Jóhan Martin Christiansen: Leave Me Breathless

by Kinna Poulsen, art critic and curator


Taking in this work begins with observation then turns into an imprint on your skin where every lived experience of touching and being touched is stored like lines and traces in our largest organ – our soft sensitive skin.

Though there appears to be a great dissimilarity between the graphic portion of the exhibition and the plaster reliefs, there is one interesting overlap between the ethereal copper prints and the heavy plaster, both are all about the transfer of traces from one material to another. The plaster works are casts of cardboard, just like the copper prints show the footprint of a copper plate and the lines that have been etched in the plate after the artist engraved them in the lacquer base with a sharp burin.

The exhibition Leave Me Breathless is made up of plaster reliefs and copper prints. The elongated, vertical plaster reliefs hang as a sensuous continuous picture border– simultaneously uplifting, like tall and narrow cathedral windows, and earthy like crumpled cardboard boxes. Materiality matters. The plaster reliefs are cast on selected pieces of cardboard, which the artist uses as a base mould. In the process one material is thereby transferred to another. The surface is reminiscent of cardboard, but is plaster and this material paradox carries meaning in relation to the experience. The construction process itself is fundamental in these plaster reliefs, which are about their own creation and openly tell us the story of how they were cast from cardboard boxes. What you see is what you get, and yet Jóhan Martin Christiansen’s works are more and somehow always tied to a place, intended for a specific setting and context. It is not unthinkable that an exhibition by Jóhan Martin Christiansen at the premises of Danske Grafikere in some way contains reflections on graphic printing as a medium; perhaps the plaster works are vaguely reminiscent of scrolls and the writing on the wall?

For the prints Jóhan Martin Christiansen has used as a starting point a stretched version of a well known baroque image of St. Sebastian painted by Peter Paul Rubens in around 1614. In the two metre high painting, the Christian martyr is depicted monumentally in the middle of the image space and right up in the foreground. Given that the perspective in the image is relatively low and St. Sebastian’s arms are tied behind his back, it is as if the body takes up more space than the head, which can be seen depicted at the top a little in the shade, however, the image is true to the principles of perspective. The image has a highly baroque air with its emphasis on dramatic contrasts between the heavy dark sky and the bright body. St. Sebastian is painted in the nude as a physically beautiful youth, and is portrayed following the same iconographic tropes often applied to Jesus on the cross with his eyes turned heavenwards. The bright body in the dark demonstrates that Rubens has learnt to paint chiaroscuro like Caravaggio, as well as to interpret temptingly beautiful men with meticulous tenderness. The skin practically gleams with young life force. The arrows in the skin sting.

St. Sebastian was killed for his Christian faith in the 3rd century, and it is told that so many arrows rained down on him that his body was left looking like a pincushion or a hedgehog. And precisely that image from his tale has inspired artists, who for centuries have painted saints pierced by arrows. In Jóhan Martin Christiansen’s copper print we can make out fragments of a male anatomy with head, torso, legs, and feet, which all appear quite classically drawn with a dynamic billowing line and hatching forming a shadow shape. However, there are also some lines that differ in form in various thicknesses and colours. They are more geometric, decorative – some are yellow, one is pink and, although they look neither like arrows or spears, it is as if these lines prickle.

On one print of the large comely feet of Sebastian it reads “GOD IS GAY”. The statement, which perhaps reminds us of St. Sebastian’s role as a queer role model, depicts an old graffiti found at Skálatrøð in Tórshavn, which has been painted over countless times and has come back just as many. A humble wall by a parking lot and yet a battlefield in Tórshavn.

The gasping exhibition title Leave Me Breathless has several meanings, banal and reflexive at the same time. The wording has the air of a frothy melancholy pop love anthem, but is simultaneously imbued with tension and ferocity. Breathless can mean both out of breath and super excited, but the word also literally means being unable to breathe. Breathing is, of course, a condition for life and will you leave me when I’m no longer breathing?

Translated by Marita Thomsen

Essay written for the exhibition Leave Me Breathless at Danske Grafikeres Hus, Copenhagen August 18 - September 10, 2023