Syntax Issue 10
Denver Syntax

{christian rex van minnen}

  enter gallery here

  by Carrie Ann Baade

Within paintings, there exists a tension between fantasy and reality when something is at once believable yet an illusion. I search for fellow artists who display this vision and skill. Some would call this work surreal or visionary but this classification of such art usually limits the originality of its genius. Some days I wonder as I spelunk the profiles on Myspace, is it over? Where are all great new artists? For the last couple years I seemed to find one a week however, they are fewer and fewer…was it a fluke? And then, the ground breaks open, out of this eruption, a new artist is born into the scene: May I introduce the works of Christian Rex Van Minnen.

I was delighted to find these contemporary portraits that are equal parts Arcimbaldo and H.P. Lovecraft wrapped in the technical skill of an old master. He uses the portrait format to explore forms that are suggestively reminiscent of fungus or bulbous, tuberous roots that wear an array of unlikely hats. Christian’s oil paintings are wonderful examples of this tension between real and unreal, or as he defines it “abstract figurative.” He came across this term while reading essays and interviews with artists such as Gao Xingjian and George Condo. “While their work is very different, it relies on the same process of allowing the painting to fluctuate between the truth of the paint and the illusion it provides," van Minnen states, "This imagery is personal and the archetypal, all the while remaining figurative in some sense. I can't put my thumb on it, but that is why it is good."

He has divulged to me that his sitters are entirely without source. He simply grows the various humanoid, plant forms out of the painting’s surface as though he were building a composite creature, or culling something or someone out of an abyss. Christian explains his process as, “Seeing or analyzing things out of their immediate context; whether it is fungus, trailer parks, or vultures.” By practicing “biomimcry” within the conventions of portraiture, he sees “human qualities in non-human forms.”

These paintings could be from anywhere in this world, but this art has been created in Denver. Christian is a native who is in his final days as a local. He and his wife are packing up their car and heading for the West Coast. Why would this great new artist with the world just starting to take notice of his work pick up and leave? He is going west, maybe L.A., or perhaps Mexico.

I knew I wanted to meet him in person before he took off for parts unknown. We have been exhibiting in the same galleries of late, including Roq La Rue in Seattle, Copro Nason in LA, and most recently Harold Golen Gallery in Miami. Well, we were showing at Harold Golen Gallery, until it caught fire in the first week of December 2007. Christian and I also share that we both have work being treated for fire damage. We count ourselves among the lucky; some artists lost all their work in this fire.

We are standing in front of Caravaggio’s “Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge” (1603) at the Denver Art Museum and it is all to apparent why Christian would find such affinity for this painting. The gourds and squashes in this still life are nearly ominous with their affect of chiaroscuro. I adore meeting in the museum because we are looking at paintings. We are not looking at images of paintings in books; we are not looking at paintings on the Internet. Nothing can replace seeing the paintings in person. This Caravaggio is such a great example of how light renders form. These are exquisitely rounded, dimensional forms. The artist has gently grown these superb examples of light out darkness with simple mixtures of oil and pigment that have no form themselves. This is how Christian paints but, what he paints is out of his head.

The choice of colors in Christian’s work are inspired by the old masters but he has put his own personal meaning in his choices. He has put into practice the connections between alchemy and color, painting and science. Explaining further, “A while back I felt frustrated and disconnected with my palette so I simplified it into colors that seemed to have an intuitive meaning behind each pigment, such as lead, iron oxide, cobalt, etc. It was at this point that I found the connection between alchemy and painting; both relied on an intuitive and personally meaningful understanding of substances. After reading James Elkin's What Painting Is this concept was galvanized in my mind and practice. Since then, I try not to have a preconceived notion of what I am making with the paint, and instead try to understand what is before me, letting the paint itself inform the painting.” This idea of painting as alchemy, as though the chemistry that the pigments are based on, imbues Christian with the power of being a creator to fabricate inchoate forms from chaos.

“I want to do what I do with skill and sincerity,” Christian says and there is no doubt in my mind of his integrity. In addition to being a formidable artist, one of his jobs has been teaching art to children in an after school program for the last five years and completing his masters degree in non-profit management. Part of his grad program was organizing and participating in relief for those regions affected by Hurricane Katrina. He traveled three times to New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast region, including Biloxi and Gulf Port, to provide assistance. They stayed in school gymnasiums on cots. These trips solidified Christian’s commitment to contributing to Jesuit tradition of Service to Others.

Later, as we sit at City O' City, we are discussing art openings and being confounded about what to wear. We both just had shows in L.A. and found that the accepted attire is unanimously hoodies. Christian bought a collared shirt for his last show and he realized he felt out of place. I am laughing because he looks dashing is wearing a perfectly worn out Sub-Humanz tee-shirt under his Dickies jacket with his too bookish, thick Clark Kent glasses and I demand, “So describe your fashion aesthetic. What are you?” He describes his aesthetic as a “janitor-Mormon-professional.” I love the contradiction. It’s amusing and amazing to me to how we all start off being some brand of freakish, alternative in our adolescence and there are some vestiges that endure despite our entropic tastes to be square. It calls to mind again the dichotomy of illusionistic fantasy and the work we do to make it real. I ask him what he has playing when he is painting and he is excited to write down his top 10 albums for this time period: 1. Hank Williams, 2. Buck 65, 3. Aphex Selected Ambient, 4. Charles Mingus, 5. Godspeed You Black Emperor 6. Tom Waits, 7. Johnny Cash, 8. Awol One, 9. Sub-Humanz, 10. The Books. Perhaps this list says it all.

I look at the list. In my hand I hold the little spiral back note book I have been writing notes in and I start to rip out the pages, I have been recording notes about our conversation in Christian’s notebook with his pen and I explain how I am taking these to help me write the interview. Christian says, “wait, this was an interview?”