Perception and Progression: The Art of Chris Cran


Chris Cran, My Face in Your Home (1986), oil and enamel on plywood, 97 x 249 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo © NGC

Over his 40-year career, Chris Cran has been nothing if not adventurous. In addition to experimenting with various genres of painting, he has also worked in a wide range of media, often juxtaposing his borrowings from art history with popular images from pulp magazines, cartoons, advertising and ephemera.

Cran’s recent work and his unique artistic progression are explored in a new exhibition, organized by the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Alberta as part of the NGC@AGA exhibition series. “From time to time, I would just change direction in my work,” said Cran in an interview with NGC Magazine. “All of a sudden, I’d be ready to do something new. I want to be able to see the trajectory of my work — whatever it is — and understand what it is that I am doing. I expect the exhibition to be somewhat revealing to myself as well.”

Cran was born in British Columbia in 1949, and studied at the Kootenay School of Art and the Alberta College of Art and Design. For 40 years, he has produced art that challenges common understandings of popular artistic styles — such as Modernism, Photo-Realism, Pop-Art and Abstraction — and engages viewers through works that toy with perception and imagination. In 2014, Cran won the Doug and Lois Mitchell Outstanding Calgary Artist Award.


Chris Cran, Large Green Laughing Man (1990), oil and acrylic on canvas, 274.2 x 183 x 7.7 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Gift of the artist, Calgary, 1995. Photo © NGC

Co-curated by the NGC’s Josée Drouin-Brisebois and the AGA’s Catherine Crowston, CHRIS CRAN, Sincerely Yours explores a range of art from various periods in Cran’s career. “Even though the bodies of work seem remarkably different, Chris’ concerns have stayed constant,” Crowston told NGC Magazine. “He has always been interested in the issues that painting brings forward, such as the relationship between abstraction and representation, and the concept of flatness versus the illusions of space and depth.”

“It’s about continuity and evolution,” added Drouin-Brisebois. “Chris has always been really interested in engaging with viewers and challenging how they experience works of art. He loves to experiment — he loves to push what ‘painting’ is and consider the boundaries of what it can do.”

The NGC@ partnership program allows institutions that include the AGA, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Toronto to host exhibitions featuring works from Canada’s national collection. In addition to works from other collections, CHRIS CRAN, Sincerely Yours features 13 prints, paintings, and drawings from the NGC, including the recently acquired After the Flood #1-9 (2013), depicting distorted photographs damaged by a 2005 flood in Calgary.  

Although the works in the exhibition differ dramatically, they all reveal Cran’s interest in promoting meaning through his art. “I’m really interested in our inclination to form meaning, and the patterns that apply to those immediate formations,” he says. “We’re meaning-making machines, and we do it at the drop of a hat.”

Chris Cran, from the series After the Flood #1-9 (2013), ink jet prints, installation dimensions variable. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

One of Cran’s favourite works, Disputed Sculpture (2006), is also on view. “I never had the opportunity to spend much time with it, because it was made and then sold,” he says. “Standing in front of it again was satisfying in all sorts of different ways.”

When asked to explain why the work is one of his favourites, Cran was at a loss for words — expressing instead his thoughts on the magnificent ability of art to spark a powerful emotional response. “Some of my favourite experiences of art have been inexplicable,” says Cran. “I often wonder how a grid of lines and a bit of colour in an Agnes Martin painting can produce such an emotional response that no words are involved, because words can’t even get there. To me, that response of pure feeling is the most intelligent response this nervous system can have. I look for that kind of experience more and more, and I feel very lucky when I come across it.”

As for what’s next, Cran hopes to continue his evolution as an artist. “I’m looking forward to getting back into my studio and just making more work, which is one of the great pleasures of my life,” he says. “I never know what’s next, but I think that’s the fun part.”

CHRIS CRAN, Sincerely Yours  is on view at the Art Gallery of Alberta until January 3, 2016. When the exhibition opens at the National Gallery of Canada in 2016, it will be combined with a second exhibition of Cran’s work currently on view at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery.

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