Friday, October 26, 2007

Art Space Talk: Christian Rex van Minnen

I discovered the art of Christian Rex van Minnen while browsing the Featured Artist section on In Christian's work aspects of alchemy and automatism are linked together in the cognitive creative process. As he has stated, intention becomes line, line becomes shape, shape becomes form, and form becomes content. In his work Christian finds himself either suppressing or indulging his own desire to associate personal narrative to the raw visual information inherent in the material and process. Construction, destruction and reconstruction are symbiotic elements in the creative process allowing the image to fluctuate between abstraction and representation, truth and illusion, personal and archetypal.

Brian Sherwin: Christian, tell us about your educational background. Do you have formal training in art? Are you self-taught? Who were your instructors and how did they influence you?

Christian Rex van Minnen: I didn’t attend a formal ‘art school’ but I did have some great mentors along the way. My art teacher in high school, Tish McFee, was instrumental in helping me be direct and fearless with my artistic expression. More often than not art instructors sent me into a corner to do my work alone and I was used to this. I attended Regis University for my undergraduate degree which is a small, Jesuit liberal arts school in Colorado. I had a fairly holistic education, as is the nature of a liberal arts education, and dabbled in political science, biology, English and fine arts.

For most of my life I’ve been in denial about pursuing art as a career. I felt that my art, which I always practiced on my own, would be corrupted if I pursued formal training and professionalism of my passion. Moreover, I resented the so-called ‘art-world’ as it appeared fake, exclusive and more or less, inbred. The art department at Regis was really neglected by the rest of the school; however, I did meet some great teachers there who encouraged me to follow my vision. Overall, I have had great mentors and peers throughout my education but my technique and practice I can claim as my own.

BS: Christian, tell us about your early artistic influences and experiences. When did you decide to pursue art?

CVM: My earliest recollection of making art was when I was 4 or 5 drawing imagined animals on the little pieces of paper behind the pews at the Baptist church where my Dad was a minister. I was really influenced by nature and carried around with me illustrated field guides with pictures of amphibians, reptiles, birds and flowers. I continued to draw throughout primary school, mostly emulations of comic book anti-heroes and various life-forms and my drawing skill was often used as a kind of self-defense mechanism. At this point I was really influenced by the great illustrators of the comic book industry and horror movie legends like HR Giger, Wes Craven and Clive Barker. I found safety in horror in that facing these fears allowed me to deal with the other sources of fear and violence in my life at the time.

I was introduced to oil paint when I was 15 by my high school art teacher, Tish McFee, who is now collecting my work. My drawing skills translated well into oil paint and I have been using oils as my primary medium since. It wasn’t until after I graduated from Regis University and did some traveling that I decided to pursue a career in art. I received an artist’s residency at The Assembly in Denver in 2004 which really changed my perspective on professional arts, and artists for that matter.

The Assembly was a conglomeration of 3 galleries and about 20 studios in Denver’s Sante Fe Arts District. It was great to be working around other artists for the first time. Prior to this I never really was friends with other artists so it was a great experience to be around that kind of shared creativity and to experience criticism and exhibition for the first time. Most viewers, particularly in Denver where I began to exhibit, were simultaneously amazed and disgusted by my work. The people who are immediately attracted to my work and the most enthusiastic are generally my age or younger and usually can’t afford to buy them.

Up until recently I haven’t been very successful at selling my work so I have taken many different jobs to subsidize my career; art teacher, technologies teacher, used-building materials salesperson, recycled materials designer, set designer, etc., etc. In the past year my work has been getting a lot of national attention and finally the hard work and determination is starting to pay off.

BS: With that said, how would you say that your work has advanced since that time?

CVM: Conceptually, I have been attracted to the idea of the merging of abstraction and figuration. I have been influenced by many artists which include Wei Dong and Chinese Contemporary figurative painters, Gao Xingxian, George Condo, Odd Nerdrum and Inka Essenhigh, as well as film artists such as David Cronenberg and David Lynch. The artists that most interest me are those who render in great detail things that don’t exist or are unnameable.

On a technical level I have incorporated certain aspects of abstraction to make the painting more difficult; to make the physical information on the canvas initially hard to name and control while pulling it into form and, sometimes, content or social context. In this sense, the abstract figurative speaks to both the process and result and makes the act of painting sustainable.

It was in Gao Xingxian’s book Return to Painting that I first found a parallel between the counter intuitive process I was working with and his notion of the "abstract figurative." My understanding of the medium of oil paint itself has also changed dramatically. I became interested in alchemy and its relationship to paintings which lead me to one of the most influential books I’ve ever read: James Elkin’s What Painting Is. His work studies in detail the correlation between alchemical principles and the act and substance of oil painting. I have become much more aware of what I am working with and how they work within me.

My work has changed very little in the sense that I have always facilitated self-discovery through art and had a need to exercise my own fear and desires so they don’t manifest themselves in undesirable ways.

BS: Christian, is there anything else you would like to tell us about your background in regards to how your art has evolved?

CVM: There are many things that have influenced my art in the way it has evolved and I am only beginning to understand their significance years and years later. Violence has been a big influence. During my early childhood and teenage my life was saturated with violence, substance abuse, suicide and depression. Instead of trying to bury these feelings and memories I have continued to explore them in an effort to understand and control them.

Anatomy, physiology and biology have also been very strong influences and I have made an effort to understand biological form and function out of context, as one can understand lead or oxides outside the context of the periodic table. I have found parallels to this practice in both the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and the emerging science of biomimicry, which is also know has bionics or biomimetics.

BS: Christian, can you go into detail about your artistic process? How do you begin a piece? When do you know that a piece is finished?

CVM: My initial process is fairly violent and counter intuitive. It is similar to trying to play chess with yourself and making it interesting and self-revealing. I fill the ground with information that I can’t name or control. On a technical level, these are abstract under-paintings that are heavily textured and utilize physically strong and flexible pigments such as lead and earth-sourced pigments.
I usually work with anywhere from 3-7 canvases at a time so that I can allow for these under-paintings to dry while working on others. Because I am intentionally making the process of rendering figure difficult it is also beneficial to be working on several canvases at once as some pieces prove to be stale-mates for sometime. The goal of this first phase is to make the image obscure to myself, or abstract.
By continually adding marks, glazes and impasto, the image continues to fluctuate between abstraction and figuration, the truth of the paint film and the illusion of form. The goal is to render an image that is simultaneously abstract and controlled by form. I rarely achieve the abstract and figurative in singularity, however, the product of operating between these two poles is always interesting and satisfying to me.

BS: Christian, how does current world events influence your work? In other words, how does contemporary life impact your creative practice?

CVM: The characteristics of my psychological shadow are not different from those of our country’s; guilt, fear, anxiety, depression, spiritual apathy. Being an American is always on my mind. In some way the abstract figurative portraits show the psychological aspects of all Americans. I have basically eliminated most media from my life. I don’t watch TV, although I love film, and I rarely read the newspaper. It’s all bullshit and a waste of time and energy. I just try to live my life truthfully and make the lives of those around me better however I can.
The apocalypse has always existed in the tomorrow; the question is how you live in the face of constantly impending doom! This seems to be the mantra for our generation and our parents growing up under the constant threat of nuclear war. I am fascinated by the optimism that drives people despite everything that tells you your actions are futile. The emerging science of biomimcry is one example of great optimism and practicality that exists in the world today. This science is revolutionary in that it is solving design problems by using nature’s wisdom instead of imposing our science upon it.
BS: Tell us more about the philosophy behind your art. What motivates you to create?

CVM: It is the tool I have to understand myself and the world around me. Just as the vulture is built to find sustenance in putrefaction, my philosophy as an artist is that I can always yield positivity through exploration of darkness and mystery. I like David Cronenberg’s philosophy of why he makes art, which is to be direct in manifesting his innermost fear and desire so that he can know it and own up to it and not be afraid of it.

The philosophies of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung concerning every person’s hero journey and the psychological shadow are extremely important to me as a driving force and also something I feel I can communicate to my students and to the viewers of my art.

BS: Christian, why did you choose to work in the medium(s) that you use?

CVM: It was a natural evolution from drawing. I love the oneness of the paint film; its simultaneously homogeneous and yet diverse state. The oil paint film is to me the abyss and the field of pure potentiality.

BS: Christian, what is your studio like? Can you go into detail about your studio routine? Do you work in silence-- listen to music.

CVM: My studio is covered in plastic because it is an extra bedroom in my house; I’m like bubble-boy in there. I have had a studio outside my house but generally I paint at home. Perhaps this is why I am so meticulous and controlling with paint. Anyway, it is fairly clean, at least in comparison to Francis Bacon’s studio, and I try to maintain a sense of order and organization. I think this is important to me as my studio is often a reflection of my mental state.

I usually have two easels up side by side and five to ten canvases in progress hanging from the wall. I love music and listen to music constantly. I have this ancient 50 disc changer CD player that I fill with every sort of music so that in 20 minutes I might here tracks from Hank Williams, Chopin, Screeching Weasel, Art Tatem, Buck 65 and Aphex Twin. I like to have a massive diversity of sounds, helps to keep my mind fresh.

BS: What are you working on at this time?

CVM: Multiple projects. I am continuing my pursuit of the concept of the abstract-figurative using the conventions of portraiture. I also have a project that is an interactive triptych-cubed: nine canvases built into three equilateral triangles that stack upon one another to create a three sided vertically oriented triptych that the viewer can rotate and change into 81 different combinations. It’s very challenging and it will take me perhaps another year to complete.

I am also working on several masks including a monk-fish and the figure at the base of the Crucifixion from the famous Francis Bacon painting by the same name. There are other projects that I have been planning for some time but lack the technology and capital to develop, for now at least. I am going to put together a few grant applications for these projects.

BS: Do you have any upcoming exhibits? Where can our readers view your work?

CVM: I have a solo exhibition up now until the end of October at Brian Marki Gallery, Portland, OR, as a result of winning the National Artist Auditions. In November I’ll be showing at Limner Gallery’s juried show "A Show of Heads," in Hudson, NY, as well as a show juried by Brandon Fortune, Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery, at Gallery RFD in Swainsboro, GA. In December I’ll be a part of Copro Nason Gallery’s annual group show in Santa Monica, CA, and in February 2008 I’ll be showing at Roq La Rue, Seattle, WA, in their group show entitled "Animals."

BS: Christian, the internet is changing how we discover and view art. In your opinion, how have sites like empowered artists?

CVM: Hell yes! I think it’s fantastic. I embrace the art of self-promotion, and sites like this are certainly empowering to that end. I have met many incredible artists through this site that I would never have met or communicated with otherwise. I tend to be slightly introverted and would be hesitant to approach other artists in person but through this avenue it is quite easy and direct. I have had artists that I greatly admire contact me about my work featured on myartspace and have helped me get into some really great galleries.

BS: Finally, what are your goals as an artist? What do you hope to accomplish with your work?

CVM: Besides just being happy, I would say that my number one goal as an artist is to make my artistic practice sustainable. I don’t want to burn out and I want to stay true to the core of my work: that this art, in whatever medium I choose, is facilitating self-discovery and self-realization and if I stay true to that it may help others in the same way.

I think that my current medium of oils is one that I want to master; however, I realize that limitations on space and capital have also limited my choice of mediums. I have ideas and concepts that I have been filing away until the day that I have the required space and funds to carry them out.

On a professional level, my goal is to make a consistent living and have everyday to paint or make stuff and work on ideas that require a lot of time and patience. I don’t want to develop ulcers by having to juggle 5 jobs, care for my family, and push my art career at the same time. As an artist I hope to be fearless in my entrance to the abyss, courageous in the face of the dragon, and humble on my return home.

You can learn more about Christian Rex van Minnen by visiting or You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

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