Don Christensen, House NM, 2004, 44" x 57", oil based enamel on wood
Don Christensen, Biskit, 2007, 55" x 77", oil based enamel on canvas

Over the past several years, there has been a pervasive renewed interest in, or nostalgia for the New York underground music scene of the late ‘70s & early ‘80s. It was indeed an exciting time of creative cross-fertilization, experimentation and anarchic energy. Many of us who were making music in that scene were visual artists, working in a context that no longer exists. It was a unique moment, a true “post-Art” moment if you will, when the immediacy of live performance, loud dissonance and hopped-up rhythms, was the most direct and natural response to the world. It was also a whole lot of fun. At the center of the No Wave music scene in ’78 or so – without question the most explosive, dynamic and influential band – was The Contortions. The drummer for The Contortions was Don Christensen who joined with the late George Scott on bass to make a jerky driving punk-disco-funk throb that is still unrivaled. But as I said, this moment was very short lived, as the music industry quickly began to co-opt the underground, and change the context from art to entertainment. Don went on to do some other music projects including work with Philip Glass, then began to reorient his focus back (or forward) to painting.

I mention this history because, for me it is hard to look at Don Christensen’s paintings and not relate them to his past music. Often built out of small rectangular hunks of wood, his pieces are literally percussive painting -- polyrhythmic, layered, structurally solid with plenty of synchopation and surprises on top. And like drumming which taps the most primal of sources, his paintings seem to emerge from a ritualized process, or at least a strong sensitivity to those impulses – a possible reflection of his deep interest in outsider artist Emery Blagdon. Also evident is a prevalent element of play that gives rise to unexpected shapes and lively juxtapositions. Some of his more recent paintings are direct enamel on canvas works that simplify the image and loosen the geometry, and in doing so, heighten the tension and focus of the configuration. In all his work, color is the key -- a lively animated substance that brings a kind of Pop humor, and also reads as celebratory.

Recently opened at Spanierman Modern in midtown, is the exhibition titled “Present Tense”, curated by Don Christensen and Mary Heilmann (thru Aug 2). This is a group show that includes abstract works by fourteen contemporary artists, including Christensen and Heilmann. According to the press release, “The works were selected on the basis of their ability to produce instant and visceral responses in the viewer, without the necessity of contextualization.” I like that -- and I look forward to seeing the show and reporting on it later.