An ‘Optical’ Chorus Headlines Chris Cran’s Newest Gallery Show

– Haniya Rae


Canadian artist Chris Cran has become known for challenging gallery viewer expectations. The New York Times has said that Cran “has built a career on tampering with people’s perceptions,” and declared that the artist fully realizes the power of painting. A new exhibition at Wilding Cran Gallery, “That’s An Excellent Question!” will showcase 31 new paintings by Cran, with each work playing on optical illusions, and as the exhibition’s title suggests, prompting contemplation. Cran considers these new paintings a continuation of his previous “Chorus Series,” named for the chorus in ancient Greek tragedies, a panel of actors who comment on the dramatic action of the play. Like those of the Greek chorus, Cran’s faces often display many moods, ranging from excitement to disdain to surprise, and are intended to be placed around other works, which in jest allows the paintings to “comment” on the exhibition itself, likening the exhibition to a theater. 

Many of these optically daring paintings of faces use oval or round canvases that are almost reminiscent of mirrors—or a nod to Renaissance tondo compositions. These works as well as rectangular canvases featuring still life imagery—a cluster of lemons, flowers in a vase—are realized through careful patterning that creates varied interpretations of the photographic image, resembling newspaper print images in some works and fuzzy television screens in others. 

Beige/Purple Woman (2014) features a woman’s face stretched to fit an elongated oval; she looks apprehensively to the side, as if she’s nervous about what will happen next. Beige/Brown Woman (2014) features another female face cropped closely within a circular canvas; she could be asleep, looking downwards, or deep in thought. When they’re isolated, these works leave viewers wondering; about the the unseen life going on outside of these cropped forms, and about the characters and stories that they encapsulate and conceal. Together though in the exhibition, the works are in visual conversation; hung on the gallery walls at varying heights they evoke the idea of floating putti or cherubs. Their stolen glances and startled reactions are correlate to one another, and the scattered still lifes and poster-like images—two faces are delighted to see the smiling faces of The Beatles. A feast for the eyes and the mind, the show is an immersive visual and contemplative experience, where the viewer seems to be caught in the crossfire; as the artist told the New York Times, “The eye loves to apprehend space, something that visually is not materially how it appears to be.

Via Artsy

Galleries West Reviews Candidates and Citizens

Chris Cran | Candidate #1

Chris Cran | Candidate #1

Galleries West
TrépanierBaer Gallery, Calgary
April 18 to May 18, 2013
By Dick Averns
When I first viewed Chris Cran’s paintings in a survey show at the Kelowna Art Gallery in 1998, something pricked my senses. It was not just his adroitness and competency working at large scale. More intriguing was how his portraiture both baffled and beguiled. In his latest solo show, Candidates and Citizens, these tenets still hold true. But what about the depth of his practice: what underpins the content? For instance, how does the incorporation of lens-based media fit with his oeuvre, and after 35 years in the field, what’s at stake?
Cran, who is based in Calgary, emphasizes that his work is not all about paint. At the outset of his career, he earned money by undertaking portrait commissions rendered from projected photographs of his subjects. Thus started a four-decade foray into representation and perception, a trajectory that has seen him progress through figuration, painterly twists on genres such as still life, landscapes, crowds and hand gestures, often in the service of abstraction; and, more recently, photography and collages that, although produced as digital editions, are rendered with painterly aplomb.
As with much of the earlier work, Candidates and Citizens is manifest with formal references to Pop Art: blocks of colour, a giant speech bubble and graphic illustrations fill the main gallery. But the work is far from illustration. Although many pieces are rendered in half-tone dots – a technique associated with photographic reproduction, but different than Lichtenstein’s use of Ben-Day dots – the images, whilst emblematic of fame or celebrity, have no discernable identities. The faces Cran depicts are appropriated from the everyday, and then re-articulated as both a collective and as a series of individual characters in conversation with one another, their gazes shifting around the room.
The significance of individuals is central: every self has value. In a world where there’s an unhealthy expectation for greatness, Cran elevates anonymous selves to some higher level whilst simultaneously suggesting that you don’t need to be an icon to be somebody. People may search his subjects, expecting an Andy Warhol Marilyn or a Marcus Harvey Myra, but instead the gallery is “populated” with folks like you and me. As Cran says: “It’s about a sense of play.”
The distance between art and audience is key. From afar, the 12-foot-wide The Candidate Sez presents a blurred-out face in soft contrast to the hard, black edges of a giant speech bubble and attendant portrait. But on nearing the picture plane, the composition begins to buzz, forms appearing as if edged by pinking shears. What’s left is the sense that there’s a conceptual concern with appearances behind the buzz of many candidates’ grandstanding.
A nod and a wink from the artist: Size matters, but so does substance.
The National Gallery of Canada has collected four of Cran’s works over the years. In 2012, it acquired five additional pieces on paper and, this year filled out its inventory with four more significant works, including some from previously collected series. The substance of Cran’s practice appears consolidated. With talk of another survey show, keep an eye out for what’s at stake: the role of public citizenry is key.

Chris Cran in the Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail
What One Artist Just Felt Like Doing One Day
May 9, 2009
by: Gary Michael Dault
I ask painter Chris Cran - whose shimmering, graphically delicate but exacting paintings deal with a myriad of subtle optical issues - if he thinks of himself as a visual satirist? I figure all that allusiveness in his pictures - to optical art, to pop art, to photography, to portraiture - pegs him not only as a virtuoso manipulator of genres, but as their gleeful analyst and demystifier.
He doesn’t deny it exactly, but points out, with a certain Cran-ish wryness, on the phone from his studio in Calgary, that “there’s the pleasure of them too.” For a painter whose work seems so elaborately planned and carefully worked up, it’s disarming to hear him stress that part of his practice “is simply asking myself what I feel like doing today.”

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The Toronto Star Reviews "Bright Spiral Standard"

Chris Cran | Awake | Oil and acrylic on canvas | 4' x 3' | 2009

Chris Cran | Awake | Oil and acrylic on canvas | 4' x 3' | 2009

Chris Cran's Bright Spiral Standard at Clint Roenisch
by Murray White
The first time I saw Chris Cran's work up close and personal was in, of all places, Owen Sound, at the Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery in 1999. Cran's touring retrospective, Surveying the Damage, 1977-1997, was orbiting the city of Toronto proper (the closest it got to downtown was at MOCCA, back when it was in North York), and the Thomson gallery was a curious fit -- or so it seemed: Cran's a painter, of course, but the closest thing to landscape I saw in that show was one of Cran's elaborately popist, cartoony self-portraits, in which the artist, decked out in trademark fedora and blazer, his face turned from view, wallowed in a waist-deep in a swamp, armed with a wooden rifle. Alongside him, a troop of Amazonian women wearing only ammo belts laid waste to an army advancing from a nearby village, shooting from the hip with their AK-47s.
He called it "Self-Portrait with Combat Nymphos of Saigon;" it was equal parts 70s-era Nick Fury comics and Russ Meyer movies (and no parts Group of 7), and as instructive an entry to Cran's oeuvre as any. Over a quarter century, Cran, a Calgarian, has been a veritable genre mixmaster, playfully mixing elements of pop art with some clever deconstuctions of the form itself.
For a show of new work at the Clint Roenisch Gallery, which opened last week, Cran offers some new twists on some old tricks. Amazons aside, the show features several portraits that would be familiar to anyone who knows his work: Rough, photographic-seeming portraits, often dot-matrix style, like a newsprint blow-up, tracked with bright vertical lines.
There's an obvious formal conceit here, of course, as Cran processes photography through painting, giving it an indistinctness alien to the notion of the form; at the same time, he's exploding painting's myth of perspective, offering it in the image, then taking it away again with the vertical bars that completely flatten perspective back down to the plane of the canvas. In true trickster form, Cran puts a fine point on it in Awake (2009), at right, skewing a crude line-drawn portrait overtop the traditional rendering; so withdrawn from the surface, it seems almost underwater.
Cran can be heady, questioning the very nature of the medium he's devoted his practice to; at his best, he's a polemicist, tackling the aesthetic debate about representation, and the Classical/Modern/Postmodern rifts all at once; but none of this would mean a thing if his work wasn't so darn engaging. Staring a Cran portrait in the face can be a dizzying, almost Escher-esque experience, as your brain tries to square the competing perspectives your eyes are delivering to it for processing. Cran presents a multi-layered practice in theory, but the fact he can put it all together, right in front of your bewildered and bemused eyes, is what makes him great.

The Calgary Herald Reviews "Diversions"

Chris Cran | Charts | Oil on canvas | 54.5" x  65.5" | 1985

Chris Cran | Charts | Oil on canvas | 54.5" x  65.5" | 1985

Nancy Tousley, art critic for The Calgary Herald, reviews Cran's solo show 'Diversions' at Trepanier Baer.

Chris Cran succeeds veering off course
New exhibit Diversions showcases painter's stunning new work
By Nancy Tousley, Calgary Herald
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Chris Cran: Diversions, a solo show at TrépanierBaer Gallery, 999 8th St. S. W., through
April 25
"It's all play," says the painter Chris Cran. A grasshopper among ants, he is always playing, experimenting, using his studio for R&D and, in his case, it pays to play. Diversions, his new show at TrépanierBaer, presents a body of new work in which Cran
opens up amazing space in the flatness of the painting surface to create ever more unexpected and elusive depths. The paintings fall into the series he calls "Abstracts," with a nod to a category of kitsch art, and one or two of them are among his best.
But while this solo show is full of new work, as one would expect, it also has the feel of a mini retrospective.
The exhibition contains four significant early works: Charts (1985), from the Self-Portrait Series; Four Portraits of the Artist by Andy Warhol #6 (1988), from a series within the Self-Portrait Series; Large Orange Laughing Woman (1991), from the Half-tone Series; and Alibi (1993), a diptych that Cran made just before his first show at TrépanierBaer, in which he switched from making representational painting to Abstracts.
Two other paintings, Island (2000) and Wall With Portrait & Curtain (2006), are from series in which Cran explored the framing device and painting genres. Another, So Many Canaries (2007), an all-yellow enamel painting on board with toy birds attached to the surface, reprises an idea he had while still a student at the Alberta College of Art, where the first Self-Portrait Paintings also was born.
The little history is satisfying to see. The exhibition might not hit every major phase of Cran's work, but it provides a terrific crash course in his preoccupations as a painter for more than 25 years. It is telling to see how well the paintings grouped in the front hall and first gallery hang together.
With their references to 1940s and '50s illustration (Charts and Alibi), mechanical reproduction (Large Orange Laughing Woman) and cartoony or pop art (Four Portraits of the Artist by Andy Warhol), the older paintings stake out a large portion of Cran's territory and its references. The new work in this gallery, a trio of Abstracts called X, Y and Z (2009), claim kin with their Pop-flavoured layers of neon graffiti, which force the eye to perform contortions to focus on the different levels of the composition.
The grouping foregrounds Cran's abiding interest in the fluidity of perception and images. In Charts, his persona is seen from behind studying sheets of drawings of eyes, noses and mouths, as if he were composing a face for himself from these features. This is a visual narrative about the fluidity of images. The other paintings work on the viewer's perception in a different way.
This is the magical effect that Cran brought to his painting in the 1990s and has continued to develop. It is no mean feat. In the interplay of light, surface and depth in a painting, something actually happens, a perceptual event occurs. Painting as a static, iconic image becomes unfixed. Painting might, in the end, be a commodity but for Cran is first and foremost an experience.
The Half-tone Painting of the large head comes into focus as an image and disintegrates into dots, depending on the viewer's distance from the painting. The Abstracts, X, Y and Z, and other new paintings in the show produce more complex perceptual events. These paintings change dramatically as you move past them or view them from different angles. Painted shapes flip from positive to negative and back again. Colour changes with changes in the available light.
X, Y and Z, which like the Large Orange Laughing Woman are covered with vertical stripes, are the most complex and elusive. As the surfaces of the paintings interact with light, the images--which Cran creates by dragging the brush through the light-reflecting paint to make waves, zigzags, half circles, horizontal bands, vertical scrapes--become mercurial, metaphysical even, and beautiful.
The rhetoric of painting, the ways in which painting persuades the eye, has long been the subject of Cran's work. The range of this excellent show tracks it from the realist illusion of representational painting, as in Charts, to painting in which process and the materials and tools of painting create illusion independent of representation. Their abstract images, which are in constant flux, are the result of the tracks of a brush, the traces of a process, and light, which represent nothing else at all.

FFWD Previews Laughter in The Dark Room

FFWD Weekly previews Cran's 'Camera Obscura Theater' at One Yellow Rabbit's High Performance Rodeo, January 4-30, 2005.

Laughter in the dark room
Artist Chris Cran plays with perception using The Camera Obscura
Chris Cran and guests
Presented as part of the High Performance Rodeo
Runs January 4 to 30
Centre Court (Epcor Centre)
A voice comes on over the speakers:
"Welcome ladies and gentlemen. No photographs please. Make sure all cell phones and beepers are turned off."
Inside Chris Cran’s camera obscura, it’s cramped and dark. The lights come up and a moving image appears on the screen. The small audience isn’t quite sure what’s happening, but they’re entranced by the image as music plays somewhere behind the invisible screen.
The Camera Obscura, which means "dark room," has fascinated artists and scientists alike for thousands of years. It is still a modern wonder for this audience.

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Chris Cran in Canadian Art Magazine

Canadian Art, Fall 2003
Essentials: Chris Cran: The Physics of Admiration
by Nancy Tousley
Chris Cran is one of those artists whose body of work, if you were not familiar with it, might look like it was created by a few different people. The painter switches styles to suit his needs. He thinks of the studio as a place to conduct R & D, works fast, with a tendency to work in series, and is a prolific painter. He has the hubris to be funny and to pursue beauty seriously, at the same time. The kick for him is in the idea. This, whatever it is, he knocks around, tries on, repeats, varies, changes and might after a while drop, only, perhaps, to pick it up again later on. Some of his brainstorms develop into full-blown series, others bring on intermittent showers, some produce thunderous, lightning speed one offs. Cran likes theatre: he dramatizes ideas, plays them out in as many ways as he can think of and always seems to have a backlog of things he wants to do. An inspired post-Pop painter, Cran has learned his licks (and stolen some)from Warhol, Lichtenstein and Richter. My Chris Cran - I say my because so much depends on who is doing the looking - is an artist whose greatest affinity is for Pop. He is irresistibly attracted to popular culture and kitsch, uses photography and its processes as a source and makes smart, intellectually fizzy paintings that play dumb. He sees the face of desire in the graphics on packages of ‘50s toys. And he can say, with a straight face and without weighting one more heavily than the other, that the two artists in the background of his “Self Portrait Paintings” are Caravaggio and Norman Rockwell.

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FFWD Reviews "Surveying the Damage"

FFWD Weekly reviews Cran's solo exhibition ' Surveying the Damage', a twenty year survey of Cran's work curated by Clint Roenisch.

Runs until June 3
Art Gallery of Calgary
Chris Cran is The Man.
The artist’s self-portrait series tries to define this ideal. One is reminded of this when looking at the billboard-like shiny enamel and oil painting, My Face in Your Home (1986), which was featured in a major solo exhibition at Calgary’s Stride Gallery that helped catapult him into fame. That was almost 15 years ago.
Now, this young, internationally known ACAD graduate (1979) and part-time instructor has his own 20-year retrospective curated by Clint Roenisch of Kelowna Art Gallery (appropriately located in the Okanagan where Cran was born and raised). The exhibit, Surveying the Damage, has been travelling across the country since 1998. This "art star" is also represented by two top galleries in Canada, Calgary’s TrépanierBaer and Toronto’s Sable-Castelli. And he has his own Web site at
Cran labels his three contrasting painting styles as self-portraits (1984-89), striped paintings (1989-93) and abstracts, which started in 1993. Each group of paintings appears to be radically different from the others, but they are all linked together by his underlying search for the perception of beauty.
"I try to make a painting as beautiful as possible," Cran says.
Beauty can be defined as a quality present that gives intense pleasure and deep satisfaction to the senses. Research on this understanding drives Cran to paint with a passion. Stimulated by "pictorial illusion," but more by why we are interested in something, Cran asks: "What holds that gaze? What are the mechanics of that holding?"
The earliest self-portraits are probably his most instantly engaging and easily read works. Self-portrait with the Combat Nymphos of Saigon (1985), a crudely painted war-and-sex scene from a 1963 mass media stag magazine, crams the artist into the corner as a nicely glossed, varnished suit-and-hat man holding a wooden gun. Cran’s unusual pairing of the codes of realism and cartoonism pose an enigma for the viewer. His nearly photo-realistic technique demonstrates the influence of John Hall, but the exaggerated, almost comic imagery recalls the pop art of Robert Liechtenstein.
Cran explains that it’s as if he’s standing on the outside "watching a film where I am so titillated that I’m holding a gun," thus putting himself into the picture – but with a toy wooden machine-gun? It is exactly this conundrum that gives Cran so much pleasure.
The artist’s next series of narrow, brightly coloured striped paintings are often subdued on blurred images from trivial spheres of culture, faces from the newspaper or kitschy still-life flower vases. Large Black and White Head #1 (1991) is a huge nine-foot by six-foot evenly striped painting that pushes the viewer back in an effort to find the picture within a picture, or to extract the explicable from the inexplicable. Instead, it exposes an incredibly banal face.
This early foray into the abstraction of realism furthered his research into sensory awareness. Challenging the modernist conventions of what a painting is for, he recycles imagery and pushes the threshold of the formation of meaning. These out-of-focus, trash-culture photographic-like images relate to Gerhard Richter’s experiments that contest the conventions of painting and photography by "blurring" the details into a question of what is precisely represented. This semiotic look at our sense of perception starts de-constructing the realism of popular culture to what we really experience. Are these striped paintings a travesty, or do they still fulfil Cran’s goal of being pleasurable? Or both?
In the last set of abstract paintings, it is increasingly obvious that Cran is more interested in objective retinal stimulation than the subjectivity of utopian dreams. The intense esthetic satisfaction of the senses manipulates the viewer into becoming physically involved as they move back and forth to find the facial image in Black Portrait (1993). This early painting in Cran’s abstracts references the portraits in his earlier work.
Continuing to delete any reference to his previous realism, the painter’s abstracts become more attuned to a real-life occurrence. Cran’s next works define the paint material in monochromatic continuous swoops that clarify his investigation into perception. Silver Painting #5 (1995) and Clear Painting #4 (1996) don’t make any pretence about being mirrored facsimiles of life. Instead they get straight to the point and draw the viewer into something remarkable and astonishing. These pieces are completely sensual, erasing the emotional or intellectual distractions of his earlier work. Where does the artist go from here?
The monochromatic Black and White Painting #4 (1995) is yet another step in Cran’s ongoing investigations to examine our sense of perception. Challenging the illusionary depth of a flat image, he theatrically plays with frames of illusionary space.
The up-to-date, latest inquiries into this research will be exhibited in the fall at TrépanierBaer in Calgary. If you want to know how this great artist got to here from there, be sure to revel in Surveying the Damage, now showing at The Art Gallery of Calgary.

Chris Cran in The New York Times

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.

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