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Todd Christensen's Observing the Withdrawn

One way to view Todd Christensen’s very personal art installation “Observing the Withdrawn” (Art.i.fact, 930 Baca St., Santa Fe) is as a psychological game of hide-and-seek. The artist’s social anxieties inform this sprawling network of vintage decommissioned library textbooks, mostly stamped as "withdrawn” and shorn of their inner pages. Confessional journal entries and offbeat self-portraits riddle every spare surface.

By withdrawing into the shadows, Christensen steps back to observe society at large. Yet his work is so intimate: a spilling of secrets. As Christensen explained to me, the exhibit consists of standalone hard covers that he calls “pathways” to the more densely constructed patches of artwork that symbolize “groupings, social interactions, and conversation,” as if to contrast solitude with community.

How must it feel for such an introvert to have his first solo show in Santa Fe teeming with fearful memories from his childhood and raw musings on his inner turmoil? He says it does not bother him. I would argue that just as he removes his mask, he is hiding in plain sight.

According to the magazine Psychology Today, those who suffer from Social phobia (also known as Social Anxiety Disorder) deal with “overwhelming anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in everyday social situations.” What’s more, “People with social phobia have a persistent, intense, and chronic fear of being watched and judged by others and of being embarrassed or humiliated by their own actions.”

For extremely shy people, every social situation is an exercise in being more of an observer than a participant. It’s daily performance anxiety. One “self-monitors” with every move taken and every word spoken like an actor on a stage. When that shy person is an artist, whose job it is to tell some sort of truth from a somewhat removed perspective, the alienation from both self and others must become even more pronounced.

Christensen’s beholder witnesses a lot of despair. In one of his self-portraits, thickets of hair cover his face to the point of self-erasure. Then, there are even more negative portrayals of him with cactus pods sprouting out of his head—drawings that he hinted deal with a period of unhappiness and illness. As for his spacemen—mummified astronauts straight out of early science fiction—they are his “social alter egos.” The spacemen are the party people.

In his work, Christensen reckons with his most intimate, lonely side. There is a lot of self-analysis. In one panel, he lists the seven deadly sins as if outlining a possible scorecard. Also on display is a lot of talk of food and body image, including a humorous self-rebuke for hankering after “a big juicy pork chop” that he displays near a book with the title Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit. He clearly battles his demons with a touch of grim lightheartedness. Two great quotes from his exhibit: “Pain is essential” and “Sink or sink.”

But just what is private and what is public? Even as he opens the curtains, Christensen disguises himself behind a more straightforward persona. For example, he scolds the viewer for feeding on his secrets. Peering up into the guts of the busier sections of his installation is like looking up a woman’s skirts. Furthermore, he has booby-trapped those interiors of his work with hidden rebukes such as: “My pain is my pain, my business is yours it seems, you peeping Tom.”

Author, actor and comedian Stephen Fry once said about his social anxiety: ‘It’s not all bad. Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing—they are not all bad. Those devils have been my angels. Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me.”

In Christensen’s work, we are blessed with all of his mad intensities.

Visit the installation at Art.i.fact now through January 4.

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