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 www.vanitygallery.com/Cran.
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.