Taking the Polymath Test
Chris Cran and the Pleasures of Looking
By Robert Enright
Chris Cran, the Calgary-based artist, educator and arts advocate, is a picture-making polymath. There is no visual language he doesn’t understand well enough to mimic, transform, redirect and dismantle. At various points in his distinguished 35-year-long career (which is being recognized in May of 2016 with a retrospective at the National Gallery in Ottawa), he has performed all these functions. Cran has made art making, particularly painting, a pursuit coloured by his uniquely inventive and playful intelligence.
Cran first came to public attention with a virtuoso series of self-portraits begun in 1984 and which continued for another five years. Their combination of wit, art historical awareness and skilful rendering made them irresistible. His occupations are various; he joins combat nymphos in Vietnam, reflects on eye and nose charts, visits art galleries, watches television and reads famous books. In one self-portrait, he accepts a cheque for the commissioned painting we are looking at. The painting becomes a meta-presentation. In Double Self-Portrait – Wanting To Know What I’m Doing Home So Late, 1987, we see him as both penitent husband and interrogating wife; the latter holds an alarm clock in front of her like a weapon. Cran moves effortlessly from quotidian domesticity to artful appropriation. In Two Portraits Of The Artist By Andy Warhol, 1987, he masquerades as Warhol to paint himself in the serial style of Warholian ‘Pop.’
The humour in the self-portraits was decidedly self-reflexive. Cran created a persona whose good-natured ineptitude became a visual signature. (In Self-Portrait Practicing Signatures, 1989, it was an actual signature; we look over his shoulder and see him trying out four different styles of handwriting.) In 1985 he is seen from behind plugging his ears to avoid the aftermath of witnessing a man shooting himself in the foot; two years later he enacts the same gesture watching a huge mushroom cloud forming on the prairie horizon line. An identical pose draws our attention to what is funny and what is final; the subject of his self-portraiture is comfortably nonsensical and nuclear.
Cran’s subject matter has been consistently wide-ranging; the painting calledDiamonds and Hamburgers, 2005, accurately frames the possibilities. He paints humans and animals, sculptures and cartoon characters, halftones and whole forms, picture frames and muscled arms. He works through inherited pictorial genres, including portraiture, still life, landscape and abstraction, and he borrows unapologetically from artists he admires. That use can be direct (as in Warhol and Max Beckmann); or it can be tangential (as in Ed Ruscha and Gerhard Richter).
Cran’s practice is to take what he calls “those old, square ways of making pictures and try something new with them.”Boat Face, 1993, an oil and acrylic on canvas, shows a simple yellow-lined schematic of a sailboat drawn over the head of a man. The nine lines that make up the boat also form a face, registering a portrait in two modes. A dozen years later inBoat on Still Life, 2005, he places a black-lined, slightly more complicated schematic sailboat over an orange still life, which is already situated behind a screen of stripes. This boat has a pair of gulls above it, turning the boat into a childlike drawing of a smiling face. The painting is an exercise in layering: a simple child’s drawing over a still life interfered with by a screen of narrowly separated vertical lines becomes a physiognomy. In House Head, 2009, he will exercise yet another variation: the windows of the house are eyes, the door a mouth and nose.
Similarly, he will make seductive, large-brush abstractions inBlue Abstract, 1993, and then return to the idea and the sensuousness 12 years later in Pink Abstraction, or in hisUntitled Abstractions, 2005. His toggling back and forth in time invites us into what he has elsewhere characterized as “the delicious pleasure of noticing.”
While Cran encourages us to look, he rarely helps us in our perceptual gambit by letting us know exactly what is it we’re looking at. He is committed to what he calls “the simple principle of confusing the eyes.” Of course, he is aware that what we see shapes what we think, so while the principle might be simple, the effect is not. Yawner and Singer, 2004, offers a simple example of this intentional confusion. The painting is comprised of two identical circular panels in which a man wearing a hat is doing one of the two things identified in the title of the painting. Or he’s doing both. Cran creates a situation in which as viewers we are inescapably implicated in a playful epistemology of doubt. He relies on us to read the work. He regards a painting as a “mute apparatus,” the meaning of which is imminent but not declared. It is our role to decide what the work is saying. We give it voice; we make the apparatus speak.
Locating the best place to see that voice is one of the tasks Cran’s work sets for us. Because of the perceptual ambiguities embodied in his work, the devices of interference he employs and the scale of the larger works, we are obliged to move around the gallery in search of the location and perspective from which the paintings can be read. We keep asking ourselves, what are we looking at; what do our eyes tell us that our head questions? The answer is simply a question of the image coming into focus. For Chris Cran, “focus is equivalent to meaning.”
Chris Cran will have two major exhibitions in the fall: “Chris Cran” at the Art Gallery of Alberta, co-curated by Catherine Crowston and Josée Drouin-Brisebois of the National Gallery, from September 12, 2015 to January 3, 2016; and “Inherent Vice” at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, curated by Ryan Doherty, from September 26 to November 22, 2015.
The following interview was conducted by phone to the artist’s studio in Calgary in June of 2015.
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