaries than we think, are simply parts of everything that has, does or will ever exist. It’s a lot like The Force.
So I think of The Universe just being everything there is, but I think A Universe can be made of anything there is on whatever scale. What I think I mean by that is that for me a universe can be any “cosm” micro or macro or middling, while The Universe would contain everything including all the other universes. I like to think about multiple universe theory and how I would always think of all those multiple universes as being a part of The Universe, because The Universe consists of everything, regardless of how much scientific sense that does or doesn’t make. That’s just me being potentially illogical and maybe stubborn, but a big part of my practice is using theory that interests me and using it to create whatever I want. I’m not so much interested in whether or not people understand my view of a universe as I am in creating a space for people to think about what their universe is in a more aware and fluid way.
Why were you drawn to the möbius strip for some of your oil on inkjet paintings?
I’m just now remembering that the first time I saw a möbius strip was in a bracelet that my sister got when I was very young. It was just a silver band with the twist in it and she showed me explaining how it was symbolic of infinity. It’s funny because I don’t remember thinking about that at all when I first started using the möbius strip. The first piece I made involving a möbius strip was kind of a fluke, it was actually for an assignment while I was in undergrad. My favorite professor had us read Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman and gave us the assignment of “Time”. We didn’t have to draw from the book, but it really struck me so I made Vignette of Another Universe (time) thinking about these little vignettes of time, these tiny universes and theories of time that Lightman creates. I think the möbius strip came about because one the pieces that I found particularly beautiful was about a universe in which time was cyclical, so that form came to me.That piece also incorporates a meander that I found in the tomb of Galla Placidia in Ravenna; this was an important step for me because I realized that infinite forms and patterns were important to me. I was already attracted to the ellipse or vortex shape and I can see now that the möbius strip as a physical and mathematical model of something which seems paradoxical but also a form symbolic of infinity or eternity was a logical addition to my vocabulary and that’s why I think it’s stuck with me.
What does color mean in the Candidate Universes? Is it random, or do you have a system?
I have less of a system or systems of meaning than I do intuitive connotations and seemingly unconsidered fixations. I’m weirdly a pretty rampant colorist when using color observationally which you wouldn’t think looking at my current work. Since I’ve moved away from painting observationally however my color preferences and choices have narrowed dramatically on their own. I think that when my goal is not to replicate a color situation but rather to create one I get kind of minimalist, doing more with less. The colors that make up my vocabulary are fairly arbitrary in that I don’t sit around and choose them in some sort of systematic way. Usually I start using a color when it becomes a part of my life in some way but I am also heavily influenced by a pigment’s historical and cultural usage or connotations. Cobalt got really trendy in fashion a few years ago while I was looking at a lot of European stained glass, ceramics, and ceiling frescos so cobalt or ultramarine shades became really important in my very cosmic or night images. The orange I’ve been using is a slight shift from the cadmium red I had been using for years, and all shades of pink became a big thing for me after spending time in Italy. Kelly green and a kind of acidy yellow are new on the scene. I don’t know where those come from so we’ll see how that goes.
What led you to create the Vortex series?
I wish I had made a whole vortex series! For how much I’ve thought about vortexes, energy points, or weak points between dimensions and universes I haven’t actually made that many. The first drawing Vortex I had a lot of precursors that weren’t outright vortexes but kind of allusions to vortexes. Once I drew it I kept coming back to it but somehow I couldn’t seem to get more out of it than what I had already drawn. It was certainly the beginning of the elliptical shape as a kind of short hand for a vortex and later a universe. I only made one or two more over the next few years after that, it was like a touchstone, something to do when I didn’t know what to do. I think I knew that I had a shape but I didn’t have a structure or consistency for that shape and in some ways I think that’s what I’m doing now.
Tell us about Things I Didn’t Know I Know.
That painting has endured and stayed relevant for me in a way that few other pieces have. It’s really important to me because it felt like a sketch when I painted it in the summer of 2009, in fact I think I didn’t even like it very much, something about the colors seemed not to my liking. Anyway, I found it again going through old work when I was working on my undergraduate thesis. Suddenly it seemed like this was what I had been trying to say and achieve and it seemed so fresh and current to me. I couldn’t believe I had done it years before, it eventually made it into my thesis show even though it was from so much earlier. In any case I think when I painted it I was just looking for some way to talk about landscape in a way that felt like landscape and earth, but alluded to some sort of energy web or connectivity with the landscape as well. There’s a sort of incognito little figure in there that was meant to blend in with the ground, to be “tapped in” to the ground. I was beginning to fade the figure out of my work in order to move away from illustrating through the figure and move towards focusing on the structure of the forms and spaces that the figures interacted with.
What is the origin story for the works of The Event?
When I was making those pieces (which are in themselves a part of a larger body of work titled A Story I Do Not Know) I was working with the idea of a personal narrative and I was really interested in place which I had previously kind of ignored. While I think it was ultimately my own narrative metaphor for the fact that I was unsure where I was going, I was really concerned with the idea of getting at the kind of mythic feeling around a spiritual happening or event by highlighting the moment right before or right after something other-worldly was about to happen or had happened. I think I used to feel that I was making these discreet scenes from a journey whose purpose and linear story I didn’t know and that somehow I was only privy, or I only wanted the viewer to be privy to, snippits of it. For about a year I was working through my ideas about narrative and my want to work narratively in a way that felt different to me and my work because I had always been told that my work was “illustrative”. The thing is when professors or other mentors critiquing my work used the term “illustrative” they were always unsure if they meant that positively or negatively, like they felt positively about the work but they were confused that they wanted to use the term “illustrative” in a positive light instead of a negative one. Unfortunately I think that led me to stick with this work a lot longer than I really needed to because I felt like I wanted to push back against this kind of ridiculous idea that illustration is somehow lesser or “easier” for both the artist and the viewer. Ultimately I think that the small watercolors that marked the end of that work are the most successful because they’re less concerned with the specificity and drawing of a place or moment and more concerned with the mythic element of the happening. In these works I was really fixated on a moment someone would make themselves light enough to levitate, a moment someone would dissipate their atoms to melt into the universe, and a moment in which I and all my parallel universe selves might gather.
How do you view the creative process, especially while dealing with themes of energy, time, and potential?
I don’t think that what the work is about shapes my creative process so much as my creative process shapes my work. Things that are paramount to the process are pretty basic, like showing up to the studio on a regular basis and have ample time, space and materials. These kinds of things seem really material and unimportant compared to immaterial experience that most people expect the creative process to be, but I spend an immense amount time and energy ensuring those things. That being said, I do spend a lot of time in and out of the studio meditating on nothing at all, making lists of things that come to mind, and managing my own energy or state of mind so that I feel more capable of channeling something larger than myself. I often sit around searching the universe’s collective unconscious and my own for images by just allowing myself to connect or catalog new or saved images, either physically or mentally. This is the kind of process that usually ends with a sudden striking image or idea that comes seemingly out of nowhere and then I will go and make it, often many times until I get the material manifestation right. I think ultimately I view the creative process as a job where you have to show up, you have to be prepared,and you have to do certain things to get yourself to work; not as a mystifying process of genius outside your control.
Do you see similarities between contemporary physics and your own personal experiences?
I think it’s not that there are similarities between my (our) experience in the universe and physics, so much as my (our) experience in the universe is physics. I’ve always remembered something my eighth grade science teacher said when she was explaining that atoms are mostly air. The fact that atoms didn’t have very much matter was something we’d heard before so we weren’t really impressed, but then she said “so when you think of yourself as sitting in your chair right now, you’re not so much sitting on a surface as your atoms and the atoms in the chair’s surface can not occupy the same space and since both your atoms are mostly made of air you are ever so slightly levitating on the chair.” I think it struck me then as this incredible thing that we know only because we care to see beyond our immediate scale of experience, but I think it’s stuck with me because the more I thought about it the more I loved thinking about how the air on the outer part of my atoms is constantly mingling with the air on the outer part of the atoms of everything I interact with.
In a deeper way I see a lot of my personal practices in theoretical physics when I read about how some physicists are starting to theorize that the consciousness or intention of a being can actually shape or alter matter and can create variation in atomic and molecular ground state energies. This is essentially the parallel physical theory to ideas found in countless ideologies that involve what they would say is moving your energy, or raising the vibration of the magnetic energy field your body creates. A lot of what I think about is grounded both in what people have thought about the way that consciousness and intention manifest themselves in us and connect us but also what physicists theorize about how our universe is shaped around us and our consciousness. Those things are very closely linked for me.
Do you ever dream of universes?
I almost never remember my dreams! It’s a sad story.
What does the concept of recurrence mean to you as an artist?
I think that ideas of or around recurrence are so basic to me as a person that I don’t even really think about it as a concept that I apply to my work, just like something that is always there. “What goes around comes around” was a pretty big part of my upbringing and I used to imagine that I was on some sort of invisible circular track that I would push things out along and then they would slowly make their way back around to me. In a really basic way it comes up in the fact that I will make the same things, the same figures, the same shapes, for years. I have things that I’m still working with in some iteration or another that I started working with in early high school, and I’ve always been that way in my making process. In less literal ways I think it shows up in my work because I really resonate with ideas of infinity, eternity, and reincarnation. I think about cycles and loops and milky ways being elliptical and all these things that speak to elliptical existences and all of that makes it back into the work even if I’m not consciously working towards ideas of recurring events or themes.
What are you reading, listening to, watching, and thinking about recently?
I’m about to embark on The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) byPaul O’neilland I’ve slowly been working through Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time forever. Things I’ve read pretty recently that have been really important to me are Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, The Intention Experiment by Lynne McTaggart, and Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman, as I mentioned earlier. I also obsessively read the Free Will Astrology horoscopes in Baltimore’s City Paper because they are really excellent at not really being horoscopes but being really wonderful to read.
I pretty much exclusively listen to WNYC’s Radio Lab in the studio, I think it’s really awe and wonder inducing and it makes me feel really good about everything being perfect which is a great place to be in the studio. Sometimes late at night or when I really need to be transcendental I like to listen to William Basinki’s Disintegration Loops. In a hilarious cross over of my interests Radio Lab’s episode on Loops features William Basinki.
I love movies so much, and I watch a lot of them but weirdly I don’t think they influence my work in a very tangible way. I’ve been watching a lot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos in the studio because it’s so beautiful and makes me want to hold hands with the whole universe. Everything Carl Sagan says is just so dreamy and inspiring. The other thing I watch a lot in the studio are TEDtalks, I listen to them in the background more than watch them I guess. A good one about candidate universes is Stephen Wolfram’s Computing a Theory of Everything. Some other great ones are Elizabeth Gilbert’s Your Elusive Creative Genius, Briane Greene’s Making Sense of String Theory, Shawn Achor’s The Happy Secret to Better Work, Richard Dawkins’ Why the Universe Seems so Strange, and one of my all time favorites is John Hodgeman’s Love, Aliens - Where are They?
Maybe because all of these things make me think about my intangible existence I find myself interested in creating sculptural or semi-sculptural works these days. So I’ve been thinking a lot about the kinds of objects that I think are missing from my life and how to make them.
What upcoming works and projects can we look forward to?
I have a few projects with some other artists going and some things of my own to release soon. My boyfriend Ricardo Contreras and I have a collaborative body of work titled A Glimpse Through bringing together his photographs and my collage practice to create the moments when one universe bleeds into another one like visual interference or static. My friend and talented printer Ian Jackson are starting a collaborative body of prints; right now we’re thinking very large which is exciting. I’ll be releasing a very limited edition zine Letters to Ghosts very soon and I’m working on a more involved publication that I can’t really talk about right now, but there will be whispers in a few months! (it’s just me, I’m the one who will be whispering) Last but not least, I’m always working on my own work and you can check my website and my sketch blog for new works or get updates by joining my mailing list on my website.