Christiane Spangsberg - Works In Progress

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Christiane Spangsberg - Works In Progress

Christiane Spangsberg’s hotel room is strewn with paper: one-line drawings and cut-out works, graphite sketches and paintings. It’s five days before the end of her sell-out exhibition, Wild Horses, at the Sydney gallery Jerico Contemporary and already she is lost in new projects – bringing ideas to life in confident marks and deft cuts on the floor of her temporary home. 

It is Spangsberg’s second visit to Sydney in as many years: in 2017 she was here to present her first international exhibition, which sold out in three minutes. The works featured in A Summer in the Nude expressed the female form through the gestural line and Fauvist-inspired strokes the Danish artist is known for. At the time she resolved to focus a future show on the male nude for the sake of balance, because as she considers, “I have always thought that of course women are beautiful, but I don’t want to favour anybody.” Visits to museums as a child, “where they have ancient sculptures and it is so obvious that the female and the male nude are equally portrayed,” helped to formulate this conviction, she says. But in the time between now and then she became busy with other preoccupations – such as staging her New York show, A Crowded Place, in June (which sold out in 20 minutes) – and the male nude shifted out of focus.

(left) At That Moment, 2017 (right) Portraits throughout by Imogen Eveson

But being back in Sydney now, in the midst of the #MeToo movement commanding headlines and media scrutiny, these thoughts have been stirred up again. Just as her works in A Summer in the Nude presented the duality of women, Spangsberg wants to draw men with an evenhandedness that counters hypermasculinity. “The way the male nude has been portrayed [in a contemporary context] is kind of aggressive, and I think it can be done in an aesthetic way,” she says; to show that men are “not only strong and masculine, but that they also have femininity and feelings. I don’t want us to generalise and put people in a box."

A series of postcards that Spangsberg brought home from the Art Gallery of NSW’s Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition is arranged on the sideboard, and she has started reading Just Kids. She has visited the Andrew (Boy) Charlton Pool, a saltwater swimming pool overlooking the harbour and, from her nearby Potts Point base, is rendering its athletic male swimmers in a Matisse-like work-in-progress (a rarity for Spangsberg, who usually completes a piece in one sitting). This swirl of influences and ideas places a tension on the artist that equals productivity.

Spangsberg’s trajectory over the last two years has been steep, to the point where her successes – the sell-out shows, the international fanbase, the collaborations with fashionable brands like Matteau Swim and J.V. Reid – can often feel unreal to the 29-year-old herself. She didn’t set out to be an artist: her CV to date also includes stints setting up her own business and producing a festival in Copenhagen, but she has always had a drive to create.

And, tellingly, she has always drawn. Her idiosyncratic style is underpinned by a lifetime of development beginning with childhood drawings – often of horses – that were very precise. “I always tried to copy very exactly,” she says. “I was very hard on myself, I would practise and practise.” Later, as a teen, she recalls travelling by train to Italy and being struck by an image of an abstract wall mural in an interior design magazine; “this huge woman floating in the skies with her dog.” She copied it onto the only paper she had available, the wrapper from a loaf of bread, and drew it up properly at home. “And my aunt suddenly wanted [to display it] in her house,” she says.

Saddle Up, 2017

She continued to experiment and forge her own style, before one day, in 2010, the single-line animal drawings of Picasso inspired her. “I made this human in one line,” she says. “I don’t even know why, but I think it was the challenge – I love to challenge myself.” The resulting image reminded Spangsberg of the theory of aesthetics she had studied at university: in 1958, the art philosopher Monroe Beardsley proposed that in order to achieve aesthetic success, a work must possess unity, complexity and intensity. Spangsberg felt strongly that this work combined all three qualities. “I was certain,” she says, “I knew there was something.” It was the jumping off point for her series of faces that would catch the eye of Copenhagen’s coolest stores: her imperfect and ostensibly naive line matched by an accomplished draughtsmanship and an intangible emotional charge.

By this point, Spangsberg, who grew up in the town of Vejle, was living in Copenhagen. Trendsetting concept store Stilleben (which sells artworks and prints alongside homewares, design and lifestyle products) began selling her work, before design and interiors store DANSK Made for Rooms followed suit. She staged her first exhibition in the latter space in 2014. But the joy of seeing her artwork embraced by an audience was soon overshadowed by the pressure to supply on demand: Spangsberg does not make prints of her work, and each piece she produces is original and one-of-a-kind. “[I thought] this is my passion, this is what I love – I can’t just be a production place, so I stopped.”

In this moment she gifted herself free agency, which has helped carve her path since. “Now I didn’t have anyone to tell me what to do and I could do what I wanted,” she says. “I felt so much more creative.”

(right) Harnessing Your Love, 2017

A collaboration with the New York-based fashion publication Unconditional followed in 2015, before a significant commission arose to create custom artwork for the walls of chic Sydney pub the Paddington Inn. “More and more people from Instagram started asking me where they could buy my work,” Spangsberg reflects, “and I guess now I’m here.” Over 75,000 people follow Spangberg’s Instagram account today, and through this channel she maintains autonomy over her work and career. She is not represented by a gallery, and organises her shows herself: Instagram acting as a conduit for connections and networking and creating an accessibility that is essential to her. After all, she asks, why should anyone else but her look after those who buy her work? She is genuinely humbled by their interest.

Well aware of the opportunity social media affords artists to create their own brand, Spangsberg is often conflicted over how much of herself to show, or not show. Her Instagram feed is a balance of artworks, self-portraits, insights into her working day and anecdotes arising from everyday interactions and streams of consciousness. She is conscious that it’s a subjective way of showing herself: a different Christiane to the one her friends see, but a snapshot of herself nonetheless. Should she be more candid? Or more mysterious? She puts her mind to rest with Brené Brown’s famous riff on a Roosevelt quote. “The meaning of it is that you have to show up and you have to be in the arena,” she says. Instagram is her arena, and she needs to be visible. “I haven’t gone to art school, so I don’t know the regular way of doing things. I just go with the feel of it.”

This fluidity and intuition is what opens Spangsberg up to interesting collaborations. When we talk, she is in the early stages of planning a June exhibition in London. A location hasn’t been decided on yet but because she won’t be working with a traditional gallery (instead, the manager of Flight Facilities; the electronic duo whose single Arty Boy she designed cover artwork for last year), it will most likely be an unconventional space that befits a show named Outcasts. An articulation of her long-held sense of feeling different, the works she has created so far for the show have been made with her eyes closed, to convey an inner expression. A Hong Kong show could be on the cards too, and Spangsberg hopes to exhibit in other cities in the future: Paris, LA, Melbourne, Stockholm… 

(right) Nothing Can Pull Us Apart, 2017

We’ve moved up to the building’s rooftop garden to talk. The sails of the Opera House gleam in the distance as the almost full moon rises, and the city’s huge bats swoop in the fading light. Crickets are buzzing and mosquitoes are biting: unfamiliar places feel strange at night. Spangsberg travels solo and can often struggle with this, waking up to different noises that disconcert even though she knows she is safe.

But the extended periods of being alone while travelling create a darkness she is compelled to express. “Whereas if I was happy, if I had someone to go on adventures with, I wouldn’t feel like I needed this space,” she says. “So it’s not a happy place, but it’s an interesting place and I like it.”

The lack of familiar distractions right now is proving to be a creative catalyst. “I would think after this whole exhibition that I’d be exhausted, but now you see my room,” she says, referencing the new works on paper layered on the carpet downstairs. “I have an eagerness to create, sometimes more than others. The whole fall at home I haven’t created that much. But I feel like now I know one chapter has ended, I want to write a new one. It makes me passionate, having all this time alone."

As an artist, Spangsberg always strives to do something different. Today she has bought a graphite stick for the first time: because people often misconstrue her original works for prints, she is experimenting with being more explicit in her mark-making. “Now I want to try to use the graphite – that’s a whole theme,” she says. “I’ll go in so many directions: I’ll do the cut-outs, because I think that is interesting, and then I’ll do something else…” That Spangsberg doesn’t expect herself to create superlative artworks at all times, but rather gives everything an enthusiastic go, ensures her prolific output. In her artistic career, she feels like she’s only just getting started.

Spangsberg is modest, grounded and self-possessed in good balance. And she appears boundless in drive, talent, creativity and curiosity. These are the hallmarks of a great artist, even if she can’t quite let herself believe it yet.

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