‘So, watch this,” Chris Cran says, indicating a monochrome silver staircase entrenched in a like-coloured painting. “Walk by it,” he commands.
As perspective shifts, so does the image: the chrome-coloured staircase inverts, its lights become darks and vice versa. The staircase’s alignment alters.
“It flips,” the Calgary-based artist grins. The smile proves perpetual, actually, as he walks through his Sincerely Yours retrospective. Co-organized by the Art Gallery of Alberta and the National Gallery in Ottawa, it runs through three decades and various eras of Cran’s work. The painter hasn’t seen some of the exhibit’s pieces in person since shortly after they were made; soon after that, they were snapped up into other collections and away from the artist.
There are works in Sincerely Yours similar to the staircase, offering similar moments of visual surprise—like watching an ink-black profile shift from photo negative to positive, depending on where you stand.
“The point of that [shift] is to alert viewers that their attention is the active component of the art,” Cran says, clad in a simple black T-shirt with a single piece of his art screened in its centre. But that idea of an active audience comes across in ways other than visual tricks in Sincerely Yours. Other pieces engage the mind differently, like “Self-Portrait Accepting A Cheque For The Commission Of This Painting,” a 1988 portrait of Cran, that shows him—well, as the title says, accepting the cheque for the commission of that very painting. There’s a series of self-portraits, with Cran in a dark suit and straw-coloured hat caught in various experiences, some relatable, some skewing more surreal.
Elsewhere hang his Chorus paintings, where pop-art style faces are scattered around the walls surrounding a central portrait—like cherubs in a Renaissance painting, he notes—offering a sense of discussion inherent in the placement. Even a room of abstract ink-work offers strange, compelling surprises in their more abstracted approach. Such are the playful, contrasting abilities of the Calgary artist, who teaches at the Alberta College of Art and Design these days: his work activates your thought processes without revealing an overt narrative to guide you along.
“I leave that to the observer,” he says. “The observer makes up the meaning, makes up the other half.”
Bruce McCulloch, of Kids in the Hall fame and more recently the show Young Drunk Punk, is also present in the gallery—later, he’ll interview Cran live for the exhibit’s official opening reception, and has written a piece for the show’s official catalogue. The two have been friends for 25 years, from their early years in the Calgary scene.
“You’d go out and see Chris there, larger than life,” McCulloch recalls. “Then I’d start to go out and see his shows. He lent some things to friends of mine who were doing records. And I started to go to his shows and realize that his stuff was so amazing, and so weird and kind of funny.
“There’s something quirky and interesting about it,” he continues. “For me, as a comedian, it has a comedic little tone to it, that I appreciate. But also, it’s lyrical and weird, which I also love.”
That lyrical weirdness hasn’t been universally hailed; Cran acknowledges that the “Self-Portrait With Combat Nymphos Of Saigon” he did—featuring a group of scantily clad women trading arms-fire with soldiers while Cran, stationed at their side, wields a wooden gun—proved particualrly contentious: one of his peers at ACAD stopped talking to him for a few years because of how she felt it represented women. Another woman thought it should be burned—but another put it on the cover of her art magazine, championing the piece. A fundamentalist priest told Cran he thought it was a religious work. All of those sentiments were in conflict or praise of particular viewer-decided message that Cran notes he didn’t intend to put into the work.
“It was a great lesson in readership, to me,” he reflects. “People will go straight to resolution. What’s the meaning? And they’ll do it fast, because they don’t like uncertainty. So I think it’s interesting, as a provocation to [ask]: Why don’t you like uncertainty?”
Until Sun, Jan 3
Chris Cran, Sincerely Yours
Works by Chris Cran
Art Gallery of Alberta