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Nancy Tousley

Chris Cran
Stride Gallery, Calgary, April 1 - 30, 1986

Vanguard, Vol. 15 #4, September 1986.
[ 1021 words ]


The most significant figure to emerge in Canadian realist painting in a long time has cast himself as an innocent abroad in Media Land.

Neither young nor middle-aged, he's a stocky, curly-haired man wearing a tacky straw fedora and a shiny black suit. As a character, he is bumptious and sometimes petty: a slightly sleazy fellow eager for experience, readily distracted and easily duped by illusion. He's an unremarkable and not altogether admirable guy, a punkish contemporary turn on the anti-hero, an Everyman for the 1980s.

The persona is that of Chris Cran, a Calgary painter whose seven paintings in this exhibition manifest a conceptual wholeness that is both bracing and convincing. What you see here is not what you get. Ambivalence reigns: his humour is both giddy and perverse, its underside unremittingly poignant. The way he uses images, either drawn directly from popular media or suggested indirectly by their psychological fallout, operates almost subliminally. He twists subliminal messages pervading the culture and shunts them back on themselves.

Cran dramatizes the everyday. The action of the paintings takes place in their shallow, artificially lit foregrounds, where it's played out as though in the spotlight of his fantasies. The protagonist is his self-portrait, which appears in each painting, commandeering the lead like a pushy actor or watching from the sidelines like a witness who doesn't want to get involved.

Cran's paintings are full of subtle twists and turns of formal and textual kinds. Leaning back, hands clasped behind his head, the rear-view self-portraits in Charts (1985) survey three drawings of disembodied facial features taped to a wall: one of noses, one of eyes, one of mouths. Instead of Cran's persona's face, we see a physiognomy of blunt, knotted fingers. He basks in the possibilities of a new self-image: we sense self-satisfaction in his lounging pose. At the same time, his balance appears precarious. His figure exerts so much pressure on the picture plane, he seems about to tumble backwards into the viewer's space. The almost monochromatic space he inhabits is painted richly in creamy hues: a halcyon and palpably physical idealization.

Cran's self-portraits look us full in the face only once. Most often, we see them from the back or from the side in glancing views. This creates the distance that allows us to spy on the peculiar actions underway. But like the illustrator employed to entice readers without giving away too much of the plot, Cran leaves his scenarios open-ended, to be completed by the viewer. This sometimes puts the viewer in an awkward spot.

In Self-Portrait Watching a Man About to Shoot Himself in the Foot (1985), we again see Cran's hated figure from behind, with his fingers stuck in his ears. He doesn't want to hear the shot, but he's willing to watch as the man, wearing a yellow billed cap, plaid shirt and jeans, aims at his own work-sock-clad foot with a hunting rifle. The sense of absolute stillness and waiting in Watching a Man often elicits nervous outbursts of laughter. The subject is absurd and morally ambiguous. The obvious question of 'Why would this man want to shoot himself?' is matched by 'Why would anyone want to watch?'

Cran doesn't shy away from making his persona a figure of double-edged fun. In Self-Portrait — Temptation of a Saint (1986), he clutches the arms of his living-room chair and gasps as a tarantula creeps towards James Bond's bare shoulder on the TV screen. The tempting illusions on the glowing tube hold him in a rapture: a Renaissance halo gleams in the half-light over his fedora.

Cran's most daring composition is Self-Portrait Just Two Maos Down from Some Guy with a Goddamned Tea Cozy on his Head (1985). This stage is set as an art gallery with a series of Andy Warhol's Mao portraits on the wall. The action takes place at the far edges of a long expanse. Cran, in front of a Mao portrait at the left, glares at the tea cozy-topped man, in front of a Mao portrait on the right, who has suddenly distracted his reverie simply by being there. In the art gallery, observing these men in an art gallery, our own reverie is interrupted as suddenly by the ridiculous character of the scene.

At the open centre of the painting, looking benignly through Cran's aggravated gaze, is a portrait of Chairman Mao: Cran's image of a Warhol image of a media icon. The triple play on Mao is an homage to Warhol's reduction of images to sheer essence. But Just Two Maos Down seems to question, as well, why the guy in the tea cosy should be any more ridiculous than Warhol's multiple, silk-screened images of the venerated Chairman.

Cran acts, directs and composes the settings of his work, not unlike several contemporary art photographers. He paints from photographs, as well as direct observation. But he achieves the telling character of forms by broad implication rather than the accumulated detail of the photo-realist. Ten years of painting portrait commissions, to earn his living, have honed his realist's skills. These he employs with more and more technical finesse, as a comparison between Self-Portrait with Large Audience — Trying to Remember what Carmelita Pope Looks Like (1984), the earliest painting in the show, and the latest, Self-Portrait as Max Beckmann (1986), clearly attests.

The body of this work gains complexities of meaning with each painting added to the Self-Portrait series. All of Cran's paintings pivot on looking and being looked at, on the desires stirred by images. Cran's persona can claim any image or person he fantasizes, take any experience he chooses. Yet his work suggests that if the world has become a global village, the effect on the individual has been to isolate him even more — in a cocoon of self-centered fantasy.


Vanguard, Vol. 15 #4, September 1986.

Text: © Nancy Tousley. All rights reserved.

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