Christian Rex van Minnen
Sep 21 – Nov 9, 2019
Christian Rex van Minnen
Robischon Gallery is pleased to present “Bloom,” Christian Rex van Minnen’s third Robischon solo exhibition featuring oil on linen paintings and mixed media sculpture. With this presentation, the artist returns to the subject of the large-scale still life with his signature finely-honed, illuminated-from-within Old Master painting approach, combined with discordant contemporary elements that are fully fleshed-out, in glorious, lurid color and detail. Echoing the admonition of the vanitas, the Memento Mori paintings have been a reminder of the absolute, that all life will eventually come to an end. Also, of importance to van Minnen within the time-honored mode of the centuries-old vanitas painting, is that still life can often provide keys to understanding cultures of different eras and regions. The typical or expected still life with a vase full of exquisite flowers, once robust and now fading, with their fallen petals resting upon the stone slab at the base of the display, transmogrifies into a different potent message in the artist’s unflinching interpretation. Van Minnen considers an alternate reading of the vanitas that, in his cryptic words, forewarns us to “remember that there is fate far worse than death.”
Dominant in the exhibition are the van Minnen bouquets and like the work of their highly acknowledged Dutch counterparts, they are compositionally central, lush, leafy and vibrant often with an object or more at the base of each vessel. At this intersection, van Minnen’s work makes an abrupt departure from tradition and the viewer discovers, upon inspection, something entirely unexpected, even unsettling, within each layered and complex form. In the painting Logic Tree the loose, open bouquet reflects the artist’s understanding of botanical specimens with forget-me-nots, morning glories and Queen Anne’s Lace (or possibly poison hemlock, both variants of the wild carrot family) in contrast to the many disruptive elements like the ungainly yet amusing striped jelly-tulips, ominous green pods, a floating gelatinous knife and the eerily crimson seedling-like forms tumbling off the stone slab with convincing illusion. Beyond the floral elements, candy-colored or otherwise, unidentifiable masses of tattooed flesh appear centrally embedded within the blooms while their tattooed markings are reflected in the water-filled glass vase below. One tattoo is that of the Porphyrian Tree from 300 A.D. It depicts a diagrammatic representation of the order of nature and structure of knowledge, which the ancient philosopher Porphyry of Tyre perceived to be under attack by Christianity – he himself an avowed anti-Christian and pagan. One tattoo is an open palm, its lifeline prominently delineated; another is a crown with the familiar street text, “u mad bro,” alongside tattoos of tree names like elm and the name of Plato, all discoverable in the tattoo’s molecule-like interconnections. Most of the tattooed words are hidden or indecipherable yet the compelling visuals and a desire to connect the title Logic Tree to the imagery propels inquisition to investigate connections posed by the artist and offers entry into a personal or shared experience framed by the fullness of the vanitas. While logic is more frequently associated with Aristotle, the invocation of Plato teaches that a virtuous life leads to true well-being – a way to live well and be rewarded in the afterlife. Of note is the fact that the ancient, sacred olive tree beneath where Plato taught his students was destroyed in 2013, likely uprooted for firewood near Athens to sustain life in the present; its heady symbolism sacrificed for the basics over its historically-famous lofty spiritual goals.
Once-accepted beliefs from the past are upended in van Minnen’s series and an alternate discourse forms within a contemporary context as both the vase and body are vessels of knowing. The vase of Parallax contains a developing fetus tethered to its umbilical cord and floats beneath a large bouquet, which includes as a symbolic counterpoint three human skulls, along with the rubbery, distorted or brightly colored gummy blossoms, a pierced spongy pod and two vivid blue Morpho butterflies – which in some cultures are considered harbingers of good luck, happiness and joy. The notion of parallax provides a compelling point of departure in considering the vanitas as it refers to the movement of objects when viewed from different positions. In placing the quickening child beneath the skulls, the imagined sight lines between birth and death compress; a full life ranges out before the baby, while the skulls amongst the flowers acknowledges its assured brevity. Pointed down in the birthing position, the gestating baby is poised to emerge; its path not yet chosen, the length of time to traverse the earth is uncertain, but its end, as with all life, is inevitable. Like the X composition used by the artist to give structure to the imagery, the phenomenon of parallax gives humans the ability to read or understand different positions because the eyes, through stereopsis, simultaneously offers depth perception and distance estimation. This is something not so easily accomplished or defined when attempting to assess or forecast the future possibilities in life, but a quality which the vanitas invite each viewer to embrace.
In Immanent Maniac Blossoms, the bouquet bears strange, if brightly colored, cartoon fruits or blooms which seemingly levitate atop varying masses of tattooed flesh displaying code-like or inked hieroglyphic markings. Located below is a comical loop of baby feces which rests upon the traditional stone slab and just across sits a googly, sarcastically smirking turd which directs its gaze toward the distorted male face, either perceived as being inside the vase or reflected on the surface of the vase. Further below, and at the heart of the drama, are the triumphant, wiggling jelly-sperm disseminating into the world as they propel themselves off the illusionistic polished marble surface where the head-like vessel stands. The consequences of the masculinity expressed by passion or perhaps symbolic of any human desire - whether it be the quest for more sensations or experiences - recalls the lavish abundance of goods so proudly painted in the Dutch still life paintings and may infer a kind of admonishment of desire itself or seeking the superficial. In the century’s old paintings, the marble slabs teemed with sought after meats and delicacies – an abundance which was representative of material acquisition by the monarchy or the wealthiest families and in turn which historically alluded to masculine conquests. The presence of floral elements most often stereotypically symbolized beauty and by way of association, notions of the feminine. With a recognition of shared inherent human truths across the ages, van Minnen’s still life paintings also symbolize to some degree a mix of gender references, though something other is at work and playfully so, in a range of interpretations true to the vernacular of this time. This makes van Minnen’s comical excreta and bizarre dismembered body parts effective signifiers of the dismantling of the still-life tradition while simultaneously and curiously expanding the genre. Like the symbolism of the urgent sperm going forth, van Minnen calls attention to the countless current and alternate ideas surging from beneath – representative of not only the beginnings of new life, but also pulsating from within contemporary culture itself.
As van Minnen’s paintings address the inevitability of each person’s brief time among humanity, American Dream Catcher features elements of a Native American dream catcher, representing good luck and as a ward against negativity. True to form, van Minnen’s composition offers both a contrast of an indigenous people’s sacred ritual object and the presence of conflict or irreverence from an impowered aspect of one culture over another. The dream catcher manifests as an open-netted, string tied, sausage-shield, encircled with attached sacred feathers and the inclusion of a candy-like, rainbow-colored muscular arm which also inexplicably appears to draw jelly-blood with its nearby gummy dagger. Worthy of note and contained at the bottom of the water-filled vase, a large frog sits still, symbolic of a species particularly vulnerable to habitat destruction. However intentional and visually preposterous, there is an acknowledgement of conscience and a deeper consciousness within the painting. An ancient culture’s concern, with its shield of protection, gives way to parallel metaphors, as an artistic appropriation may suggest the conquest of colonial America, while it is equally symbolic of humanity’s desire to protect what it values most even as those brutal conquests have led to destruction and annihilation.
Upon first sight, the largest painting, Flag with Pineapple, dismantles the idea of a recognizable still life almost entirely. Without the marble table to anchor the traditional vase, the contents shift into a completely different form as the uncommon and ghastly fleshy elements become unmoored, and the central vase or vessel form (symbolically a recognized stand in for the body), has now become a nearly complete human figure. The female figure, as a vessel for all human life, shares the space with overlaying complex mounds of sinewy and organ-like tattooed humanoid parts, jelly intestine, a free-floating rainbow-colored ribcage, intercostals and the requisite still life fruit. The fleshy mass closest to the crouching female, sports a tattoo of a military looking gunman aiming his weapon at the life-giving figure. Throughout the composition, a strange kind of supportive structure exists. For the figure and the countless tattooed masses and more, five elongated rattlesnakes become the essential framework for each element, while presenting themselves as the horizontal stripes of the American flag, with Old Glory’s stars comprised of jelly dot candies. This painting, too, alludes to the legacy of toxic masculinity with the armed tattoo figure and the potential of bodily carnage implied by the presence of the featured weapon of war. Open widely to interpretation, perhaps this is the frank, imagined aftermath of the gun violence ripping at the cultural fabric of the country, or doing harm to life itself in other ways, specific to the everyday, in personal or broader terms. Perhaps, this reflects the realities of the human condition or is a higher call for cultural reassessment. Such imagery invites investigation and asks questions – signifying in surprising ways – a reality of venomous profiteers and politicians supporting what some may say culminates in a grotesque vision of American life; one that leaves death and destruction behind in the wake of serious societal shortcomings. Like the Dutch still life imagery that has inspired the artist, profit can define a country of plentitude – as greed and gluttony take hold and empathy is lost.
Also unexpected and on view are three pale flesh-toned, organically shaped sculptures, made from a durable technique utilizing high density foam, glue, paper pulp, gesso, oil paint and wax. With their intentionally disconcerting and playful surfaces, as backdrops for painted layers of new and old raw tattooed markings, and a variety of images such as Trollface, the bizarrely grinning meme character, along with spear-and-shield carrying centurions, Frankenstein and a U.F.O. – each flesh-like sculpture amplifies the dissonance between the masterful painting style and grotesque elements of aberrant, amorphous corporeality. Mimicking bruised flesh and as a vehicle for absurd mixed metaphors and non sequiturs, the seemingly incongruent small sculptural objects also allow for further insight and a unique reading of the imagery throughout the exhibition, which primarily consists of large-scale paintings. Van Minnen’s ability to scrutinize, poke fun at multiple levels of culture, while presenting a kind of unvarnished truth about human nature – the good, the bad and the ugly – is on full view. With his revelatory paintings, the artist demonstrates a critical understanding of human vulnerability and is quick to reflect the unseemly underbelly of a culture even as it seems to be prosperous and abundant.
As a parallel series not currently on view, but available, van Minnen has created intimate still life monotypes, to be in dialogue with the larger works in the exhibition. Subtle in scale with quietude, the one of a kind prints, with their delicate linear markings, extend the vanitas theme of the exhibition. Each primary image of a monochromatic still life bouquet thematically loses its vitality with its visual measure of time - and when paired with its ghost print communicates a sense of contemplation through their fading absence – one symbolically, the other physically. As a counterpoint to the floral monotypes, van Minnen’s images of boxers, also available to be viewed upon request, show a bloodied brutality which overtly demands a less ethereal narrative. The expressions of the bloodied figures are suggested to have just come from a brawl or sporting event, but in consideration of the cautionary tale of the vanitas, their predicaments may also represent the consequence of the human condition and a battle with the shadow self after a frenzied realization.
At once, starkly confrontational and playfully humorous, the exacting, detailed and visceral work of Christian Rex van Minnen is visionary in its conjuring of what lies beneath and what unites humanity from one culture and one century to another. The artist sums it up best as he states that the work is, “an echo of societal discourse – that there is either a nascent or resurgent menace that neither I nor the world can trust or value. However, there could be a more holistic approach, one of not demonizing the shadow of ourselves or our culture, but instead placing emphasis on integration, one that internalizes Memento Mori as an inspirational motivation for an earthly life of meaning.”
Christian Rex van Minnen received his BA from Regis University, Denver in 2002. He has exhibited across the US and internationally including Florida State University Museum of Fine Art, Seattle Pacific Arts Center, Biologiska Museet, Stockholm, Sweden, ISE Cultural Foundation, New York and ROJO Art Space in Barcelona, Spain with additional exhibitions in Paris, France; Hamburg, Germany; Copenhagen, Denmark; Sydney, Australia; and Hong Kong, China. An Artist-in-Residence at Anderson Ranch in Snowmass, CO and an Artist’s Audition National Call winner, van Minnen has had numerous paintings and interviews frequently published in Juxtapoz, Hi-Fructose and other publications along with a strong presence and considerable following on art blogs such as the Huffington Post and Beinart Surreal Art Collective, to name a few. He is represented in private and public collections including: Denver Art Museum; Djurhuus Collection; Hall Art Foundation; Ulrich Seibert Collection, Beth Rudin de Woody Collection; Colecciōn Solo; and the Richard B. Sachs Collection.