Christina Marie Valenzuela

Interview by Jordan Amirkhani 

May 20, 2022

Your artist statement is clearly driven by a desire to articulate ‘identity’ as a multiplicity. Where did this desire to unpack identity come from? What kinds of texts and readings helped you come to terms with this notion?

As I’ve always been interested in self portraiture, I found that portraying my figure or my face was too general as a way of representing my personhood. Just as our bodies are made up of many parts that form a whole, identities are composed of many qualities and beliefs as a result of our experience in the world. Prescribing blanket terms to people is vague and boring — I’ve always been more interested in the details that provide specificity. Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s writings on phenomenology allowed me to focus on the fluidity of being and how a person is a composite of all their many experiences. In his essay Eye and Mind, he contemplates: “My body is a thing among things, it is one of them, it is caught up in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing….things are annex or prolongation of itself…the world is made of the very stuff of the body.” His words took root in my thinking, and I began to consider: if we are all made up of the same matter, then the boundaries between things are not set and we are more than one thing. His acknowledgement of the inherent paradox within existence has led me to believe that we have many (and often conflicting) versions of ourself. Thus, instead of compressing identity into one thing, I want to honor the complexity of being. Ideas of complexity are also found in John Holland’s Emergence: Chaos to Order as he presents the phenomena of emergence, or much coming from little. We are characterized by this emergence as complex beings made from simple parts that change over time. In truthfulness, encountering stigmatization / categorization as a result of diagnosis has led me to push against seeing a whole person as one facet of their identity.

Tell me more about the size and scale of this series of works. Are there works in the history of art that you were thinking of when deciding on the format and size?

The small to medium size of the panel is a way to draw in the viewer and create an intimate setting in relation to their body. Nearly all of my favorite paintings that I have seen in person are small — Frida Kahlo’s Suicide of Dorothy Hale, Diego Rivera’s Hands of Dr. Moore, Van Gogh’s Shoe and Portrait of Joseph Roulin, and Kandinsky’s Improvisation III. I often look at medieval books of hours, quattrocento Sienese paintings, and ex-voto: the devotional nature of the work is tied to its little size. There is something about the humility of a small painting that makes it feel special. Personally, I get overwhelmed with large paintings, and tend to gravitate towards smaller paintings as they feel more personal. The scale of the image / figure is based on the feeling of closeness. I often zoom in on the figure and blow up details so the viewer feels like they are in the subject’s private space. In portraying close-ups of hands, feet, and eyes, which are sites of tension, I explore what a small piece of information means in the context of the larger situation. I have the subject frequently bump up against the margins of the image, hoping to elicit anxiety and a feeling of squeezing. I am inspired by Magritte and Domenico Gnoli who both magnify details and crop closely, creating feelings of unease and strangeness.

Your color palette is very specific and leads me to immediately think of a variety of references, most specifically in the language of textiles. Would you agree?

Textiles are the root from which my color palette stems. In our conversation, I came to the realization that, in attending Catholic institutions through high school that each required uniforms, I wore a specific range of colors — specifically blues, reds, yellows, blacks, whites, and grays — and plaid skirts for the majority of my childhood. Clothing my body with unisex color configurations and patterns shaped my taste and became what I am most comfortable wearing. Spending years analyzing the plaid in my skirt during class opened me up to symbolic considerations regarding patterning. I engage with the fact that these complex patterns are based on the simple structure of the grid, or smaller units interacting to form something much larger. Plaid’s function within Catholic institutions is to create a sort of visual identity for students and to promote equality — I am actually interested in that idea of anonymity and ubiquity that plaid and other patterns, such as checks and stripes, carry. It’s very common in American culture for an individual to wear, for example, a buffalo plaid or black and white stripe shirt. While these patterns are common, they are at the same time very optically engaging. I am drawn to color combinations that create visual motion and disturbance, creating phenomena like simultaneous contrast. Much of the color in my work is influenced by Josef Albers and Op Art artists. Clinical psychedelic experiences turned me on to the science of color and pattern.

Your works are clearly defined by personal and cultural experiences that have made significant impressions on your life, specifically religious and spiritual experiences. Since religion is so historically framed by the interplay between image and word, what role might writing play in the development of your work?

As a visual artist, I was initially drawn to painting because it provides a platform for engagement that words often fail to offer. However, I am getting to the point in my development as an artist that I must confront language and its history — it’s unavoidable. A particular line in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts has stayed with me: “I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained — inexpressibly! — in the expressed.” She wrestles with the idea that words must be “good enough.” For a while, I had subconsciously rejected words as I felt that they limited what my paintings were trying to say. Nonetheless, the written word — in the form of my favorite texts — has helped guide my thinking. Thus, embracing words as another avenue through the inexpressible might be expressed (in addition to painting) might help open my work up further. I am working on compiling a book of my drawings and I’ve really enjoyed the process — this is something I want to do again in the future. The current book doesn’t include any writings, but potentially including some of my own words or excerpts from my favorite texts in future projects could be a way to engage with writing. This could be an opportunity to directly engage with the history of books of hours and medieval manuscripts that heavily inform my work. One of at the most prominent spiritual experiences I’ve had was during clinical ketamine infusions in which I listened to music, and many of the thoughts I had were guided by the lyrics. Many of my paintings are titled after song lyrics, so this is another avenue to engage with text.