Friday, October 12, 2012

Peeling Back the Layers: An Interview with Chris Mars

Self-taught artist Chris Mars seeks to create a voice for the voiceless; to offer love to the unloved and mercy to the condemned and banished through his work. With his highly developed technical craft, Mars conceptually challenges preconceived judgment; be it one of beauty, hideousness or the nature of truth.

Prior to gaining critical acclaim as a painter, Mars became internationally known in the music world as the drummer for the Replacements. He has added to these accomplishments with growing admirers in the filmmaking world for his animation and live-action shorts.  Mars’ oil paintings are in the permanent collections of many museum collections, and feature prominently in museum exhibits throughout North America. In 2011 a selection of his film shorts was screened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and his paintings were exhibited at Halle St. Pierre, Paris, France, where he will be returning in 2013. Mars lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Chris graciously answered some questions for us about his work and process, revealing the complex layers of thought, craft and expression that go into his creative outpourings.

Level 5 (2012) Oil on Panel 24 x 28"
"The collection at The Louvre is epic, but as an artist I was struck by the reality that so many pieces there were commissioned - created not exclusively in response to an artist’s vision or calling but rather in service to the elite, or the church.  Level 5 demonstrates my elated relief upon entering The Pompidou, Paris’s museum of contemporary art. "
  • What is your fine art background/education? 

I am a self-taught artist - no formal education.  I have been drawn to--and creating--art throughout my life, though.

  • What made you transition from a successful music career to this other form of creativity?

Before music, my primary means of creative expression was visual - drawing mostly.  As a child I loved to look at paintings and drawings in books, especially volume “P” of the World Book Encyclopedia - “P” for paintings.  As a little shit I actually won a couple of prizes from the local newspaper for my drawings of turkeys and football players.  I think the motivation to paint and express myself visually was more natural to me from the beginning, thus here I am.  

  • You have defined yourself as a “Social Expressionist” in terms of the genre/style of painting you do. Would you explain what this means (to you)?

I think of the formal definition of Expression as one’s inner feelings about oneself. I do express myself - my own feelings - but I also empathetically imagine how someone else might feel in certain situations. In this context, I often find myself imagining and expressing someone else’s feelings - in a social sense, but always along with my own feelings, inevitably.

P.O.G. (2010) Oil on Panel, 23 x 19"
"P.O.G. is a play on 'G.O.P.' that stands for 'Party of God.' The painting refers to the mixing of religion and politics; the co-opting of God/spirituality/morality, by the Right."
  • Your paintings are very evocative of “Art Brut,” which has roots in early 20th century art made in psychiatric/asylum settings. Were you conscious of this when you began to develop your own style? Has it been a conscious choice to bring elements of folk art/art brut into your work?

I don’t think I am particularly conscious of given styles or movements other than Expressionism and Surrealism in a general sense. Defining movements and approaches is something I imagine happens in school, which I did attend.  My approach is to paint in an unfiltered sense - to spontaneously listen to and converse with the medium, how I feel internally, and externally as it relates to the world at large.  I’d consider my style inherent - it’s not based on other work, or theories.  I paint the only way I am able to.  

  • Your work is deeply layered visually, materially and symbolically. It’s like peeling an onion. For instance, the faces/heads of many of your portraits--and sometimes individuals in larger groupings-- are often split into two with approximately 1/3 of the split an independent “being” that completes/makes whole the majority figure. What does this fracture represent to you?

In the examples of two of my paintings specifically, “The Expense of Incestuous Relations” and “The Vanity Card”, the split face depicts a duality of personality in the latter, and a duality in analogy of social/political schisms in the former. It is also an enjoyable exercise in a purely aesthetic sense to split up a single face and see what the results are.
Equilibrium (2011) Oil on Panel, 13 x 11"
  • There is a focus on the “grotesque” in your work. The subjects’ skin, hair, and/or bodies appear to be diseased or, on the surface, falling apart. The skin color of your subjects’ is either fish-belly white, blue, green, or yellow, colors that usually indicate death and decay. Why such emphasis on exterior decay? Is there a special significance to each of these colors? 

Color-wise, my particular way of mixing paint tends to lean toward the traditional (for the most part). I like to work with colors found in nature.  Along these lines, I have always enjoyed the aesthetic character and natural beauty of things in nature that are in various stages of transition - an old tree, rotting fruit, a turbulent sky, something changed by fire, stressed and wrinkled fabric, or leaf, chipped paint, rust. In a general way, I find beauty in the things that are a bit worn. At times these textures and sensibilities work their way into the flesh I paint as well.  

  • Distant cityscapes are huge components of many of your backgrounds. What does this represent?  Why do you paint towns and cities that have a medieval or fairytale aspect to them instead of modern cityscapes?

Also here, there is a certain attraction to the worn - in this case, old structures. Emotionally, there is at times a medieval aesthetic that carries the feel of a less enlightened time - when oppressive notions were more abundant.  These feelings are in concert with my theme of investigating social oppression today. Figures often stand at the outskirts of these cityscapes as renegades or outcasts, allowed to move through the edges of society, but not to stop or enter. Other times, there is a blighted feel to a neighborhood - houses, crooked and in disrepair, are analogous to a socially or physically war torn environment.   
    To Vanquish Dogma (2010) Oil on Panel, 20 x 24"
  • These land/cityscapes can easily been seen as dreamscape/nightmare type settings, an alternate universe. What is the intention there?

If there is a dreamy quality it has to do with my own expression of a place that is apart from the real world, a surrealistic world where certain safeties allow me to wrestle with these subjects in the context of escape.  

  • The surfaces of your paintings are very worked… there are lots of layers, lots of texture, lots of scratching and rubbing of paint. There is a feeling of decay but at the same time your brush strokes are meticulous. Can you talk about your process and the concept behind it? 

This comes from my tendency to juxtapose or add beauty and order to what some may consider otherwise tainted, or disordered - another extension of how things - people, groups, countries - are sometimes wrongly judged by initial surface attributes.   

The Attic (2011) Oil on Panel, 23 x 27"
"This is an ode to the mind and the workings of the imagination."

  • You paint pre-framed panels and sometimes the frame itself. Talk about the importance of the frame for you in your process and for the finished product.

For me, this lends an ability to see the complete composition as it unfolds, how it will fit with the frame - I started doing it this way, and it has become my usual method.

  • Do you use anything on your pieces aside from oil on panel? You have mentioned working with clay. The complexity of your surfaces suggest more is going on than just oil…

After a fair amount of trial and error, I arrived at a certain texture in the gesso.  The wash of the under painting is applied and rubbed. So for me, much of the flow and feel comes from building up on and over this base. Beyond this, it is a pretty straightforward approach to oil painting.  

  • It’s been said that you paint your subjects empathetically as a way to engage the viewer into the subject matter. I’ve noticed that for the most part, at least one of the subjects in your works will be making eye contact with the viewer. And that subject has these EYES that are huge and luminous and, for lack of a better word, HUMAN, in contrast to the often grotesque bodies and settings you put them in. Can you speak to why you use grotesqueries and also the importance of “human” eyes?

Grotesque is beauty.  Beauty is grotesque.  But eyes are the window, and I like to work them. I think of John Merrick, “The Elephant Man”, with his eyes that led to his inner self - one of kindness, patience, depth, and beauty that once known would transform anyone but a fool’s misconceptions about him based on his unusual physicality. 

VM-4: The Plea (2005) Oil on Panel, 26 x 15

"This painting is my reaction to the hypocrisy—and cruel idiocy—of those politically and religiously self-righteous fools who seek to proclaim this country theirs alone. Shame to those who crassly demonize a mother who lost her son in a war, their war, a war built around lies, a mother who bravely—and patriotically-became a voice for the growing number of other brave, patriotic souls concerned about the great cost of this foul war and the diminished health of all of our country."
  • Talk about the numbers, letters and symbols that are scattered throughout your paintings. For instance in “VM-4: The Plea” and in “The Vanity Card” in which the #3 is prominent?

VM-4 is for Victims of Myth, fourth in a series on war.  The 3 in Vanity Card represents 1 for the whole figure, 2 and 3 for the figures that have split off from 1. Letters and numbers at times have direct meaning, as in a figure wearing a number to depict, for example, a “cog” status. Other times I use them merely for aesthetic purposes.   

  • Is there anything you would like to add?

Just that I enjoyed these questions and I appreciate your time and interest in my work! Thank you.