Portraiture and performance artist Tom Christophersen knows the two disciplines go hand in hand. His portraits are a performance and he takes this truth to another level by more often than not working with performance artists as subjects. Christophersen grew up in Adelaide and is now based in Sydney, Australia. He is a theatre maker, performer, visual artist, facilitator, designer and illustrator, who likes “Twin Peaks, The Pixies and dark streaks” and is inspired by everything from succulent gardens to the Jonestown Massacre.
His works are a mixture of the macabre and the joyful that catch the more bizarre sides of his subjects. Christopherson’s cheeky and dark sense of humour, along with his politics, is evident in his compositions. Layered with symbols and meaning, he takes the great tradition of portrait as person, not simply a face and body, into the modern age using technology and millennial iconography in surprising and challenging ways.
We caught up with Tom Christopherson, the self-professed “artist, actor and atrocity” to chat art, art prizes and Adelaide.
You first caught our attention when you entered Putdownable (pictured above) in the inaugural Bluethumb Art Prize, where it was shortlisted out of over 1000 entries. Could you tell us the story behind how this striking portrait of Andy Dexterity came about and the symbolism used?
My work often spotlights Queer creatives with performative practices. In ‘Putdownable’ Andy, who is an Australian AUSLAN ambassador and performer, is surrounded by a garland of (his own) pink hands; each pair of hands signing different words which hold a significant or symbolical importance to him. One means ‘dance’, one means ‘sleep’. The original idea for the composition of this work was inspired by the ‘helping hands’ in Henson’s “Labyrinth”. I like collaborating with my subjects to try and develop a concept which will best convey the inarticulable ‘something’ that makes their practice theirs. I’m really happy with how it turned out.
Performance art is a central theme of your work and you yourself are a performance artist. How do you balance your creative output? Do you think performance art and fine art compliment each other?
Absolutely. I think there is so much performance in portraiture. Really, each contains elements of the other. The process of composing a portrait has very similar processes to staging a performance work. One is just a moment which lives on as a two-dimensional relic whilst the other goes on to be repeated in front of different groups of people in real time. They are both creative tools to talk about ideas and communicate feeling with. The messages in both my performance and creative work are specifically created to affect positive social change, so I don’t really see an end to my performance work and a beginning to my visual art work. Sometimes they exist in the same space.
I used to worry a lot about what it would mean that I wanted to make portraiture and performance and whether or not it was ‘allowed’. I felt like ‘at one point’ in my career I’d need to pick one and stick to it. Encountering more and more artists who switch between two and three dimensional medias, specifically performance and drawing/painting through places like online communities and social media is something that is really refreshing and exciting and something which I wish I could have seen when I was 21 so I could tell myself to calm down. I’m still really fascinated by people who draw and perform. Now, I love being able to do both, and I swap between them or combine them without any guilt or overthinking. Usually projects are really clear to me in terms of what they need creatively, but I am developing ideas for both medias individually as well as thinking how they could crossover all the time.
You grew up in Adelaide and now live in Sydney. What have you learnt in the places you have lived and how much do you feel your work has been influenced?
Growing up in Adelaide, I performed in a lot of Fringe Festivals which meant I had all Artist Passes, honey, so saw a lot of pretty incredible theatre and art for free from a really young age. I was really lucky. I saw a lot of really different and incredibly strange and wonderful performance work which still inspires me when I think about it, which is often. One time I saw a Burlesque performer go from doing a backwards strip tease (beginning nude) in perfect reverse to doing an Elvis song in an old pie factory at 4am – I was 13. Mostly Adelaide exposed me to a whole bunch of completely different working artists who by just being working artists, encouraged me to make the work that mattered most to me – despite how unusual it may be. I refined my style in Adelaide by working as much as I could in as much theatre and art based community projects as I could create and perform and devise in. I practised.
It’s also important at this stage to mention that Adelaide has the potential to be totally bizarre in a dark, Hellmouthian, Lynchian kinda way that only other people from Adelaide will truly understand. I remember being in Year 4 whilst boys in my class drew an edge to edge A3 Derwent-colour-pencil rendered depiction of the interior of the disused bank where the Snow Town murderers stashed the barrels containing their victims for anyone who had missed the special on “Today Tonight” the previous evening. That pretty Australian-specific mix of the domestic and the terrifying definitely lives in my work today.
In Sydney I really refined my practice. It gave me bigger and better opportunities to work creatively so that I could expand my artistic outcomes and work with other likeminded people to collaborate and make things. I got the opportunity to facilitate art and drama workshops with groups of young people, specifically young LGBTQI+ people. All this creative experience working in the community with my community as an ‘early career’ artist was incredibly beneficial and necessary for me so that I wasn’t just creatively isolated in my living room drawing all day going insane. Sydney helped me learn how to develop and push what I learnt to do in Adelaide. It also allowed me to participate and make work in and for some pretty incredibly special festivals and projects, which just wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t living in a city like Sydney. I found a confidence within myself about my work whilst in Sydney.
How did it feel to get recognition from the panel in the Bluethumb Art Prize? How have art prizes impacted your career?
It is always incredibly humbling and rewarding to be acknowledged in an art prize – particularly in an Australian one. Art prizes are really important for any professional artist and when I have placed in them, they have really affected the volume of people who could see my work at one time. I’m always nervous that the same six people are just seeing my social medial posts all the time online (hi Mum), so exhibiting in art prizes and gaining exposure by the public at large and panels of industry experts viewing your work is a pretty surefire way to sidestep the gatekeepers and establish yourself without needing to be represented by a gallery. Being able to show your work in a gallery setting as a finalist or part of a prize’s exhibition is invaluable just in terms of practising the logistics of experiencing your work in a gallery setting amongst other people’s work too.
Have you always wanted to follow a career as an artist? What are the pros and cons?
It’s a very convenient answer but I have always wanted to be an artist and a performer since I can remember being asked that question as a little kid. This pissed off some adults and sometimes I would be forced to come up with a back-up option, but in my heart I’ve known this is always what I was here to do. That is the ultimate pro – that I feel like I am truly being and honouring myself when I am making art – that I am doing the right thing in this lifetime and that I know I can inspire and connect with other people through what I make makes me really happy.
The ultimate con, right now, is having to fight to find money in order to sustain the work and myself. Finding a balance where I can have a life and be making the kind of art I want to make, particularly in this country and particularly in this political climate, can be challenging. The struggle is indeed real and so the hustle must be accordingly deep. This country has a tendency to undervalue its developing artists when it comes to providing adequate funding and mentorship pathways so that they can live and work at the same time. Sometimes it is hard to try and find opportunities to make large scale outcomes without going bankrupt. If it wasn’t an absolute love affair it would be actually be too grim.
Who were your earliest influences and how have they changed from those you have now (these can be people, film, literature, or music as well as art, anything that gets your creative juices flowing)?
This is the second time I’ve mentioned it, which should only be a testament to the truth of what I’m about to say but Labyrinth was really the first movie I remember seeing ever as a little kid that absolutely blew my mind. I was obsessed. I still have so many complex emotions about David Bowie’s codpiece/tights combo. That film is still my favourite.
I’m incredibly inspired by music and video clips. David Lynch is my favourite director of all time and I have a Twin Peaks tattoo so… we’ll leave it at that.
I’ve been very obsessed with Leigh Bowery for a long time too. Other visual artists like Francis Bacon, Audrey Kawasaki, Troy Brooks and James Jean have impacted how I make work by constantly inspiring me. If you make something I like and make it consistently, I will most probably develop an art-obsession with you.
I love documentaries. And paranormal reality television shows and true crime podcasts and horror movies. My two favourite videos on YouTube are ‘Britney Spears Stoned’ and ‘Abandoned – Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch’.
I’m really inspired by my friends who are very strange and creative and wonderful.
I could list lots of things but I won’t and will just say that I am influenced by a whole bunch of people and events and moments which stick out to me in the popular culture zeitgeist and in my own life and which my ideas must feed off, subtly, while I’m sleeping. My next piece is inspired by succulent gardens and the Jonestown massacre.
Could you take us through your process from the selection of subject, the decision of colour palette and style, through to the tools you use to develop your narrative…and a question that seems to vex many artists, just when do you decide a work is completed?
There are a couple of different ways that I arrive at a finished work. All my models or subjects are known to me in my life. I don’t really ever use complete strangers unless it is for a commissioned piece. Usually ideas for my work arrive in my brain 85% formed. I can see it – ‘the premise’ or ‘the story’ of the work very clearly, very early on. Sometimes, depending on the outcome of the work, I’m triggered or prompted by a theme for an exhibition or a body of work or the life of the subject and sometimes the idea is just completely random and arrives uninvited but welcomed all the same.
I work from photos. No one will (or can) sit for longer than a photo shoot anyway so I like to stage a shoot where I can direct the subject and work from reference images. Usually I have someone help me and then I’ll take a bunch of photos in which I look for ‘the one’. Once I’ve found ‘the one’ I start the process by which I make all of my works: I make a drawing of the photo, embellishing or modifying elements as and if needed, onto watercolour paper. Then I paint a black tonal underpainting in watercolour paint which I then draw on with watercolour pencils. Sometimes I will use white acrylic or gold and or silver leaf as embellishment. Essentially, I make the piece three times on the same piece of paper, as a drawing, an underpainting and then a drawing again (with elements of painting on top). Let’s call the whole thing – mixed media.
Sometimes the process of making (painting and drawing) the work can take two weeks, sometimes it can months, just to finish a single work depending on the size and the level of detail in the subject and background. For me I know when a work is finished when I look at it (and I mean scrutinize and interrogate of it like a mother with her suspiciously acting teenage child) until I literally see nothing ‘wrong’ with it (proportionally or with the colours or the blending etc.) It’s a pretty palpable moment when I get the ‘you’re finished now’ feeling. It’s a strong gut feeling. I trust it. It knows.
Now to the future: what are you working on at the moment, and what shows do you have coming up?
I’m currently developing a short-story by Sam Pink (one of my favourite writers/poets) into a performance piece which will comprise of both film and live performance elements. I absolutely love Sam’s work so I am so thrilled to be using his writing as a sort of script to develop a piece of durational immersive performance with.
I am also showing my visual art work in an exhibition overseas in a group exhibition I’m not allowed to talk about yet but which is going to be the first time my work has been shown outside of Australia. I’m so excited. I’m just about to start making the actual piece in a few weeks. It’s the one which was very inspired by succulents and cults.