ARTS ABROAD; Mixing Up Perceptions, on Canvas and Off, in Calgary
By Kathryn Shattuck
Published: July 07, 1999
Off the canvas, Chris Cran can be as elusive as one of his paintings. Certainly he exhibits all the trappings of an art world denizen: black jeans, black boots, black leather jacket. The tousled curls framing a crop of serious features. The charm. The attitude.
But like the work for which this Canadian painter is known, first impressions of him are just the beginning. If you shift your focus, characteristics begin to morph into something quite different, even disconcerting. A slice of color peeks out from behind his collar. His eyes, once professorial, now dart and dance as he seduces his audience with a huckster's grin. The hipster is betrayed by an Old World courtesy, the bad boy by a heart of gold.
It's the power of illusion, says the artist, who has built a career on tampering with people's perceptions. Which is what painting is all about.
It has been a busy year for Mr. Cran. Since January, the 49-year-old painter has built a new studio in Calgary, had a one-man show of new works and witnessed the opening of a retrospective, ''Chris Cran: Surveying the Damage, 1977-97.'' After passing through some of Canada's smaller cities, the exhibition settles down tomorrow for a three-month stay at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto.
''It's just circumstances,'' Mr. Cran said, as if to deny any hand he might have had in the good fortune. ''My obligations are done for my show, I don't have to do anything in particular. I just go into the studio and the paintings just sort of happen. It's very odd.''
It would be easy for him to just kick back and bask in the glory. But he doesn't, despite the critical acclaim. The Globe and Mail called him ''a superb contemporary abstractionist . . . a big, irrepressibly curious painter, and an utter un-Romantic'' in ''the big art-historical line of descent from Picasso to Jasper Johns.'' Mr. Cran is a westerner, and to gain the full-blown commercial success that has eluded him, he needs to break through the barrier that is the east, in Toronto, Montreal and even New York, before the gods of fame and fortune make their peace. He is loath to admit such yearnings, a posture that is a little puzzling since the paintings that catapulted him to national recognition are self-portraits depicting him as a bumptious media hound. In short, they were about nothing if not the desire to be famous.
Mr. Cran says he has chosen not to promote himself aggressively and has stubbornly remained in the west, closer to his roots, where life is a little easier and rents a little lower. He paints in a converted firehouse, holds court in coffee shops and socializes with nationally respected artists who also prefer to live off the beaten path. His only foray into New York was a group show in 1992 at the 49th Parallel, a gallery, now defunct, that was owned by his Toronto dealer, Jared Sable.
But in his own stealthy way, Mr. Cran isn't sitting still. He followed the retrospective as it traveled east from the Kelowna Art Gallery in British Columbia, near his childhood home, Salmon Arm, to locales as inhospitable as Saskatoon, where the night air blasted at a mind-numbing 40 below.
''Chris is the most important painter in Canada in his generation,'' said his friend Christian Eckart, a painter and former Calgarian who made a name for himself in New York. ''Chris is the quality of artist, and has the quality of the project behind him, that is picked up and pushed out to an international level. But that doesn't happen to an artist in western Canada.''
Speaking of the German Pop artist to whom Mr. Cran is often compared, Mr. Eckart continued: ''In a sense he's a figure like Gerhard Richter. Richter was a national hero for the first decade of his career, a European hero for the second decade, and for the third decade an American hero. It was kind of hanging around long enough that made it happen.''
Diana Nemiroff, curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, which has three of his paintings, agreed. ''Those people who know him really respect his work,'' she said. ''He's quite rigorous, very alive, very vital, not an academic artist at all. But Canada is very compartmentalized. The scene is very small, very isolated. It's just the regionalism of the country. It doesn't mean they're not terrific.''
If Richter's time line is a valid indicator, then Mr. Cran is nearly there. The retrospective begins with paintings created before he graduated from Alberta College of Art in 1979, after which he read electric meters to support a wife and six children. It progresses through the self-portraits that brought him success in 1984 after his marriage ended; the startling shift to stripe and dot paintings in 1989, and the turn to abstraction in 1993.
''The major thing that ties all his work together is the collapsing of photography and painting into each other and seeing what happens,'' said Nancy Tousley, art critic for The Calgary Herald, who has followed Mr. Cran's career since college. ''The studio is a bit like a lab for him. He is always kind of experimenting.''
At the core of this experimentation is Mr. Cran's fascination with framing devices and the need for the human eye to create something -- anything -- where nothing discernible exists.
''The eye loves to apprehend space,'' he said, ''something that visually is not materially how it appears to be.''
Early on he experimented with Photo Realism, first with self-portraits, then by blowing up photographs of familiar images like hand gestures and painting them with dots so that they looked like outsized, grainy newspaper halftones. Solid and bold at first glance, they dissolve into abstraction as the viewer moves away. Ditto for the line paintings, which are static when the viewer stares at them head on but become three-dimensional as soon as the eyes look left and right.
Later he transformed nothing more than dark backgrounds, clear gel and broad brush movements into reflections of pure light. The works, mercurial and industrial, brought to mind the perfectly coiffed and lacquered hair of a beautiful woman.
''They were like magic, a very subtle and elusive thing,'' Ms. Tousley said.
These days, Mr. Cran has again turned in another direction. His latest works, first displayed in January at the Trepanier Baer Gallery in Calgary, piled up portraiture, still life and landscape, often in the same painting. These new paintings were ''poignant and poetic, a kind of visual synesthesia'' along the lines of ''a Dylan Thomas poem,'' Ms. Tousley said. The National Gallery, hearing the good news, sent curators to Calgary to investigate.
''I'm just in the ideal situation,'' Mr. Cran said. ''No painter's block, my time is my own. And it's rolling. That's when it gets fun.''