Peter Happel Christian

(American, b. 1977; resides Saint Cloud, MN)

Working at the juncture of photography, sculpture, performance, and collaboration, Peter Happel Christian imbues seemingly mundane environments and objects with a quality of transcendental reflection. He is interested in exploring social relationships with the natural world, with photography acting as a mediator of human cognition and perception. Happel Christian does not work in traditional photographic series, but rather produces collections of images that work together to extend photography beyond a flat surface and to question the line between representing and constructing reality. Throughout his work there is a sense of the familiar becoming strange and wondrous, or, in his words, “A loss of orientation renders the visible world as abstract.”

The Midwest Photographers Project holds selections from two bodies of work by Happel Christian. Ground Truth (2010-2011) garners its title from meteorology. In addition to using scientific instruments such as radar to gauge weather phenomena, meteorologists rely on eyewitness reports to confirm extreme weather events before issuing a warning. Happel Christian points to this interaction of scientific data and experiential observation as a “metaphor about human perceptions of and experiences in the natural world as well as the value of empiricism within the realm of representation.” The collection of disparate images in Ground Truth together question photography, both as an ostensibly objective scientific tool to record data and as a mediator of human perception, observation, and memory.

Black Holes and Blind Spots (2010-ongoing) is inspired by American Transcendentalism. Rather than escaping to a utopic wilderness refuge as one might expect, Happel Christian photographs residential suburban landscapes to explore whether it is possible to have spiritual experiences in such ordinary, modern surroundings. He then digitally alters the images with black spots. These spots work metaphorically for Happel Christian to pull the viewer into the images, like a black hole. The spots obstruct the viewer’s vision by concealing the focal points of the images. This strategy serves to constantly remind the viewer of the constructed nature of photography, rather than allowing the viewer to become absorbed in contemplation of the image. Similarly, just as photographs are representations of the world, suburban residential landscapes are constructed and tamed versions of nature.

Peter Happel Christian completed a BFA at the University of Iowa, Iowa City (1999), and an MFA at the University of Oregon, Eugene (2003). His work has been exhibited nationally, including a solo exhibition of Ground Truth in the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Galleries at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (2011). His work is in the permanent collections of the Tucson Museum of Art, AZ, and the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, AZ. Happel Christian is the recipient of several awards, including an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council for Interdisciplinary/Performance Art (2008) and a McKnight Artist Fellowship for Photographers from the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis, MN (2011-2012). Currently, Happel Christian is Assistant Professor of Studio Art in Integrated Media at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. He will be a visiting artist at the University of Oregon, Eugene, in fall 2012.