Hospitals of the Spirit

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

Many so-called primitive societies--Siberia's indigenous peoples and the Bonpo culture that preceded the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet, to name but two--have treated the onset of schizophrenia as the first sign of shamanic initiation. To them, the ego loss and perception of profound meaning in even the most trivial utterances (neither of which should be altogether unfamiliar to anyone who's ever done acid or mushrooms) that accompany the illness are signs of the ability to walk among worlds.

America's chemical-intensive treatment modalities (have you had your Prozac today?) make effective shamanic soul travel an unlikely proposition for Bill Mars, but they sure as hell can't stop his non-schizophrenic empath brother. Chris Mars's paintings are windows into a "hospital of the spirit," whose dignified denizens often have the look of those who have endured great and prolonged suffering. Often, that suffering continues--sometimes at the hands of the medical profession.

"This one is called The Curse of the Head Medicine," Mars reveals, pointing out another mid-sized model portraying a monster doctor surrounded by his victims, beakers and flasks on a table before him. "This is my first stab at something a little more overtly political; I'm trying to illustrate the evils of overmedication. Notice how the bad guy is more normal looking? And the Red Cross armbands? That's a little stab at Eli Lilly."

Detail from 'Head Medicine' by Chris Mars
Detail from 'Head Medicine' by Chris Mars

"Sometimes I think about going all-out political," the painter, who has strong convictions (he's a Kerry man, among other things), elucidates. "But I don't want to sacrifice the broader intent of my work, to encourage people to understand, and even embrace, the Other."

Works for, or rather on, me. In the past hour, I've seen enough monster flesh to cover Hollywood for half a decade. You'd think I'd be feeling either fearful or jaded. Instead, if something should go bump in the night after I venture outside, first thing I'm gonna do is hug it. Christ, no wonder the neighbors are so friendly.

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