Between Meaning and Material

My work is principally concerned with contemporary man’s mutable conception of Nature. Growing up on the rural Delmarva Peninsula, I became acquainted with the local flora and fauna at a young age. Whether working at field chores, hunting, fishing or simply playing, many of my experiences in the “natural” world were similar to those of Lewis Carroll’s Alice; Carroll’s premise, that “things get curiouser and curiouser,” guided me through many a childhood adventure. I anthropomorphized animals and cast them as key players in an epic production, of which I too was a part. For me, as for Alice, the natural world was enchanted and, although by no means idyllic, ethical in an unsentimental way.

As I matured, however, my childhood love of Nature evolved into a fascination with biology and ethology, an intellectual ontogenesis like that impelled by the Enlightenment. In the 16th century, educated Europeans began to distinguish between storied meaning and fact. They gradually abandoned enchantment, myth, and magic in favor of analysis and rigorous experimentation, hallmarks of the scientific method. This preference holds true today. Yet, incidentally, we’ve realized that this divide between the imagination and reason is unfortunate, even unnatural. The English poet and critic, John Ruskin, alluded to this schism when he wrote of “the broken harmonies of fact and fancy, thought and feeling, and truth and faith.” Although we learn an increasing number of facts about Nature, our experience of it is less complete.

For our ancestors, Nature was understood as an extension of self. Both the man and the rock he sat on were part of the same rich story, a story in which every player — a wolf, eagle, tree, mountain, river — had a voice. Art and dream acted as a channel between human consciousness and animal or natural phenomena. Today, many people dismiss such “primitive” spiritualism, but, as critic Donald Kuspit writes, “while it is hard to know what is special about nature in our increasingly unnatural world, and to recognize that we remain part of it however removed from it we think we are, we continue, however unconsciously, to feel the need for a passionate, unpressured relationship with [nature] as an antidote to the daily pressure of our lives.”

The existential experience we channel when contemplating animal behavior or participating fully in the world is altogether distinct from the more nuanced world of advanced self-consciousness and technological civilization. We humans are exceptional creatures and our extraordinary accomplishments should be celebrated, not diminished, yet Nature affords us an opportunity to confront denial of our animal antecedence, to increase wonder and joy, and to extract lessons of mortality and morality. Ethology, the study of our animal brethren, is inextricably entangled with anthropology; this knot binds essential truths.

The current body of work is borne of these ideas and questions, but also responds to our contemporary cultural and political climate. The paintings are celebrations of Nature, but they also respond to the anxiety and uncertainty endemic to our time by returning to the traditional Sublime, picturing an ambivalent world that delights and inspires as surely as it destroys and awes. They depict a melting world, a Nature torn apart and dissolving. But this dissolution is also an opening of the senses, the seepage of magic and mystery back into the picture. The drawings are similarly alchemical, poetic investigations of belonging (or not) to the greater whole.

Christopher Reiger is an artist and writer currently living and working in New York City. He attended the College of William and Mary (B.A. Studio Arts, 1999) in Williamsburg, Virginia before moving north. Since graduating from the MFA program at the School of Visual Arts in 2002, he has participated in numerous exhibitions. His next solo exhibition will be in the fall of 2009. Additional work can be seen at and essays on art, ecology, natural history and theology can be read at