“My work is about control,” says Jan Christopher-Berkson from her meticulously tidy art studio at Mana Contemporary in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. “I can’t function in chaos.” The artist’s workspaces have always reflected her approach to painting, even in graduate school, where one professor wondered how she could be creative in the space, suggesting that she “make it messier and loosen up a bit.” That didn’t happen.
Her process is as orderly as her studio, beginning with a sketch where she plays with shapes before applying paint to canvas. “I use hard, organized lines,” she says, noting the rectangles and triangles that fill her work. But there are softer forms too, shapes from nature like the silhouette of a tree, that come together in what she calls “alternative landforms.” These imagined places are a means of processing anxiety, especially feelings sparked by political events of recent years and the reversal of so many environmental protections.
By using prismatic colors against more muted hues—“I mix all my colors before I begin,” she notes—her often untethered objects induce feelings of instability. The hard edges of her shapes speak to a false sense of security, which goes hand in hand with how dependent we’ve become on things that damage the environment. “I have grown children and I worry about them and their children,” she continues. By “recontextualizing fears into an alternative view on the reality we face,” she is able to find a sense of order.
Taught to respect nature by her parents and grandparents—she comes from a family of avid gardeners—Christopher-Berkson is also keenly interested in indigenous cultures and looks to the Seventh Generation Principle first penned by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. “It’s a practice that states whatever decisions you make shouldn’t be just for your generation or your children’s generation, but for the seventh generation beyond yours,” she says. “You can’t just live for the present. I keep thinking about ways to be a better steward of the land, beyond recycling and getting away from plastics.”
And while her paintings are meant to disrupt complacency and raise questions of responsibility on both a personal and societal scale, she also wants viewers “to find a sense of hope through color, and a feeling of balance along with the disequilibrium,” she says. Ultimately, Christopher-Berkson wants viewers to find their own meaning. “The paintings are open to interpretation with no prescribed ways of thinking about them,” the artist notes. But if they give a viewer pause and inspire just a bit more care for our surroundings, Christopher-Berkson will feel that she has done her part.