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Chris' approach and technique
You've been an artist for over forty years now and you've seen a great deal of change in the art world. What does your experience lead you to describe what an artist is?
The personal expression of art is the dreams and reality from the psyche of the artist and relation to personal autobiographical material and the world around us.
How do you define the difference between arts and crafts then? What is Art with a capital A?
There's a very fine line of demarcation between arts and crafts. Part of it has to do with historical content of the art. What survived through the ages were crafts, pots, sculptures and cave paintings. These objects found in archeological excavations become art. So art is what we actually elevate to an artform. When you talk about crafts or utilitarian objects, art is not utilitarian. It's not supposed to be utilitarian, but at many times it transcends utilitarian objects and turns into art objects in the way we perceive it.
Is there a distance then between art as decoration and art as meaning?
Definitely. There is a decorative art which steers us to one journey for its beauty but it doesn't have the intrinsic quality of substance which true art has.
So what makes great art then? What makes a piece of art a great work of art?
Only time can tell the great art because there are many artists we admire now--incredibly great artists--but in their time they were not considered great artists, so it's a subjective evaluation that you make. Time is one component. The act of art creation is important as well, whether the artist creates an object purely for "sale" or whether it is motivated by the inner passion of the artist. And there is the difference. When you consider the artist's creation as commercial, then accordingly, you pass much of the creativity out the window, it's no longer a piece of art. It's a purely commercial object and it could be created in a factory as well. It doesn't have to be done by a single artist.
So one thing that distinguishes great art is that it transcends commerciality and you can only see it over a long period of time.
That's correct. Art created solely for commercial purposes is not art in its immediacy.
Your personal history includes experience in industrial design, fabric design and textiles, and graphic design. You have formal training in design fundamentals as well as art. How come you became a painter?
I did not choose it. I think the art chose me. I was trying to do a lot of things done by commercial artists and fine artists. I was also trained as a teacher. I love to teach but art holds the reins with me. It's a compulsion.
What is it about painting that you enjoy so much then?
The greatest satisfaction is actually in creating and doing, and it really doesn't matter what happens afterwards. I did sculpture in college at Pratt Institute. I studied three dimensional design, but it was never really my strength. I like to create three dimensions on a flat surface. What fascinates me is the illusion of space.
Oils have proven stable through the ages and they never lose their luminosity, their tactility, their value. The enjoyment of working with oils doesn't compare to any other materials that I've used. I also do watercolors but not to the same extent as the oils. Oils are everlasting. When I use oils on paper, there is a specific quality which allows me to use layers of paint, one over the other, and there's immediacy to it which you don't have on canvas. For me, paper has many more possibilities than you have on canvas. It's not as limiting.
Force de la Mer Diptych, 1978
One of the interesting things about your work to me is that on a certain level your work is very finely detailed and intimate yet many pieces have a tremendous amount of strength at the same time. The Force de la Mer pieces where you can get up right next to it and it's this beautiful, close-up, intricate patterns and interplay of color and then stand back and be washed away with it's tremendous power. The Prometheus pieces as well. How do you account for that duality?
Prometheus II, 1989
It's very hard for me to account for the duality of it. I'm not conscious that I'm putting a lot of detail into it. When I work on a large canvas I use my entire body, my arms swing, I move everything. So that gives you the movement and the strength and then I do a quite a bit of calligraphy. You know, I love to do calligraphic writing and incised intaglio. I carve lines into the paint and I draw by carving out lines. I think that provides the extra detail that you are mentioning. I oftentimes use other objects like film. Then I underpaint and overpaint and juxtapose over the paint, so there is addition and subtraction--almost as if an etching was evolving. I apply layers of paint--I underpaint and overpaint and then incise into it. There is an element of surprise in it.
Throughout your artistic career you've had a great number of different series. Some come and go. Others recur. Where do these themes come from?
They usually begin with some sort of observing experience in my life either through travel, literature, or observing what is happening around me. This stimulates me and has an impact on my creativity. I begin with one or two pieces, and then explore further if I enjoy the series. When I reach a point when I'm not enjoying it anymore, there's no more to say, I stop. I do not like to repeat myself.
Do you have some favorite themes?
The voyager. I've returned to this theme several times in the Ancient Mariner series and the Voyager series,. My Apocalypse series is a recurring theme because of my war experiences, including a large number of pieces based on the Never Again theme.
The Ancient Mariner and the Voyager series have to do with travel around the world and space exploration. There is a universality to these sorts of exploration because they're not only physical explorations but also emotional and mental explorations. The Ancient Mariner, in a way, represents the historical aspects of exploration. The Voyager series has to do with the space probes and accepting the fact that we are just a small speck in the universe. We consider ourselves so important on Earth but we're really not a very important part of the greater universe.
Ancient Mariner I, 1980
Do you see, do you use your art as a form of exploration? Do you see yourself as an explorer and a voyager?
Yes, in a way I travel too. I get involved in my own work very much. I almost walk into it either with canvas or paper--I'm part of it. When I work, the rest of the world disappears and I'm not really consciously aware of what comes out of the studio. A part of me steps back and another part takes over. That duality is there all the time, but when I work, it shifts its balance. I forget about time, space, where I am, and who I am. It transcends, I would say, my regular, normal experiences. Oftentimes when I walk into the studio and nothing comes out, it's because I have not reached that point when I can leave the world outside and be able to concentrate and tap on my inner resources and strengths.
If one had to categorize your work, it most closely falls into "abstract expressionism." Why is that? What is it about that movement that communicates so much to you?
There is a good explanation to that question. I was growing up and being trained as an artist at the time in New York where abstract expressionist took over the art world. New York was then the center of the art world and the abstract expressionist painters were in the forefront. The professors that I studied under were the movers and shakers and innovating the notion of art through the abstract expressionist movement. It was a gestural type of movement based on pure creativity and color theories and it had very little to do, again, with a conscious effort the previous centuries were exploring in art. This was really the nexus of the twentieth century expression in art and this was one of the richest periods in artistic development. There are many movements that came out of impressionism. We had pointillism and that went into cubism, and from cubism it went into all the different -isms. I was therefore influenced by what surrounded me and how I was trained as an artist. Hans Hofmann, Josef Albers, Max Ernst, Jimmy Ernst, and James Brooks were my professors at Pratt Institute, and when I went to the galleries and museums, basically that's what was shown. So I'm very much a reflection of those times.
How has our abstract expression evolved since then?
All artists grow and develop--they evolve. I've become interested in so many other things beyond just pure forms and color and shape--especially in relation to the content. As my work has evolved, it has become more content-oriented where before it was just pure form and shape. Abstract expressionism became more meaningful to me to become some expression of my life. My work is based on everyday occurrences, readings, experiences, contacts with individuals, and traveling to different places. All of this has a great impact and forms me as an artist. I don't find myself sticking to one formula. In fact, I don't like doing formula-type art. When something becomes too well accepted, I really don't want to do it any more. It becomes too easy.
It seems that your work, in particular, and abstract expressionism as a movement evolved to become not just more content-oriented but that emotions have became more important as well.
That's true. And you find that the art world in itself also has gone through the same changes. We've moved away from the pure abstract expressionism into more content, more historical art, more descriptive art, and social commentary. We also have accepted other forms of art which we did not before, like photography. And then of course there is computer art which is still in an infant stage, and that's coming. Obviously, for the next millennium we're going to have different kinds of art forms and art evolving. Then you won't have the conflict between the machine and the computer versus the creative artist situation. There's going to be convergence. There's going to be a marriage between the two. That's just the way I perceive it. I also perceive that some of the invisible material which were not visible to a naked eye before, to an artist, now is visible. We can see into a cell. We can see into DNA structures. We can see with lasers. We can see into the stars and beyond the horizons, beyond the greater Universe. All of this has an impact on creativity.
Nucleotides I, 1984
Technology is the basis of many of your series--especially the DNA (or Bio) series, the DRAM series, etc.--but it also shows up in other ways throughout some of the other pieces as well. What was the genesis of the DNA series?
Well it really has to do with my daughter's profession. She studied molecular biology and genetics and she's now teaching genetics and immunology. Her work in the field and the possibilities of what is going on in the previously invisible parts of organisms captured my attention. Whereas before we could only think and conceptualize, now we can see. That stimulated me and I began using the materials which were then available to me from the laboratories of Stanford, Harvard, and the Institute de Pasteur. Actually, the scientists that provided me with the materials, in a way, challenged me to do something with these materials so I incorporated them right into my work and the DNA series began. In the DRAM series I was stimulated by a friend who was an engineer at Hewlett Packard and he brought a box of rejects (as he called them) of computer boards. I saw the similarities between the computer chips and the DNA autoradiograms. I could intuit some kind of link between the two sciences and, of course, they're now beginning to converge, the computer and biotech industries. As an artist I perceived a convergence many years ago and it was very exciting for me to see it happening now. We still don't know what will evolve from it.
DRAM III, 1989
You seem thoroughly optimistic about these technologies even though you have a couple of pieces like Pandora's Box which is more playful than pessimistic. You also seem very optimistic about the future...
Oh yes. I feel that humanity will survive and we will evolve into a better species due to technological advances and biotechnology. We need to protect our environment and to stop the wars and fighting--the self-destruction. We must appreciate what is really of greatest benefit to humanity: art, music, science, knowledge, literature, etc. Without the arts, without the technological advance to combine with our arts, and what passes on from generation to generation, I think we're doomed. If we leave everything to politicians and people with no vision and no creativity, the human race is not going to survive. But I am very optimistic that we will survive because of the creativity that I see in human beings.
Pandora's Box II 1984
Is this why you've chosen to live here in the San Francisco Bay Area where there is almost nothing but optimism about technology in the future?
Well, I have chosen to live here for the sake of the intellectual activity which is available here, the intellectual stimulation that we get from friends, and the overall ambiance of music, art, and thinking in the universities and companies. This is a very, very important place to be at this moment in time. I don't know how long it will last because knowledge of history makes me doubt that it will last forever--nothing is forever. Rome has disappeared, Athens has disappeared...
Florence is still there.
Florence is still there because where there is art, there is life. When you see what's really survived over centuries, what passes on, it's art and music. When we go to museums we face what has survived from societies through history and that's why say the utilitarian objects are being elevated to art forms. They're putting them on pedestals, and everything else (like money) is so transitory. Civilizations come and go but we do pass on from generation to generation the acquired humanity. This is the truth of humanity--what makes us different from the animal kingdom.
So are we passing on from generation to generation the appreciation of art and the perspective that art is important?
Well, I hope so but the problem is with art education. I'm involved now in volunteering as an art teacher. I go into the classrooms and spend time with young people from first grade on and do whatever I can. But there are not enough artists volunteering on a steady basis. You need art and music education in schools, which is lacking now. We're creating troubled human beings. We are training in technology, in math and science but creativity is a requirement for the visionary people who are responsible for the continuation of these endeavors. That's where I feel art and music have tremendous roles to play in educating our children and young people. And that's what is lacking at the moment. Hopefully, it will change.
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