Upon entering artist Michael Giancristiano’s newly-minted Santa Ana workspace, you are greeted by the renowned collection of cylindrical plywood sculptures rising in various heights and circumference from the concrete floor in a scattered formation, The Pits of Despair: Regret, Uncertainty, Credit Card Dept, and the smaller works in between entitled “Empty People”. As pits go, they are incredibly beautiful, hard to miss and it is not until you are peering directly into them that you are struck with “pit-like” foreboding. Even then it is a conversational sense of foreboding, one that leaves an opportunity for escape. The escape is there as well, running along the longest wall of his studio are leaning about a dozen large-scale plywood panels resembling aerial views of landscapes, some featuring applications of luminous white paint that rest like a layer of snow on the subtle topography of chipped and peeled-back layers of wood. Many of the panels are left bare, wood on wood, coated in varnish and in various stages of undoing.

So organically in sync with his materials is this artist that as a viewer you are presented with a suspension of disbelief that is astonishingly subtle. Giancritstiano does not tip his hand in any way to reveal the craft and back-breaking effort that goes into his work. The material is plainly plywood and he makes little effort to conceal that. The work is also very much specifically about the plywood, the artist’s personal relationship with it (like brush with death personal) and even how the plywood should feel as an object, texturally and emotionally. “You know that plywood is made up from sheets of low-grade wood that are then pressed together, each against the grain creating an almost impenetrable panel,” Michael makes sure to point out as he sets about making our dinner on a grill he has pulled out into the parking lot. “It is natural wood but yet completely man-made as an object, virtually indestructible.” That was at the beginning of my visit and knowing plywood like I do and plywood being one of the most common manifestations of wood since the dawn of human existence (used even by the ancient Egyptians), I did not give his statement much thought until later when he said something that changed my perception completely.

After dinner and after we had discussed the LA art scene and the Orange County art scene and the differences and similarities that exist between the two (Michael has recently moved to Santa Ana from Los Angeles), he suddenly started to talk about the work that surrounded us, unprompted, as if I just needed to be there long enough before he felt comfortable enough to speak about his process. He said this:

“Creating these pieces is a journey through which I am uncovering a narrative that exists within the wood. With each layer of remnant and glue that I chip away at I am revealing shapes and colors and grains that would not otherwise be revealed.”

I offered then that he was exposing the natural wood for what it was, working with circumstances beyond his control and revealing the beauty to be found there more than he was imposing beauty through mark-making. “…like this symmetry, the way a shape exists on one side of a panel and then occurs as the mirror opposite on the other side.” I pointed then at one particularly elegant pattern of wood that looked like it were slowly and violently coming apart, as if every time you looked at it another section would explode away from the facade. At that point I was ever so politely corrected. “I create the symmetry you are seeing, it is not accidental. I expose a shape or pattern on one side and affix the chips and slivers that I take away then to the other side to create its mirror image.” At that moment his work graciously joined the conversation, pouring out feeling and the evidence of great care and attention to detail. The texture of each panel picked up the warehouse lights, the wood varnish glowing as if to say, “We were a little embarrassed to correct your assumption that we weren’t absolutely amazing, until now.”

More information can be found at MichaelGiancristiano.com

Pictured from top: Studio view of the Pits of Despair / Escaping the Pits of Despair #1 / Escaping the Pits of Despair #2

A view from the top

Originally written for the OC Art Blog, published September 2, 2012.

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