Hospitals of the Spirit

Why the gentle grotesqueries in Chris Mars's paintings seem so human

Who'd have guessed folks living this close to Edina would be so friendly after dark? "I'm looking for Chris Mars," I explain to a goateed fellow who's conveniently stationed in his southwest Minneapolis front yard. "Painter? Medium height? Dark, curly hair? Has a wife named Sally? Used to be in the Replacements?" I add, hoping to jog his memory.

Fool that I am, I forgot to pack Mars's address before hopping on the wrong bus and nearly ending up in Richfield. Fortunately, this guy knows more than the one with the pickup truck standing on his lawn down the block. "Just head back that way," my more sage benefactor offers, pointing south. "It's a little red house; you'll see all his artwork through the window."

By the time I reach my destination--less than a minute later--Mars is in his front yard. Is nocturnal lawn-loitering that popular around here?, I wonder. "I saw somebody walk by," the sharp-eyed mind reader clarifies, "and realized that the lights in the front part of the house were off."

Dude wasn't kidding about the red part. The walls of the cozy living and dining rooms partake of sanguinity every bit as much as the bungalow's exterior--at least the visible slivers. Atelier Mars is packed to the smoke detectors with what appears to be a 13-year retrospective. The artist's early scratch-board, pen-and-ink, pastel, and acrylic grotesqueries vie for wall space with his more recent oils, the newest of which stand frame to frame on the floor around the area's perimeter. A guitar and amp tucked away in a corner provide the only hint of his former occupation.

Turns out the space isn't always quite so heavily adorned: "These are all between shows," the black-clad Mars offers, sweeping a hand around the room to indicate the floor models. "They just came back from the Erie Art Museum."

It's surprising that the venerable Pennsylvania institution's name didn't gain another "e" after three months with Mars. Each of the paintings surrounding us bears the image of one or more monstrous entities, often in somber shades of sepia or gray. The creatures rarely seem predatory; instead they're gentle, dignified, often frightened or defeated-looking. Many--particularly the ones of disembodied heads--appear helpless. Most of their visages have roots in humanity.

A quintet of heads dominates the foreground of a populous, medium-sized oil in a dark wooden frame: A sad-looking woman with a swollen eye sits atop what could be a deity's noggin. Another woman-head reclines in front of them; only her complexion indicates life. To her right, a similarly golden-faced entity stares transfixed by whatever lies before it, looking both terrified and crushed. Next to it are a dark, mysterious creature and what appears to be the ghost of a long-tormented child, mouth open wide in a prolonged scream.

The painter offers exegesis: "This is called Stewards of the Golden Blood. See the little guy on the bed?" he asks, pointing toward a wraithlike figure near the back of the painting wearing a tall, black, pointed cap. "He's been labeled a dunce by society. But his essence is so precious that all of these people attend to him."

Mars is all too familiar with societal labeling. He cites his older brother Bill, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia before the artist was out of grade school, as the inspiration for all of his creations.

"Society is very unforgiving to people who are different," he notes, "who can't conform to its rules and regulations. Many of them have beautiful minds and rich inner lives, but they're locked away and pumped so full of mind-flattening drugs that they can't really function in any capacity. They're demonized. I try to show that it's possible to be different and worthy of admiration and respect. I challenge people to look beyond these horrific exteriors and see the beauty inside."

His campaign has been enthusiastically received. In addition to the Erie facility, the self-taught artist's work has covered the white walls of Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum, the Weisman, the Janet Wallace Fine Art Center, and the Steensland Art Museum at St. Olaf College, as well as numerous galleries all over the country. Lowbrow bible Juxtapoz and its somewhat more erudite counterpart in the outsider art realm, Raw Vision, both covered Mars in 2003. Plus, he's making a living: Mars's paintings normally sell for anywhere from just under $1,000 for a small, simple piece to well into the five-figure realm.

"Several factors figure into pricing," he calculates as we stroll around the room, "cost of materials, the size of the painting, how much time I have invested in it. And if I really like a painting, I'm going to price it high, just because I don't want to give it up. That doesn't always work, though. I've attached prices of more than $30,000 to paintings and someone has turned around and bought them."

Local high rollers, as well as less affluent art lovers, will get a chance to eye the oils currently lining Mars's floor when "Severed Stream" opens at the Wyman Building's Kellie Rae Theiss Fine Art Gallery on October 8. Looking at his finely detailed, surreal images, rich in Renaissance-grade chiaroscuro, it's easy to understand why the painter spurns prints, toys, and the 21st-century art world's other secondary revenue-generating devices (although he would like to do a book). He's not interested in trivializing his work.

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