Project Space: Christine Catsifas

by Lyra Kilston

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      Ansel Adams might seem an odd source to draw from in 2008, especially for an artist like Christine Catsifas, who has worked primarily with digital media for the past decade. She is drawn to Adams’ photographs as much for their ubiquity as anything else. His black-and-white images represent the idea of the West as a place of fantasy and reinvention to her, but also as a “raw material,” as she puts it; photographs as well known and widely disseminated as Adams’ edge toward stock imagery. Talking in her Brooklyn apartment, Catsifas describes the abundance of cheap, used Ansel Adams coffee table books she finds at bookstores. For the series Untitled–Double Fantasy (now on view at Good Children Gallery in New Orleans), Catsifas cut up Adams’ stunning images of rippling granite and shadow-raked stone to create new landscapes, impossibly seamed and starkly artificial.

      Themes of artificiality, idealized nature, and place have occupied Catsifas for many years. Past projects have drawn from vacation postcards, film sets, video game backgrounds and casino gardens and she tends to “use what’s around to construct fantasy locations”—as in a room at New York’s Art in General that she wallpapered in lush jungle imagery last year. In the past few years though, nature and place have assumed a greater personal urgency, ever since Catsifas was evacuated from New Orleans before hurricane Katrina. Afterwards she traveled from residency to residency, returning often to New Orleans where, she notes, “the storm totally changed the entire arts community. It went from something small and regional to a place where incredible dialogues were suddenly opened.” On the eve of New Orleans’ first biennial, the much-anticipated Prospect 1, there is minor concern about the ability of artists from out of town to absorb and reflect the city’s long history and recent tragedy. Catsifas herself is very optimistic about the biennial’s impact, yet rather than return home, she plans to retain a somewhat mobile lifestyle for now (she admits some uneasiness about beginning to re-accumulate furnishings). Indeed, Catsifas’s honed focus on idealized landscapes over the past two years belies a longing for elsewhere, for a horizonless, picture-perfect fantasy.

      Running on the bottom of the collages in Double Fantasy are words written in an undecipherable code Catsifas invented by combining Greek and Roman alphabets. Raised in a Greek-speaking family in San Antonio, the language is something she never quite mastered, so it remains opaque and abstract, a metaphor for the difficulties of communication. Her letters resemble the fierce angular font used by heavy metal bands, yet Catsifas cuts them from pages from National Geographic magazine, adding another representation of aestheticized nature to her work. The result is a clean composition that resembles a tourism poster, yet is cast in sinister undertones through its fragmentation and illegibility. While acknowledging the generic status of nature imagery found in the books and magazines stacked on our coffee tables, Catsifas’s work takes these decontextualized locales and speaks to their more subjective, resonant meanings—a perpetual sense of wanting to be elsewhere, of nostalgia and dislocation.

      Lyra Kilston is a writer living in New York. She is an editor at Modern Painters.


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