Finding the art in the spaces in between
A person might see the FedEx logo numerous times over years before realizing the brilliance of its design, which features a hidden-in-plain-sight arrow symbol in the logo’s negative space.
Similarly, space isn’t merely an absence in the paintings of Christina Renfer Vogel; instead, it is rich with meaning when observed between the ordinary yet mysterious figures that populate her work.
“I think of the spaces in between as psychological spaces, and the physical distance plays a role that is just as important as that of the figures,” said Vogel, an Assistant Professor in the University of Tennessee Chattanooga Art Department since 2013.
Sometimes, what is omitted can be just as important as what is included, as some body parts are purposefully left undeveloped with some figures seemingly dissolving into their blank surroundings.
“I’ve removed specific information about the environment in these paintings, so the figures are placeless,” said Vogel.
Providing a minimal amount of guidance for the viewer, Vogel takes a neutral position and clarifies that she is “more comfortable on the sidelines” regarding interpretations of her work.
With her exhibition “Encounters” at the University of the South in Sewanee earlier this year, Vogel said she “was interested in creating situations that have a kind of tension within everyday encounters.”
“I heard an interview with the writer Junot Díaz a few years back who said, ‘One’s reading of your work is their own; make work that makes multiple readings possible,’” said Vogel. “‘Encounters’ is more narrative, but I tried to allow room for the viewer. So on one hand, the work is very straightforward, but I have heard very different reads, which makes me feel like I achieved that balance—that the work is open enough to allow for different interpretations.”
“One of my favorites came from Shelley MacLaren, Director of the University Art Gallery at Sewanee, who expressed concern for the woman in ‘A Near Miss,’” said Vogel. “She felt a sense of something sinister. I loved that interpretation, and it helped me arrive at the title for that work.”
“I worked from my personal snapshots as a starting point for this work, so all the situations have an element of ‘truth,’” said Vogel, about her “Encounters” paintings. “However, I removed and simplified information, and collaged things together at times, so there is an element of invention, too.”
Vogel’s careful perspective choices in her paintings allow viewers to be passive observers who may behold small groups from afar or have a limited view of the back of a person’s head, sometimes evoking Gerhard Richter’s famous realist painting “Betty.”
In fact, Vogel’s 2011 painting “Tana (After Richter)” is her homage to that piece, and she has cited artists such as Édouard Vuillard, Henri Matisse, Balthus, Fairfield Porter and Giorgio Morandi as some that have been influential, alongside contemporary artists that excite her, including Katherine Bradford, Nicole Eisenman, and Kyle Staver.
“Observation is at the heart of my practice,” said Vogel. “I haven’t thought about this work as a social critique directly, but I have had conversations about this work in relationship to social media. Perhaps this speaks to a greater sense of feeling isolated, even while many of us are working so hard to stay connected.”
“Some have talked about a sense of loneliness in this work, which I can certainly see,” said Vogel.
This summer, Vogel participated in the creative residency program at the Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts & Sciences in the mountains of north Georgia in Rabun Gap, where she explored approaches that are quite different from the ones used for “Encounters.”
The output of her fruitful residency was a series of small paintings in and around her cabin of just landscapes and interiors—no figures—often dominated by engulfing flurries of green foliage.
“It’s too early for me to know where this work will lead, but I have been interested in thinking about this new work in relationship to my recent paintings of people gathered,” said Vogel. “I think that both series have a kind of directness to them that has always interested me, and both series reflect my interest in the mundane, as well as a shared sense of stillness.”