Christopher Ulivo: The Present is Nonsense

installation shot

Christopher Ulivo, installation shot

Christopher Ulivo, the LA based painter, takes us in his vivid paintings to imaginary places, from time travel to ancestral family spirits to rewritten myths and histories. His worlds are filled with idiosyncratic, wildly imaginative narratives, where you can sense the painter’s presence as a prolific storyteller.

The text in the bio section on your website, Christopher Ulivo, a background, is a hilarious narrative and to my mind it ties well with your artwork on many levels. You end it like this — “Despite all this, he couldn’t help wonder what would have been had he been adopted by the Lego corporation way back when: If I could do it over again? I’d change lots of things – almost everything really”. What would you change in your art journey and what wouldn’t you?

Realistically, I would reroute about 65% of my art journey, above the majority but not all of it. Living in the present is impossible. I spend an equally large amount of time fantasizing about the future and the past; it’s just that the past has more tangible game pieces, so the decision points feel more rooted as do the possible alternate outcomes resulting from them. The present is nonsense, a plane invented by hippies to sell incense.

My first thought is that I would have dedicated much more effort in seeking out artists and venues that are inspiring and with a similar world view to my own. Finding the time and space to have dialogue with engaging creative people is so important for growth. To the extent that I have done this -great; but it should be now and always should have been my second priority outside of excellence in the studio.

A detailed inventory of my actual grievances (with names) and regrets can be forwarded upon request to:

Christopher Ulivo

Both this bio text and your body of work give me a sense of an author with a keen eye for details and an insatiable appetite for tales with self-reflective (even autobiographical) dark humor. You mentioned you are also a writer. What could you tell me about the relationship between the way you think about language and the way you express your visual narratives?

I shouldn’t overstate my status. It is gross but it may be more accurate to call me an aspiring writer. I write short essays which are colorful appreciations of underappreciated books, artwork and music. I think of each of them as a personal if unsolicited letter to the reader. They are heartfelt but also a bit dusty, like an aging professor trying to impress a younger collogue or an uncle pitching his vitamin supplement pyramid scheme. Max Beerbohm meets Memoirs of Hadrian.

My working process for writing and painting are very similar but derive from different places. I work only from my imagination in painting; I’m dogmatic about it. When writing, I almost always use some artwork, writing or music as a starting point. For days, when I’m supposed to be at work or helping my children, I’m thinking over an image or paragraph. I try to remember it in my head until I begin working. By that time whatever is memorable is what gets put down.

I have noticed more overlap between my interests in writing and painting over the past two years or so. A recent series of paintings explores a dispute between a genie and myself. The Genie in the paintings is a lamination of the lamp-borne wish-granting genie of Arabian Nights and the ancient Roman genii, a supernatural ancestor spirit. Being trapped in a bottle for hundreds of years gives the genie a very different cultural, historical and scientific frame of reference than myself. Every wish gets partially or incorrectly fulfilled causing an increasingly petulant me to put more ludicrous requests to the genie.

Before each painting I came up with a wish, a reply from the genie and a final ‘resolution reply’ from myself. The dialogue seemed like such an important part of the paintings that I painted the resolution lines directly on the paintings. It’s a very one-sided dialogue in the sense that the genie has zero editing rights over the painting or the text. No Genie, You Have Given Me What I Asked For, NOT What I Wanted felt like the kind of convoluted and defensive thing a person might say in couples therapy. Eight paintings later in the series is: You Can Take That Middle Class Morality and Shove It Up Your Ass, You Would Have No Knowledge Of It Had I Not Exposed You To It’s Mighty Power. The title is meant to show a different dynamic between myself and the genie as our powers begin to level out. It is meant to read like something demi-gods would say in couples therapy. The language, image and text hopefully evolved together over the series. It could also read as nonsense to a viewer but I would hope the passion of my efforts would still translate.

"Genie, You Have Given Me What I Asked For, Not What I Wanted"

No Genie, You Have Given Me What I Asked For, NOT What I Wanted, 10.5” x 8”, egg tempera on panel, 2019
You Can Take That Middle Class Morality and Shove It Up Your Ass, You Would Have No Knowledge Of It Had I Not Exposed You To It’s Mighty Power!

You Can Take That Middle Class Morality and Shove it Up Your Ass, , You Would Have No Knowledge Of It Had I Not Exposed You To It’s Mighty Power, 40” x 30”, egg tempera on panel, 2019

In our conversation we brought up the relationship between your paintings and cinema. You mentioned that you feel strongly about keeping your narratives in paintings as a valid alternative universe to cinema. Can you elaborate on that by giving a couple of examples from paintings of different genres?

Years ago, I saw the actor Don Cheadle giving an interview where he described meeting a film executive who, in an odd attempt to explain turning down a project, showed Cheadle a spreadsheet which broke down in intricate detail, the revenue from different configurations of actors of varying age, sex and race in different roles in a variety of genres. In a studio’s eyes, storytelling is settled science.

Over time, we see thousands of stories which are the product of this process. The tropes and plots are a shared language, if a mediocre one. I try to be mindful of the formulas and make choices that play against them; to remind myself that there are other options.

The theater and film that I really get inspiration from are those which have strongly defined parameters. I love British detective mysteries, Greek and Roman theater, high-concept comedy, medieval mystery plays, Italian opera, kung fu and farce. In these genres, the two-dimensionality of the settings and characters become an asset to the works. The formality built into the structure creates a stable armature on which to hang wilder, more colorful expressions.

I would like to take a closer look at specific artworks. Let’s start with your recent painting series Forces of Destiny, which can be seen as anecdotes of time travels, perhaps questioning the meaning of fate and free will? What is the origin and sources for this painting series? Let’s take for example at You Think Your Indirect Interventions Can Stop Me?! Maybe Slow Me, Never Stop me!

Forces of Destiny evolved from my genie paintings. In these, I am visiting my ancestral family spirits, (genii) interacting with them and their more heroic counterparts from Greek mythology. The time travel aspect in the series relates a lot to my first answer in thinking about the past and the possibilities of rewriting our histories or steering fate. These are rooted fantasies; I need to feel that there are limitations and consequences for characters in a narrative to provide support for the fantastical elements. I need to feel that the world created in that fantasy, if crafted well enough, could in some way become real- a Geppetto complex perhaps.

For that painting, I was devising a creative way to evade the Moiari; the spinners who establish the length of the lives of mortals. Caught and decapitated, I’ve managed to sprout a tiny middle-aged avatar from my neck opening. It’s like when a lizard detaches its tail – confusing the predators for just long enough to escape. I think the seagull was originally a messenger supposed to be carrying my reprieve but at some point, it turned into a plain package.

Forces of Destiny: You Think Your Indirect Interventions Can Stop Me?! Maybe Slow Me, Never Stop me!

Forces of Destiny: You Think Your Indirect Interventions Can Stop Me?! Maybe Slow Me, Never Stop Me! , egg tempera on panel 10” x 9.5”, 2020

And what are the visual and narrative references for Prayers and Preparation Against the Fifty Unwanted Suitors?

This one refers to the Danaides who were fifty royal sisters from Greek mythology. The Egyptian kingdom was divided between two brothers; Danaus who controlled the west, had fifty daughters and Aegyptus who controlled the East, had fifty sons. Aegyptus tried to coerce the Danaides to marry his sons. This caused them to flee to Greece with their father. They established a new kingdom but were perused by the fifty sons of Aegyptus who arrived in longboats. The Danaides were forced to marry the sons of Aegyptus. On their wedding night, each was given a dagger by Danaus to kill their new husbands.

I’m imagining the myth branching off at the period when the Danaides see the men approaching. If they were independent and had the authority to choose their own fate. Instead of blindly following their father, some might choose to fight, some to pray for divine intervention, some resigned to their fate.

This is a large painting for me. With egg tempera you build up shapes with thousands of thin, short brushstrokes. Although the figures and buildings were interesting to make, the water was really the most rewarding and fun to paint. There are just so many layers of blues and greens, I loved feeling it the color deepen and develop over time.

Forces of Destiny: Prayers and Preparation Against the Fifty Unwanted Suitors

Forces of Destiny: Prayers and Preparations Against the Fifty Unwanted Suitors, egg tempera on panel 24” x 36”, 2020

Your other recent body of work includes a series related to genies. Let’s take for example Quit Hovering Lame-o, Go Grab a Drink and Participate In my Undersea Dominion.

That painting makes me laugh, actually. I’m not sure it is a good painting but it was necessary to finish the series. I’ve taken the concept too far as both the character in the world of the painting and as the painter in this world.

It’s supposed to be the ugly culmination of hundreds of backfired wishes granted by the genie to yours truly. By this painting, I can breathe underwater, have a tiny Elvis performing the 68’ Comeback Special in a undersea dome, an undersea parrot-ray, a massive genie hovering mostly out of frame (his feet are visible on top) and I’m sprawled in a giant oyster shell like some spent shellfish. I was really trying to channel the wonderful chaotic energy of the ending of Hogarth’s Rakes Progress.

Quit Hovering Lame-o, Go Grab a Drink and Participate In My Undersea Dominion

Quit Hovering Lame-o, Go Grab a Drink and Participate In My Undersea Dominion, egg tempera on panel, 17” x 13”, 2019

Your ink and watercolor / gouache drawings have a wonderful freedom of hand and imagination. How do you see the relationship between your painting and drawing?

You know, that’s my natural way to draw, fast moving swooping curves. Lots of plump animal forms. I think it’s my inner-Neolithic self being expressed. I’m not planning, thinking big thoughts, nothing.

You have been making puppets and recently you started making screens. How do you see these in relation to your paintings and drawings?

Honestly, one day I had this vision of being in the New York Times style magazine. Not me personally or even my paintings but making furniture that would be used for shoots perhaps in a castle or in a brutalist loft surrounded by culturally diverse models wearing Hermes or Comme de Garcon. The first large room divider screen I made is inspired by the novel Brighton Rock by Graeme Greene – That’s a stylish book I suppose. I wish I had a better explanation than that but I do not.

Brighton Rock Room Divider, detail,6’ x 9’8”, wood, distemper and color pencil, 2020

Where do you see your work developing these days and how do you think it relates to your earlier work?

I couldn’t be more enthusiastic about where I’m going in terms of painting. The last three years have been eventful for me in the studio. For a brief moment in December 2017, I thought that my studio (and house) had burnt down. I was less upset at losing my work than I thought I would be. While nearby buildings did burn my house and studio did not. I took this as a signal to reassess my practice. I only made quick drawings for an entire year — it was a sort of idea purge. When that well ran dry, I started painting again but this time with a sustained focus which I’ve never had before. Twenty-five years after I first started painting, I think I have finally ripened.

You are also a curator, educator, and gallerist. Tell me a bit about these other practices and do you think they inform your art making?

Seeing that in writing makes me tired. Who could do all those things well?

Having a tenured position offers me a steady middle-class income and, providing the US and the state of California survive twelve more years, the prospect of an honest to goodness pension! That informs my work inasmuch as I’m not worried about balancing twelve gigs to make rent, feed my children and get me medical coverage. So I have more carefree time to ponder medieval mystery plays or whatever. Being an educator right now is a grind but I am very lucky to work with the loveliest people who also happen to be talented artists: Stephanie Dotson, Armando Ramos and Stephanie Washburn.

Tiger Strikes Asteroid Los Angeles is an artist run space I started in 2014. For me it has become a great site to nurtre an artist community in LA. We are part of a larger network of five TSA galleries across the country which have been around for over ten years. Carl Baratta has been the gallery director of TSA LA since 2016 with me as the co-director. He has been instrumental in coordinate the efforts of many of the galleries in the Bendix building and make it a great destination for openings. I curated the last pre-lockdown show at the gallery which was a riot but After a show I am curating in Berlin at Axel Obiger Gallery (in June, Covid willing) I am going to transition into helping other people organize shows rather than put any more shows together myself. I want to focus more energy on the progress of my education and studio.

Fully Furnished Room, Tiger Strikes Asteroid Los Angeles, Chris Ulivo curator, February 8- March 7, 2020. Photo courtesy of Anna Beeke

All photo courtesy of the artist unless otherwise indicated

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: