Out of sublimely beautiful grotesque forms come super-clean rainbows, stars and hearts, reminiscent of Lucky Charms cereal and My Little Pony toys. In this new exhibit of Christian van Minnen’s work entitled “Rainbow Blight”, which opened at Bert Green Fine Arts on Wednesday, May 12th, he seems to have transported himself deeper into the Pop Surreal while staying firmly put in the Neo-Grotesque.
I’m not used to seeing imagery reminiscent of children’s toys (design remnants of 70s culture) in van Minnen’s work. His usual style is seemingly derivative of emotive oil paintings from our history’s master painters (Arcimboldo, to name one out of many). These aspects of his work still preside, but have been newly punctuated with a very modern twist.
If you’re on the west coast and can see this show, Bert Green Fine Arts is located at 102 West 5th Street in Los Angeles. The show will run until June 26.
I had the chance to talk with van Minnen about his work, past and present, as well as ask him about his recent sabbatical in Mexico City:
Samantha Levin: These new works you’ve created have some surprising elements to them – things I’m not used to seeing often in your work, the Mickey Mouse hat in Abstract Figurative Series 2.3 being the only exception I know of. These new elements (stars, rainbows, hearts, etc.) are much more Pop Surreal than your earlier work, and contrast wildly with your usual nod to master oil paintings of eras past. What inspired this new direction?
Christian Rex van Minnen: That’s funny you mentioned my little pony and lucky charms; early 80s cartoons and advertising campaigns like these (I would also add care bears, rainbow bright, maybe he-man) are certainly a part of the headwaters of inspiration for this latest evolution, I think. Before leaving for mexico city and during my three months there i began scrapbooking these elements from litter and used newsweek, teen magazines, etc. These graphic elements, representing Abstractions of natural phenomenon, and hybridization of those natural phenomenon with human virtues, values, notions of divinity, etc, began to appeal to me as forms and ambiguous objects. Those things (shooting rainbows, stars, hearts, etc) are a certain kind of form, at once organic and ‘real’ and also capable of transcending their iterations throughout recent pop-cultural history. In my previous works it was through the chimerical juxtaposition of flora and fauna, representational or preternatural, that seemed to carve out that space to allow a certain tension and harmony between beauty and horror to exist. In thinking about that polarity, I began to think of expanding the scope of form and concept to include other elements from our 21st century lives. These graphic abstractions, usually overlooked or seen as a supporting cast for the product or message, when removed from their original context can provide a parallax view of the commonly understood pairs of opposites: beauty/horror, light/dark, love/hate, joy/fear, abstract/figurative. Black and white becomes more of an ambivalent Seussian gray goo.
SL: As a person who watched too many Saturday morning cartoons back in the 80s, I have to correct your spelling of Rainbow Brite (I make no apologies to anyone who clicks that link). Not sure why their wise marketing teams decided to spell it wrong, but it certainly stuck in my confused head all these years. But, yes, these new elements bring up almost a synesthetic response in me that tastes and smells of chewy candy, feels like smooth plastic and probably sounds a bit like the Brady Bunch theme song. Juxtaposed against your more lush and grotesque imagery, I experience a strong parallax shift and my visual language is altered. This is one of the things I enjoy most about visual art.
CvM: Oh, ‘brite’, good to know, sort of. In what circumstance would you use ‘nite’ or ‘lite’? Yeah, it reminds me of the smell of new toys, cigarette smoke and cat piss.
SL: Glad to provide some enlightenment to your day. In an earlier interview that you did with My Love For You is a Stampede of Horses you said this about the symbolism in your work, “i have started to be more open to mixing representational images into compositions that are also inhabited by forms derived from abstraction. it makes the believability of the latter more accessible. … i am not being didactic in painting; there is no symbolism here.” It’s hard to think that this is still the case with Rainbow Blight. Perhaps it’s the title of the exhibition that’s steering my perception this way. Can you tell me a little more about your stream of consciousness style and how it worked with these new paintings? What has changed or grown?
CvM: Interesting question. I would still say that I am not utilizing symbolism. Ideally, the essence of these forms transcends any symbolic reading into them. That’s certainly true of the flora and fauna. Because the context of the advertisement that utilizes the stars and hearts and rainbows sort fills these ambiguous forms with meaning (for example flat butterflies and stars and flowers in a feminine hygiene ad gives those forms a certain aire of cleanliness, innocence and purity) an interesting thing occurs when they are born into something more ambiguous and horrible. The term ‘rainbow blight’ is something I thought of to describe the new works, not necessarily to define them. To anyone raised in 1980s visual culture, the play on “rainbow bright” is obvious. You bring up interesting questions though that I haven’t considered until now: are these stars, hearts, rainbows symbols or icons? Their meaning is ambiguous and transitory within the context of advertisement or entertainment but their essential meaning is more iconic, transcendent, abstract and perhaps suggestive of divinity within us and outside of us. Just throw a rainbow of that sausage, see what happens. Curious little things.
SL: While your paintings aren’t intended to make statements, do stories or ideas come to mind as the imagery evolves?
CvM: Sure, but only post-rationally, like coming up with a title. I get certain feelings, or I should say I will follow a certain feeling, usually an uncomfortable one. It’s kind of gross, and beautiful. The only message I can conclusively put out there is this notion of oneness of beauty and horror. Accepting this, I believe, gives one a certain grace in life. Not saying I’m enlightened or anything, but I do recognize it as an essential truth.
SL: I’ve been using the term Neo-Grotesque frequently lately to describe the work of several artists including you, Dan Ouellette, Scott Holloway, Carrie Ann Baade and Kris Kuksi amongst others. How do you feel about this term? Is it too limiting or could it be helpful?
CvM: I’ve thought about that a lot since we began using the term. It definitely can be limiting owing to the fact that the definition of the term can be fuzzy and calcified, like a tooth collecting flocking under a couch. The first ‘grotesque’ artwork done in early roman ‘grottos’ was decorative and chimerical and i don’t think they would’ve used the term to describe their artworks, so not sure about the “neo” part either. If one understands grotesque as a synonymous with ‘chimerical’, then I would say that it’s an accurate description of my work. The problem with most contemporary usage of the term grotesque is that we link it with ‘disgusting’ or ‘gross.’ This happens to be very revealing about our contemporary notion of what is beautiful. While ‘chimerical’ is a more objective and descriptive term, grotesque in it’s subjectivity and history helps to understand the conceptual aspect of my works. Anyway, sure, call it neo grotesque.
SL: The scrapbooking you mentioned earlier – is that purely used as reference material or is there a bit of art-making going on there as well?
CvM: Not really an art object but I like to show it around. I will definitely keep doing it, but I will have my wife buy me the teen girl mags so I don’t get arrested or something.
SL: Tell me about this long trip you and your wife made to Mexico City recently. I’ve heard that it is both an inspiring and dangerous place. What initially brought you there and what did you find during your stay?
CvM: We were in Mexico City for a little more than three months. I’ve known and worked with mexico city based artist Rodrigo Cifuentes for a while and he helped me to find a studio there, as well as showing me around the city, introducing me to a great group of artists there, and sharing his favorite al pastor tortas place with me. We lived in Coyoacan, a small little ‘colonia’ engulfed in the insanity that is Mexico city. My studio was also in coyoacan, not to far from Frida Kahlo‘s blue house and Trotskys house. It was on the fifth floor across the street from an overpass and would actually sway, not shake, but sway, making detail work an interesting challenge. The visual environment can be overwhelming there, but fertile nonetheless. It seemed that the graphic design culture was a bit more elemental and colorful and this just set me off. It was perfect, serendipitous timing for the evolution of my work. It’s definitely still with me.
SL: The trip sounds wonderful – an experience that every artist should have. I am a huge fan of Cifuentes’ work and am not surprised that you know him. His paintings are phenomenal – I hope to get the chance to see them in person some day. Did you do any kind of collaborative work or are you more comfortable with working on your own?
CvM: I am ok with collaboration if it works. I am doing some collaboration with My friend Ray Young Chu right now. We work really well together and laugh a lot which is rare.
SL: Thank you very much for the interview, Christian! I wish I could be out on the west coast to see your work up close!! Good luck with the exhibit.