Chris Cran's Humour, Rigour and Reverie

Chris Cran, Charts, 1985, from The Self-Portrait Series, oil on canvas, 137.8 x 167.6 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Purchased 2013. Photo: M.N. Hutchinson

I always like exploring new things, and wandering up a creek, and then finding something else and seeing where that might take me, because if I sit in one place, not much else happens.

— Chris Cran, interview with NGC Magazine, 2016

Over the past forty years, Chris Cran has wandered far and wide, following tributaries through Photorealism, Pop art, Op art and abstraction, making forays into self-portraiture, landscape, still-life and graphic arts. The Calgary-based artist is an explorer and an experimenter with a bold brush and a cheeky sense of humour.

Over a hundred of the artist’s large-scale paintings and drawings are now on view at the National Gallery, in the most comprehensive exhibition on Cran ever produced. Chris Cran, Sincerely Yours is organized by Josée Drouin-Brisebois, the Gallery’s Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, in collaboration with Catherine Crowston, Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA). The exhibition was presented to enthusiastic audiences in Edmonton last fall.

Sincerely Yours takes viewers on a journey through each of Cran’s major series, demonstrating how he experiments in varied media — painting, photography, mechanical reproduction, printmaking, ink drawing and digital media, to name but a few — and draws inspiration from art history, the graphic arts, and 1950s and 1960s advertising. “I’ve realized that my visual sense was formed by product and toy packaging when I was a kid in the 1950s,” he told art historian William Wood in an interview published in the exhibition catalogue. “I would go into the stores around Christmas and the graphics were so sensational and colourful.”

Central to Cran’s work is the role of the viewer. Perception, optical effects, the inability of humans to pay attention to more than one thing at a time, the illusion of real space in a painted surface — these are subjects of fascination for him. In an interview with NGC Magazine, Cran described the experience of seeing an image on a canvas. “I’m standing in front of a flat surface that’s got some coloured muck on it. How is it that I can gaze into the space of that painting as if I’m looking into real space? I think we’re hard-wired to be able to do that.”

Here are some of Chris Cran’s major series:

The Self-Portrait Series

Chris Cran, Family, 1987, from The Self-Portrait Series, oil on canvas, 165.5 x 274.4 cm. Collection of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, Edmonton

While still a student at the Alberta College of Art, and with six children to feed, Cran took a series of portrait commissions that helped him hone his skills as a realist painter. After graduating in 1979, he decided to further explore the possibilities of Photorealism. “I found it fascinating that realism was not well regarded at that time,” he recalls. “There was a drive towards abstraction and Pop.” To Cran, realism’s very lack of popularity made it more available to him as an artist. “It’s like thrift-store shopping: it’s not being used, so I can make use of it.”

In his resulting series of self-portraits, produced between 1984 and 1989, Cran depicts himself in often humorous situations: watching a man about to shoot himself in the foot; on stage accepting a cheque for the commission of a painting; holding a plywood rifle as he watches an all-female South Vietnamese combat unit; or — in one of his most comical scenes — posing with his children wearing elastics under their noses, as if members of the fictional cult The Followers of Nostrildamus.

 Stripe and Halftone Paintings

Chris Cran, Z, 1989, from Stripe Paintings, oil and acrylic on board, 60.9 x 121.9 cm. Private collection

In 1989, after a solo exhibition of his Self-Portrait Series at the Art Gallery of Windsor, Cran began experimenting with stripes on genre paintings, including still lifes and landscapes borrowed from art history. He describes the pleasure of working this way: “I wanted to try stencilling, which I’ve always loved doing, because when you pull the stencil off you immediately get an image, a finished painting. It’s like opening a Christmas present.”

In one of the earliest paintings in the series, Z (1989), Cran prepared his surface with stripes and placed a Z in the middle. He then painted the surface with a blurred black and white version of Francisco de Zubarán’s Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose (1633). Removing the masking tape created an optical illusion in which the blurred image appeared to recede to the background behind the stripes.

Soon, Cran began adding halftone imagery: those ink dots used in newspaper and magazine printing to create colour gradients. Again, he made use of still lifes and landscapes, but he also produced a series featuring close-cropped, floating heads reminiscent of 1950s ads.

The Halftone Paintings were a hit with audiences at the AGA, according to Catherine Crowston. “I think people were really taken by the optical illusions in those dot paintings,” she told NGC Magazine, “how at certain distances they became images that you could discern and understand, but when you moved close to them they became completely abstract.”

Abstract and Framing Device Paintings

Chris Cran, Entrance, 1999, from Framing Device Paintings, acrylic on canvas, 152.4 x 121.9 cm. Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton. Gift of the artist. Photo: M.N. Hutchinson

By 1993, Cran was ready to try something new. One day, he was painting a monochromatic work and noticed that, under the artificial light, his vertical brushstrokes appeared dark, while his horizontal brushstrokes appeared light. He turned this idea into a portrait based on a photographic negatives and positives, which led to a series of abstract paintings that similarly flipped from negative to positive. More than ever in his work, the engagement of the viewer is crucial to this series. “As you move around it,” he said over the phone, “the image changes because of the light on it. Therefore it signals to the viewer that they are actually part of the business. They are doing the work. They are a vital part of the whole thing.”

From the Abstract Paintings, Cran began improvising on a series that became the Framing Device Paintings, in which he applied layers of paint in a spontaneous way, forming rough frames around the edges. The middle areas became what he calls the “site of reverie” — the space where viewers can gaze out into the distance and let their thoughts drift.

Cran looks back to the 17th-century paintings of Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin as inspiration for the series. “What grabbed me about Poussin and Lorrain was the framing devices. They used a big tree on one side and a little tree on the other, and a kind of zigzag into the painting from the front. The same thing is used over and over again in landscape painting to this day. What it does is two things: it directs your attention to the centre of the painting, that site of reverie, and it stops your attention from drifting too close to the edge, where the illusion collapses.” 

Chris Cran, Large Orange Laughing Woman, 1991, from Halftone Paintings / Heads, oil and acrylic on canvas, 274 x 183 cm. Collection of Wade Felesky and Rebecca Morley. Photo: M.N. Hutchinson

For Catherine Crowston, the abstract works represent a point of intense distillation for Cran’s extended critical examination of traditions, genres and other issues of painting. “When you go through the whole body of work from beginning to end,” she says, “what Chris is consistently investigating is painting itself. He really investigates throughout his career the difference between abstraction and representation, and how we create meaning through images.”

Such intellectual rigour cohabits in Cran’s work with a lively wit. “Chris’s work, says Crowston, “always has embedded in it a sense of humour, a sense of play, which makes his work so enjoyable and approachable.” 

Visitors are sure to enjoy the humour, rigour and reverie embedded in Chris Cran, Sincerely Yours — an exhibition that showcases the virtuoso technique and insatiable curiosity of one of Canada’s most influential artists. 

Chris Cran, Sincerely Yours is on view in Galleries B102, 103, 104 and 108 at the National Gallery of Canada until September 5, 2016, and is organized by the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Alberta as part of the [email protected] exhibition series, with the generous collaboration of the Southern Alberta Art Gallery. The companion catalogue Chris Cran, Sincerely Yours is available from the NGC Bookstore.

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