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a fine point on it in Awake (2009), at right, skewing a crude line-drawn portrait overtop the traditional rendering; so withdrawn from the surface, it seems almost underwater.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.

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.