Chris Fraser

I would like my work to point back into the world...there is nothing particularly special about the light that enters these works. Echoes of this same order can be found in your home, entering your windows, skirting around furniture, slipping through a crack in the door.

When we visited Oakland-based artist Chris Fraser at his studio at Real Time & Space he first asked us to take off our shoes, then he turned off the lights. All of sudden, as I stood staring at a blank wall, feeling vulnerable in my not so glamorous socks, a bit of magic happened. Sharp lines of light cut through the darkness, drawing out a luminescent triangle where seconds ago there had only been an empty corner and bare walls. I moved closer. The dark room seemed infinite and the glowing triangle like a doorway. I had the urge to walk through it and the sense that I actually could, and that something extraordinary was on the other side.

Many of Chris’s site-specific projects are interventions into already existent architectural spaces in which he uses straightforward techniques to create unexpected optical experiences. Essentially, he employs the principle of the camera obscura to manipulate the way light enters a room. By strategically creating holes and slits in walls, he is able to coax and direct light into specific directions and shapes, transforming once familiar surroundings into fantastical, poignant spaces.

Experimentation is key to Chris’s process, and he thrives off the chance to create within different environments. Earlier this year, he had the opportunity to work in two distinctive spaces: a small box-like room at Real Time & Space, where he was an artist-in-residence, and the dining room in a soon to be demolished house in Cow Hollow that was opened up to multiple artists for Highlight Gallery’s inaugural site-specific project 3020 Laguna Street in Exitum. In Chris’s careful hands both rooms were reimagined, becoming portals to another world.

When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
I tell them I’m an artist. And then I get out my phone to show them images. I don’t mind describing my work. I just don’t find it very helpful. There’s not much in our experience that prepares us to think about the world as a living image. So rather than describing the dry mechanics of how light moves through space, I prefer to show concrete examples of what it is capable of doing.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I teach photography part-time at a community college just outside Sacramento. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. I get to be around people who are excited about making pictures. I usually teach introductory black and white and traditional darkroom classes. But I’ve also done classes in the history of photography, pinhole cameras, autobiographical photography, and Photoshop.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
My work deals with the relationship between light and pictures. Most people are familiar with the camera obscura. Cut a hole in a dark box and a picture will enter. Cut another and a second picture will appear, similar but not quite in register. If you keep cutting holes you will eventually destroy the box, but the pictures will remain. They will simply obscure each other. Light is elastic and can be coaxed into various formations. For certain projects, I create environments in which people can directly experience this phenomenon. These spaces are often interactive, with the viewer a participant in the act of image making. For other projects I use elements of performance, video, and photography.

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I’ve been reading old books on optics, stuff by David Brewster, Thomas Young, and Leonardo da Vinci. Prior to the modern era, scientists were much more like philosophers. They speculated about the composition of the natural world and were deeply concerned with their relationship to it. You might expect a book on optics to be filled with diagrams and equations. But these are filled with personal observations. They speak of beauty and art and awe. For them, the world isn’t cold, a thing to be studied dispassionately. It’s to be entered into with one’s whole being.

What are your biggest challenges to creating art and how do you deal with them? How do you navigate the art world?
Teaching helps me to maintain an active practice. It provides me with a steady income and gives me a lot of freedom in regard to time. Still, I never feel that I have enough time, money, or space to pursue all of the projects I would like to do. I often have to settle for sketches.

I like the art world. Because there is no money to be made, I find the problems associated with it terribly easy to avoid. I show mostly in alternative spaces. I spend time with people who are genuinely excited about art.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
I’m a bit of an itinerant artist. My projects develop in response to specific places. When asked to do a large-scale installation, I will treat the gallery as a temporary studio. I spend time in the space, paying attention to subtleties, working through ideas. I’ve had four proper studios in the past four years and each has suggested a new line of inquiry. There is something alluring about the thought of having a long-term, permanent studio space. The continuity would be welcome. But I fear that my work would become stagnant. I look at space and think about how to organize it and once I’ve done that, it’s difficult to re-imagine it. Ideally, I’d like to have a space large enough to house a few discreet rooms, places to test different projects simultaneously. I think this scenario could keep my ideas fresh. I’d also like an assistant. Soon.

Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has led to what you’re making now? Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
Prior to graduate school, I didn’t have a studio. I worked out of my home, using it as a backdrop for highly autobiographical work. I made photographs that attempted to address the effort required to construct a stable view of the world from moment to moment. These images would often incorporate my observations about light, but always for the sake of a photograph. I didn’t really think that I needed a studio, but everything changed once I was given a space specifically for art. My work became sculptural. I started talking about what it felt like to experience the world as a living picture. Many of my interests remained – in perception, in light, in the camera – but the autobiographical elements disappeared. I was more interested in sharing an experience than in reporting back about my own.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I have a show coming up this summer in Sacramento, and I’m going to try nesting one optical environment within another. The outer room will be illuminated by a series of slits in the front window, filling the space with the colors of the street outside the art center. I imagine that this area will be interactive to some degree, though I won’t know until it’s actually up. The inner room will be uniformly white, with a single slit that faces the front window. Having already passed through a slit in the front window, the light that eventually makes it into the inner chamber will be narrow and marked by a single color, sky-blue for instance. Imagine a series of colored rectangles emanating from a single line… This is why I get my phone out and show people pictures. Descriptions are just so cumbersome, while the phenomenon is elegant.

What are you most proud of?
I’m self-motivated. I may not go into the studio everyday, but I am always looking actively, thinking through problems, jotting notes, making sketches. I have a restless mind, and my work gives it something to chew on.

What do you want your work to do?
I would like my work to point back into the world. I spend a lot of time crafting specific situations, framing light in such a way that it reveals a portion of the complex order within the ambient environment. But there is nothing particularly special about the light that enters these works. Echoes of this same order can be found in your home, entering your windows, skirting around furniture, slipping through a crack in the door. I want to call attention to a type of beauty that usually goes unnoticed.

What advice has influenced you?
It’s odd. I can’t think of a single word of advice. But I was once asked a question that shattered me in the best way. I had just started grad school at Mills and was in the middle of a studio visit with Anna Murch. This may have been my first studio visit with anyone, ever. I was explaining my plans for future projects in excruciating detail. If I remember correctly, these were process-oriented works that talked about pattern recognition and time and compulsion. Perhaps they were kinetic, maybe interactive. At a certain point she stopped me and asked, “Do you always need things to be so complicated?” I was floored. So much of my identity had been bound up in increasingly dense thought processes that Anna’s question triggered a personal crisis. She saw right through me and I knew it immediately. I was at a point in my life where I was confusing complexity with rigor and it made the work cumbersome and uninteresting. I spent the next two years paring my work down to its essential elements.

How will you know when you have arrived?
I seem to be perpetually in search of the next thing. But financial stability and a studio assistant would be nice.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I have two solo shows this summer. The first opened in June at the Center for Contemporary Art in Sacramento. It featured the nested room that I talked about earlier.
The second show opens on September 6th at Highlight Gallery’s new space on Kearney Street in San Francisco. It runs through October 18th and will feature an artificial light installation and a selection of photographs from previous environments. I’m pretty excited. This will be my first show with the gallery. It will also be the first time I’ve shown my photographs publicly. Ephemeral spaces are necessarily elusive, but I try to convey something of their essence through still pictures.

To see more of Chris’s work: