Monday, April 27, 2009

5 Questions with Chris Vena

I first met Chris Vena ten years ago while at the San Francisco Art Institute. We were both enrolled in a studio painting class with the cooler than should be humanly possible Dewey Crumpler. However, it wasn't during class that we had our first conversation. Rather, it was a chance run in at the studios on a Friday night.

It was the first Friday night of the first week of class, the biggest meet and greet party weekend of the semester. Not being anywhere near cooler than should be humanly possible, Chris and I had both individually decided that the best place to spend that night would be the painting studios at school, not the bar or parties. Back in those days, the studios were left open to the students 24/7, why wouldn't you go there after class?!?!?


At this point, I can't remember who was there first. Let's just say it was Chris. So, I set up my easel and canvas next to his and we started talking and painting. We had a lot in common. We both transferred from community college, played bass, had both came to SF to escape the art voids of our former So Cal beach towns, etc, etc.

The deal was sealed when I reached into my backpack and pulled out a 22oz Anchor Porter. Chris pretty much immediately ran to the store down the hill and came back with more beer. I think we walked the stairs between the school and market 2 or 3 times that night. The conversation drifted from favorite painters into music, from philosophy & religion to history, around The City and back into art.

Synchronistically, Chris took his abstract canvas and turned it into a rough gestural still life of a pack of Camels. I had started a portrait of a guy drinking a 40oz King Cobra.

1. What's the bottom line, good & bad, to being an artist in Seattle?

Seattle has been great compared to the previous places I've lived and worked. I've been able to make, show and sell more work in the last four years than the all years I lived in San Diego and San Francisco. I've never seen so many nonprofits and government agencies devoted to the arts. On one website I counted 20, just in the city of Seattle. Compare that to 30 in the whole state of California. That says something about the tax paying people who live in this city.

Despite that being said, the particular type of painting I do is not very well represented around town. Many artist co-ops tend to feature installation, video and conceptual art and a lot of the private galleries tend to deal exclusively in lowbrow/Juxtapoz types of work. My work doesn't fit very well into either category. The galleries and venues that I work with, they don't always get a lot of press, although they do show some great work. There are a lot of talented artists in town that no one knows about. It's a shame.

The Seattle art scene, and sometimes the music scene, it's a little self-conscious. The critics, in particular, seem overly concerned with representing Seattle as having the same aesthetic you see coming out of Los Angeles and New York. They're trying to prove that we're not a bunch of backwater, grungy hicks that got lucky in the 90's who don't really have anything serious to offer the rest of the world. The art that's written about, it's an imitation of what's coming out of the two "culture meccas" listed above. It isn't good because it's not original.

The irony is that when you spend all your time obsessing about and imitating what's going on in the big cities, that's exactly what you end up looking like; a bunch of hicks. It's funny, but it's kind of like an art cargo cult. They think if you imitate the trappings of high art, then the notoriety will come. Unfortunately, this dooms anything truly unique to this region to go unnoticed. This seems like a problem in a lot of local art scenes though.

Although I was never a huge punk fan when I was young, there were a few bands I liked and I knew a lot of kids in the scene. What I appreciated and respected the most about punk was the ethos of supporting your local scene. Grunge was nurtured and cultivated by that punk ethos and Seattle shouldn't be ashamed of that. If the people of Seattle were fiercely loyal to and supportive of their local art scene, I think we would see a lot more interesting original work coming from unexpected.

2. The previous answer references Grunge & musical integrity. How would you relate what you do as a visual artist to music? What influence does it have on your work?

Music is important to me. I grew up in a family and a town that was not very interested in art, so I never thought about artists when I was young. I didn't have anyone around who knew about or made art but I did have friends who made music so that is what I got into. I play bass in a band to this day. Because of my experience with music, musicians usually come to mind before visual artists when I think of artistic movements and philosophies.

There are certain musicians whose prolific output, integrity and vision I hold in high regard: Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Neil Young, David Grubs, and Rob Crow just to name a few. James Brown was important to me early on and still is to this day. I still have tremendous respect for him. I can't think of a visual artist who had the kind of impact on our culture that he did.

He grew up in deep poverty in the segregated south and yet became one of the most powerful and influential artists of the twentieth century. It's humbling to think about what he accomplished. He had incredible energy, he was an innovator and he continually reinvented himself. His work was based on modification and reinvention of certain traditional forms, which is something that I am interested in with my own work.

His music was technically sophisticated, required precision from his musicians, but was also accessible to the audience. It was more than just accessible actually. It grabs you on a deep level and it's hard not to move when you hear it, not to mention his live performance. On stage he was an amazing entertainer but managed to control the band like a conductor throughout the show with subtle cues that the audience sometimes wouldn't even notice.

He was also an important political figure and a tough businessman. I could go on and on about him but I hope you can see what I'm getting at. These are things that I want from myself.

3. The subject matter of you paintings (human, animal, bottle of wine, etc) all receives the same level of attention in your paintings. Is this intentional, and is there anything underlying that you want your audience to take from this?

Not really. The paint handling is intentional but there is nothing in particular that I want them to take away. They can take whatever they get. I don't want viewers to think about my intentions very much. I'd rather they focus on the moment, on their direct experience of the painting. I would hope that they would project something of themselves into it regardless of who I am, what socio-political subgroup I come from or what I think about any particular issue.

A thoughtful person can take that information from any piece of art without it being spoon fed to them with an artist statement or a little museum plaque. I think most artists feel the same way. Actually, it's the gallery system; the critics and the institutions we have that make the viewers act otherwise. The artists I'm most fond of, visual or otherwise, work from general ideas down to specific. There is a direction but no target. They allow themselves to be surprised and that's what I try to do.

4. Is there a person or philosophy that forever changed your perspective on art...particularly painting?

There isn't a single person or philosophy but there were a few people that were important to me. For instance seeing Van Gogh's work in person for the first time was a revelation. I used to think his work was terrible and I didn't see the appeal at all. That was because I had only seen reproductions of his work in books, in movies and on the internet.

The color and the texture do not translate to those media. I saw a painting of a pot of irises that he had done hanging in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and I literally got choked up. I don't know how to explain it.

There are other people too. I like Nietzsche's ideas about art. In particular the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy that he talks about in The Birth of Tragedy is interesting and still relevant I think. You can see similar conflicting ideas in the arguments between the academy and the impressionists, modernism and post modernism, Shakespearean and method acting and even Gong Bi and Xie Yi in Chinese painting.

One style refers to something that it is not through mimesis and the other is an artifact to which it refers. I don't think these two ideas are mutually exclusive though and I try to shoot for some place on the spectrum in between.

5. What's one non-art world experience that has most affected you as an artist?

Traveling really takes you out of yourself. Europe for example was an amazing experience for me. You take a wrong turn down a side street and you practically trip over a roman bath, a Greek amphitheater or a gothic church. A connection to history is palpable and it will change you if you let it. Nature is another big influence on me and my appreciation of it increases each time I arrive in a new environment.

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