:: Article

Lived in Bars, Dreamt in Paint

By Christiana Spens.

The Underground Cafe by Christiana Spens

Other than stocking up on whiskey, paracetamol, and pasta, the beginning of lockdown last year also triggered another panic-buy for me — paper and canvases. Terrified that all the art shops would close down (they did, of course), and their online responses would be lacklustre (it was not so bad, in the end), I bought art supplies with almost as much desperation as I bought painkillers. Just as I was preparing for an unknown, precarious new pain — this vague, shifting, horror-plague — I was also preparing for boredom, for angst, for everything I had already known in other moments of social and physical isolation. I knew the shopping list well enough, for in many ways, I had been here before.

When my father died, my instinct was to photograph all the flowers that were delivered, which I arranged and then rearranged, and which I had to throw away when they inevitably wilted. Later on, in some attempt to process that lingering, endless grief, I drew the flowers from those photographs. Still unsatisfied (still mourning), I then made silkscreen prints of them, pressing out copies of funeral arrangements in shades of mauve, red, green, indigo.

When my marriage ended, I started drawing again — this time my ex, and my baby, and then as the world opened up a little more, the friends I had barely seen in years, and empty chairs, and the absent corners of pubs. When other romances bloomed and fell apart, in the months after that, I started painting in oils. First an iguana, then faceless men, agonised figures, and claustrophobic rooms.

When lockdown began, I ended up painting some collection of them all. Perhaps everything I had ever drawn, at least in the past few years, had been preparing me for this, I realised over time. Loss, longing, the isolation of single motherhood; the precarious highs and lows of new love; taking refuge in random pubs and bars… These experiences had already given me my interiors, my figures, my palette of sulking melancholic desire for a world present and yet gone.

Goths and Guinness by Christiana Spens

The paintings of pubs and bars, which I will show in the exhibition, were actually started just before lockdown. I had been living in Dundee and then Glasgow with my son, aged three and then four, and my nights out were rare. And so, in my very many nights in, I ended up painting them, as I longed for them, whilst otherwise alone. When I started seeing a new man, he would visit me in Glasgow at weekends, because he lived at the other end of the country, and again, I’d spend my weekdays painting away his absence, nostalgic for what had not even really gone at all, not for any length of time anyway. I always knew, then, that he was coming back.

When lockdown began, and the pictures of old men on stretchers appeared in the news, I remembered my father, who had died of pneumonia, following a long battle with cancer, a few years before. I thought of all the friends I would not see for some indefinite period. I thought of the pubs and people I had sought refuge in, in times before. Paintings of pubs became the refuge more intensely, now; I finished the larger paintings, in those first early weeks, aware as I did so that they now represented, accidentally, a whole new kind of nostalgia. They were everything I lost and longed for, those I loved.

Now, a year on, my exhibition will go on, having been postponed twice last year due to social distancing regulations, the stop and start of lockdowns. As I put the artworks together, lay them out, try to choose some over others, I realise that in spite of the pubs reopening, they still represent, to me, a time, and sometimes people, that have gone now. I look at the most joyful ones and know those times have passed and it breaks my heart afresh. I don’t know whether the nostalgia has caused some inevitable sort of anti-climax, inherent in the act of nostalgia, and longing, itself. Or whether it is that they simply confirm that there is no going back, only a recovery that must begin everything afresh.

Perhaps nostalgia is always a way of escaping the present — a normal reaction to a time of crisis and confusion and loss — and persuading ourselves that the beauty of past memories can be recreated, re-experienced, repeated. A form of denial. But every time I repeat, I am distancing myself on some level, telling the story a little differently, remembering things a little differently, creating a fantasy that can never be as good as the past, and can create an impossible standard for the future, too.

I wonder sometimes if I miss the longing the most, but I don’t think that is quite right, or at least not the whole picture. I do miss it, though. I miss the yearning, the certainty that something so beautiful was just beyond my reach, was just a few days or weeks away. I miss the dream I fell into as I painted, which brought me closer, I thought, and perhaps still think, to the people, person, I love, or loved.

Lived in Bars, then, the exhibition I named after my favourite Cat Power song, has become this strange elegy, not only to the world, pre-pandemic, that is now long gone, but to the pandemic itself, and the strange longings and dreams and bizarrely created certainties I felt then — all the love that also defined that time. Now, as everything reopens, in a way that surprises me (though perhaps it should not), everything feels more precarious and fragile than ever. We are out of our cells, our tortured love, our lack of freedom, our state-mandated co-dependence and domesticity, lives that felt like decades in one year. But in many ways, I miss it, just as I miss thinking that a pint in a corner of a bar was an impossibly romantic thing, that real freedom could be found in a night out, more than it could be found in a night in. I miss knowing what I longed for, and in so many ways having exactly what I had always longed for. I miss thinking — knowing? — that I would always wake up to the same face, would, after all this, be in bars together with that same person, somehow repeat these scenes.

Repeatings by Christiana Spens

Couple in Mennies by Christiana Spens



Christiana Spens by Sophie Davidson

Christiana Spens is a writer and artist based in London. She is the author of several books, and regularly contributes to publications such as The Irish Times, Art Quarterly, Prospect, Studio International and Aeon+Psyche on art, books and politics. Her artwork has appeared in Dazed & Confused, Flux, Brenda, Vice, The New Criterion, The Dublin Review, and the NYRB Classics Series, and she has recently illustrated The Repeater Book of the Occult and Trauma: Writing About Art and Mental Health.

Christiana’s solo exhibition, Lived in Bars, opens on 17– 26 June 2021 at The Stash Gallery, Vout-O-Reenee’s, The Crypt, 30 Prescot St., London E1 8BB.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 3rd, 2021.