My girlfriend, Julia, and I saw Chris Mars last night in Edina at a book-signing/small exhibition he was doing for his new book Tolerance. Chris was a very cool and very nice guy.
Besides talking to Chris, the best thing was seeing his paintings in the flesh (so to speak). Photographs of his paintings don’t do them justice. There is a luminosity shining out through some of the figures in the paintings that makes them seem alive and more engagingly hopeful than their reproductions in the book.
A recurrent theme in the paintings is the idea of people being cast out from their natural homes and place in society and alienated from those still living within conventional society. And the outcasts are the victims of some of their fellow beings. There is a tension between two opposing groups in society. Those being abused and those doing the abusing. Those still living within the system and those who have left it voluntarily or have been forced out. But it’s not as simple as some people being good and some people being bad. There is a general darkness and malaise in the paintings showing that there are darker forces at work and perhaps the oppressors are simply pawns of these larger forces. The villains are simply those who didn’t have the moral strength to stand up to these larger forces.
The outcasts and misfits are quite often pictured living in the street while houses glow warmly in the background. While they might yearn for the comforts of their old homes, these outcasts haven’t forsaken their integrity, purity, and sympathy for fellow beings.
As for the oppressors in the paintings, you don’t know whether you should pity them, hate them, or both. On the one hand, there are larger forces at work, political and corporate, that make it easy and expedient for them to play the role of bullying martinets in service to the real powers at work. On the other hand, not everyone in the paintings has given in to these larger forces. Some of the people being bullied have no choice in the matter because of physical or mental illnesses or weaknesses that make it hard or impossible for them to resist. But others have the honesty and integrity to see through the lies and resist, while helping those who aren’t strong enough to fight back on their own.
The conventional attitude today seems to be that playing by the rules of large corporations (or morally corrupt political leaders), getting what you think is “yours”, and looking the other way when it’s convenient for your conscience to do so is the cool, smart thing to do. That’s what winners do. And you don’t want to end up on the wrong side of the winners/losers line. Chris Mars’ paintings show the ugly lie behind this attitude and way of living. The oppressors and the ones who look the other way are the truly ugly ones in the paintings. They might think they’re not the ugly ones (or, maybe, deep inside they have doubts), but they are.
But, as I said, there is something hopeful shining out of the paintings I saw last night in Edina that I don’t see quite so clearly in photographs of the same paintings (maybe I’m just not perceptive enough). I don’t know that there is reason for hope, but, even if there isn’t and things will always be more or less as they are now, I know which side I want to be on.
You should buy his book, and try to make an effort to see the paintings themselves. See Chris’s website for details on showings.