Words by Heike Dempster
Christina Pettersson’s solo show “The Castle Dismal” at Primary Projects explores the artist’s fascination with Southern Gothic, a uniquely American Gothic fiction sub genre.
Using large scale drawings, sculpture, and site-specific installation, the Stockholm-born and Miami-based artist creates a seemingly haunted and eerie space, turning the walls of Primary Projects into the sinister set of a Deep South ghost story.
The common Southern Gothic tales of the decay of Southern aristocracy, crime, plantation life and poverty are filled with flawed and eccentric characters and grotesque situations, often with religious undertones and connotations. These tales contain the imagery and ideas Pettersson uses as the basis for the work presented in “The Castle Dismal.”
Pettersson explains, “All this is a way of re-addressing the Deep South, a place I genuinely love and feel connected to. I am approaching this imagery hard, face first into utter desolation. A constant state of mourning. A life where everything else falls around you, until at last you are forced to admit that you may be the cause of it all.”
This desolation is captured not only in the negative space within the walls of Primary Projects but also contained within the drawings, which project feelings of yearning. We are looking for something and maybe the artist is too. There is space for imagination and personal experiences, intuition and creativity, dreams and nightmares. The art works seem to provide a backdrop and set the scene for a play that is about to begin or has already ended…a long time ago. Maybe the viewers are the main actors or maybe the story has been told before and all remains are cobwebs, weathered props, and a silence broken only by the whispers of the wind sharing memories of a once glorious past.
Through a series of events, activities and talks, Pettersson invited viewers to explore Southern Gothic and related themes in depth. In an embroidery class, participants embroidered their own mourning handkerchiefs as done during the Victorian Era, when mourning rituals were strictly adhered to. On a tour of the Miami City Cemetery, the artist pointed out some of her favorite monuments and trees, and discussed the evolution and symbolism of the cemetery, particularly during the Victorian Era and the Civil War. A ghost tour of the abandoned houses of the artist’s neighborhood of Buena Vista offered a spooky, late night adventure to participants dressed all in black.
The reading material that inspired Pettersson offers a point of entry into an understanding of her art. “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee and other quintessential Southern Gothic works of literature, such as the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, known as the “Queen of Southern Ghouls,” which won the National Book Award in 1972, sparked Pettersson’s fascination with the genre and influenced her art.
The stories Pettersson tells through her art are just as fascinating, peculiar, and rich in poetry. The large scale drawings that dwarf viewers are so intricately crafted, each stroke writes a part of the emerging narrative that can be read by the flickering candle light of Pettersson’s site-specific installation, calling upon the ghosts of the past. Pettersson’s drawn gothic fairy tales do not have a conclusive ending, not subscribing to any intentional fallacy. Rather, they leave space for interpretation with a few blank pages.
Author and writer Susanna Sonnenberg sums up Pettersson’s work succinctly: “Stone lions weep black blood. Murderous kudzu climbs heavenward. Neglected columns stand as the grand ghosts of an incinerated mansion. As you’re drawn ever deeper into the tangled symphony of her deft pencil strokes, you are drenched in Gothic whimsy and beguiled by the gentle monster of an imagination overgrown with carnival and myth. Pettersson is bewitched by the songs of forgotten ghosts, by the incomprehensible decadence of her beloved South. How could you resist her mayhem?”