Varyer + Christian Michael Filardo | Varyer
A grainy closeup of foliage and a tombstone that reads "DANCE."

Varyer +
Christian Michael Filardo

W

hile chatting with Christian Michael Filardo, a poster of Kurt Cobain silently looms on the wall behind the artist’s shoulder. The poster prominently displays Cobain’s years of birth and death: symbols not only of the limited time Cobain had in this life, but also of Filardo’s artistic practice and ways of seeing the world. Over our conversation, topics of death, beauty, ephemerality, and permanence fade into one another, the distinctions blurring.

Filardo is a thoughtful, positive conversationalist, eager to engage with a curveball or tangent. Despite the content, the conversation is far from heavy. It is clear that they embrace the light alongside the darkness, making effort to maintain a balance in their work.

Filardo is an artist, but wavers when it comes to labeling. Balking at terms like "street photographer" or "lens-based artist," they feel more comfortable with the idea of their photography as a performance. The body moving from one place to another and enacting an action, the resulting photo negative serving as documentation of the performance. It's hard not to see the poetry in this line of thinking . . . did we mention that Filardo is a poet, too?

"I think that walking—or the idea of the pilgrimage to make the performance or discover the image—it's this obsession with the archive that has become an obsession with how I live my life. You know, it's every day: if I don't go outside and walk around during the day, the practice is suffering. It's this kind of thing. I didn't do any of the work."

This emphasis on movement is echoed in Filardo’s path through life so far. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Filardo has called many places home: Barrington, Beijing, Manila, Phoenix, Sedona, Baltimore, Santa Fe, Richmond.They currently live in New York City.

When asked about the importance of place in their life and work, Filardo emphasizes how persistent movement is key to their act of creation: “Moving around is everything. I think my ideal situation would be to figure out how to fuckin’ have home based in New York and just not never be here,” they say with a laugh.

“I think because of the way I grew up and the subcultures or communities I found myself entrenched in, in a way, my place is my community, you know? And no matter where the location of my community is, I'm still in my community. I'm just changing a geographic context.”

A portrait photo of a masculine person in a lush park.

Photo by Berkley Kirsche.

That ever-changing movement plays a major role in Filardo’s work, but there’s an added layer of intentionality that creates Filardo’s uniquely vibe-y aesthetic: “I think, in a way, it's a very documentary style. But I'm trying to twist the fantasy a little bit,” they say.

If their artwork elicits a certain kind of feeling, their exhibitions amplify it, leaning further into the surreal and unusual aspects of their work. Filardo recounts how at all of their exhibitions, the mystery is amplified by shrouding the gallery space in fog. At a recent show, they introduced black lights to the gallery space. They talk about how these decisions are a way to not only reject the authority of the art world, but also to subvert what viewers of their work may expect. “I love to be the jester, you know? I'm like, ‘ha ha.’ I made all these beautiful things. And now, sorry, you're going to have to work.”

Discussing the presentation of their work, Filardo tells us about their exhibition in Minneapolis called The Backyard of Heaven. They describe a compelling scene: after death, a purgatory where no harm can befall you. Any decision, be it drugs or all-night rave or other form of hedonism, is free of risk—”nothing bad is going to happen.” For this presentation, Filardo created an aesthetic that they describe as “teenage rave club,” a la the indie sleaze resurgence.

“It's funny that the indie sleaze shit is becoming really relevant,” Filardo muses, “because for that show, I had etched the lyrics to ‘Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl’ into these peace stones that people have in their gardens. Those were on the ground.”

Park that car, drop that phone, sleep on the floor, dream about me. Park that car, drop that phone, sleep on the floor, dream about me.

A framed photo of flowers rests at the base of a tree trunk.
A display of various citrus resting on newspaper on the ground.
Dozens of red, white, and pink tulips.

The Hall of Mirrors, their new exhibition at Baba Yaga gallery in Hudson, NY, runs from July 8 to August 8. For this show, Filardo created a series of forty large flags bearing their photographs (all of the images in this piece are of works included in the show, save for their portrait). The walls will be painted olive green and the fog machines will still be present, creating a haze that Filardo associates with memory, fleeting youth, and the passage of time.

Their interest in the ready-to-print world of media and its interaction with capital is taken with a fantastical twist. The name comes from the French palace where the Treaty of Versailles was signed. “Of course, that hall is very gaudy and very steeped in fucking gold and gilded shit and chandelier flowers,” Filardo says, “And so there are a lot of images of that kind of shit in the show too.”

This opulent inspiration for their exhibition speaks to Filardo's interest in beauty—or, at least, the interest in beauty that is simply an unavoidable part of the human experience. They talk about how much of their work focuses on "obviously beautiful" things: flowers, animals, shiny objects, or pastoral landscapes.

But for Filardo, these visuals are often a way to reflect on deeper topics: mental health, drug use, and death often sneak into the work, dancing around the edges of these beautiful subjects.

Their DANCE Tombstone flag is a paramount example: a beautiful, cloudless day and a smattering of yellow flowers complement a monolithic tombstone. The emotional contrast is already potent, but the addition of “DANCE” emblazoned in all-caps on the stone is an additional twist. Printed onto a flag, another layer of softness is added as the rigid stone flows and undulates.

As part of our conversation with Filardo, the Varyer shop is hosting a limited run of the DANCE Tombstone flag. Filardo says they haven’t created an identity for the person the tombstone marks, but they have considered the ethics of the image. "That's the thing I like most about commodifying this,” Filardo says. “At first I was like, ‘Oh, it's weird. This is someone's family.’ And then I was thinking, ‘Well, it's in a Confederate cemetery, and I'm a first-generation American. Fuck them,’ you know?”

At one point in our conversation, Filardo brings up birding.

"Following the migration patterns of birds, and finding something that is theoretically and literally fleeting, especially with fitting in with this sort of fantastical, documentary, hypercontrast work. That's the direction I'm reaching for now."

They describe how some birders, much like themselves, head out to locate their photographic subjects and capture the birds through an image. But others opt instead for a pair of binoculars, only witnessing. This, for Filardo, gets to the heart of things: "Seeing the thing becomes enough. It's only for them—you can't take that away from them. Ideally, if I'm lucky, if the images are doing what I want them to do? Hopefully someone has that experience with them in some way."