Behind The Canvas
An Intimate Portrait Of The Artist
“As a youngster,” recalls former Replacements’ drummer-turned-painter Chris Mars in a recent interview with ‘Round The Dial Magazine, “…many things inspired me in a pure, visual sense… the letter “P” of our World Book encyclopedia set – I would repeatedly go to the “Paintings” section, and study them; I would notice how light and atmosphere would play off of water and various textured surfaces in nature; how clouds and trees grew and formed; how thunderstorms would suddenly alter and blacken out the day… “
Like the majority of Mars’ oil-based work- of which nearly two dozen examples are currently on display at The Phipps Center For The Arts in Hudson, Wisconsin- that short, seemingly innocuous recollection is fairly packed to the brim with deeper meanings, hidden truths, and mysterious, unanswered questions; Why was a healthy, suburban pre-schooler sitting around the house reading an encyclopedia instead of building tree forts or playing cops and robbers outside with other boys his age? What drew him to the painting section, rife with still, silent images of a world that existed right outside of his own front door? And why was he so strongly drawn to threatening, nightmarish scenarios such as thunderstorms “…suddenly alter(ing) and blacken(ing) out the day(s)?
The youngest of seven children, Mars was born in Minneapolis in 1961- a place in time now dubbed “the weird old America,” a reference to the seemingly-innocent, life-in-black-and-white period this country experienced at the time. But as Chris, the youngest of Constance and Leroy’s brood discovered, innocence and ignorance oftentimes aren’t all that different from one another. When he was just five years old, doctors diagnosed his eldest brother, Joe, with a “nervous breakdown” and locked him up at the St. Cloud Mental Hospital.
“I was aware of Joe’s problems from a very early age,” Mars says now, “as he had them off and on throughout my childhood and adolescence. He would be sent away for periods of time to hospitals and institutions. This stigmatized him amongst his friends and sadly even within our family to a certain extent. It was never fully talked about or understood; we would try to reach and comfort him when he went through these periods, though we were not equipped with the proper tools to fully understand his schizophrenia – that word wasn’t even used until much later,”A Nervous Breakdown” was the usual reference. A sense of denial set in. If it was confusing for those around Joe, I can’t imagine how depressing, frightening and confusing it was for him. I had a good relationship with Joe, he is the eldest of the boys, my oldest brother. He has a good heart and a good sense of humor. At times he’d crack us all up . He would be there to help if he could with anything you might be doing. He cared about fitness and lifted weights. He was the best fisherman of any of us.”
Mars’ interest in and gift for creating visual art was/is an inherent part of his persona- he was around five years old when Joe’s illness became too overwhelming for his family to deal with on their own, but even then a young Chris began to channel his own worries and concerns about his brother and the cruelty and prejudice he saw in the world around him though artistic expression. He took comfort in movies and films, books (Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are was an early influence,) the aforementioned encyclopedia, and remembers, “ Out of school, sick, I watched “Moby Dick” and couldn’t stop drawing white whales smashing into boats for a while; as well, there were many other movies – and animations – so visually inspiring. In summer, running around at night there would be glowing and smoldering trash barrels up and down alleyways, I was captivated by how the fire and smoke would dance and flicker against trees and buildings. I loved Halloween and the colors of fall. Being inspired by these various stimuli, I would then try to put it to paper, to reproduce the feeling of it from memory.”
Even now, that Halloween feel and the colors associated with it are prevalent in his work- several of his pieces currently on display at The Phipps Center focus directly on that theme- most notably an oil-on-canvas work titled, “10-31 Jupiter Street,” a rendering filled with fall colors, witches, bent, ominous trees, harsh stone steps, and a shadowy ancient graveyard. The painting stands out amongst the twenty-odd others hung around the room in that its’ main focus does not seem to be in bringing attention to the mental illness that plagued his family or the subsequent themes of outsider prejudice, the continually-crumbling and unsympathetic American health care system, xenophobia, or the man-as-part-of-a-machine theme so predominant in many of his other offerings.
He didn’t automatically connect his visual gifts to the trauma he underwent throughout his childhood and teen years, he says, figuring it began, “…in the late eighties when I delved headlong into drawing on a very regular basis. Then in 1999 or 2000 I found a more extensive conveyance through oil painting. The ability to express in this medium, for me, was much more enhanced. All through that period and still, I examined myself and the world and what motivated me; this process continues. Thinking, painting, talking about Joe and his plight and so many themes micro and macro that are connected have been educational and though hard at times, emotionally and purposefully enriching.”
Though he’s been ubiquitously referred to as “…the darling of The Low Brow Movement,” he’s quick to point out that he considers his work to be inspired by a multitude of sources, and anyone who’s paid even a modicum of attention to his personal philosophy over the past decade knows that labels of any kind are the antithesis to that philosophy. “I am inspired by many styles of art,” he points out, “but more closely by the Expressionists – Otto Dix, George Grosz, Marc Chagall, Ivan Albright, and more recently Zdzislaw Beksinski – to name a few. I also like Diego Rivera and Hieronymus Bosch and some of the medieval Ecole du Nord art of that time. Where my art is concerned, I would hope that it serves as a vehicle to spawn dialog. If one might ask why my art looks and behaves as it does, then perhaps therein lies the motive of my message; how we as a species tend to judge visually and behaviorally in knee-jerk fashion that which seems to us “unusual”, though the very nature of what is “unusual” in and of itself varies from person to person, culture to culture. This tendency for hastily labeling and judging what might at first seem “different” or “out of place” – or the very idea that “different” or “out of place” is somehow inherently negative – is where I hope my work might create discussion about the tendency itself. How we treat each other, how a nation of us can treat another nation, or race or culture or religion, etc.”
That explanation is taken a step further in his essays, as evidenced by this gem from a 2005 entry in which he references both his brother Joe and the multitude of societal outcasts which populate so much of his visual work: “They will pin a word on your chest and use it against you. They will create a word that’s excuse to take your humanity away. I saw it happen to him.
And everyday, this: A word to make you serve, and one to make grateful for it. There is a label out there just for you. This will make you easier to categorize, and sell to. There is a word for the man next to you that makes you comfortable with the fact that you have so much more than he does. There is a word for you that tells you what to settle for.
There are the voiceless, who cannot speak for themselves. These are the easiest ones to shrink down. There are words for the non-conformers, simple words that can be quickly acknowledged by those that buy in. Crazy. Faggot. Gang. Rich. One is sinful, one is lazy, one is violent by nature and one is always, always good enough.
It’s such a precious thing that no one wants you to have it. You can’t be trusted with it. It’s such a delicate thing that it turns to something different in different hands. They might bury it but you can dig it up. You are strong enough for the Truth.
From my hands, my mission: To free the oppressed; to champion the persecuted, and the submissive; to liberate through revelation the actualized Self in those proposed by some to have no self at all. It’s in every single one of us, somewhere underneath that word on our chest.
In my hands, my version: All art is political in some sense, be it through conformity, reflection, propaganda or rebellion. My paintings are rallies and trials, photographs of a moment when Truth was made public, and Mercy known.
Question why a villain is villainized, a victim martyred. Ask why a group is demonized, and the motives for control. See for yourself what the truth looks like in your hands. Dig it up and hold it for a while. This work you see, it’s my Truth. But please don’t take my word for it.”
He says he doesn’t necessarily usually sit down to capture a preconceived idea or theme when he works, but explains, “Whenever I sit down to paint, I first set out to please myself and ask whether or not I am expressing what I want and composing a piece in such a way that it strikes a chord with me internally. Beyond this, I know that it is out of my hands what others may take away. I can express my personal intent for each painting and hope that whatever I am conveying will somehow add to the discussion concerning the themes I depict. If someone might come away with questions about the needless barriers we build between us and if this question leads to a place where understanding trumps xenophobia, I would feel I contributed somehow.”
Though he prefers not to dwell on the subject these days, Mars has already made some mighty contributions to the world at large through his co-founding- along with his fellow Twin-Citian, singer/songwriter/musician Paul Westerberg- of the seminal Minneapolis punk/pop outfit The Replacements. Chris played drums and participated (alongside bandmates Westerberg and brothers Tommy and the late Bob Stinson) in his share of the amped-up hijinx that brought the band both its fame and, ultimately, its downfall. Chris was with the ‘Mats from their 1979 inception through 1990’s All Shook Down, though he purposely contributed little to that record and subsequently quit the group, with Steve Foley taking up skins duties for what would be their last tour and final album.
He went on to work briefly with Minneapolis “Super-Group” Golden Smog, then recorded four solo albums, beginning with the stunning 1992 release Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, which, upon close listen, finds him revealing a plethora of his long pent-up frustrations with his musical career as well as setting the stage aurally for themes he would return to visually over the years: Cuts like the anti-clique anthem “Popular Creeps,” the smoldering “Outer Limits,” the wistful “Before It Began,” and the gorgeous ballad “Don’t You See It” are classics in their own rights, while “Egomaniac,” in retrospect, could be taken as a direct parting shot at Westerberg, though if it is, it’s certainly a sentiment that was of its’ time and is no longer relevant in the least. Each of his three following albums found him less and less interested in continuing a musical career (Though a group called The Wallmen found his excellent third release, Tenterhooks, great enough that they toured behind it, covering the songs and using a cardboard cut-out of Chris as their “frontman.”) Following 1996’s hilariously-titled Anonymous Botch, he officially moved into the visual medium, though fans were thrilled to discover that the thought-provoking, sometimes-disturbing imagery he’d used for his solo album covers were now going to occupy the majority of his time.
These days, he actually seems proud of his musical accomplishments, especially his solo work, and says, “There was satisfaction in knowing I had the ability to play many instruments to construct something of my own; it was frightening in that I wasn’t so sure about wearing so many hats at once. I had scantly ever sang a tune in my life. The records ultimately gave me a good feeling of independence and achievement . Emotionally it was a nice cap, knowing deep down I was completely and thoroughly finished with that chapter. I still do music, specifically soundtracks that go along with my short films. I have a good time with it and will continue to create music when it supports my visual endeavors.”
Indeed, Mars has literally worn quite a few hats over the years, releasing a coffee-table book, Tolerance (which he dedicated to his wife and soul-mate, writer Sally Mars) in 2008 that features 159 paintings and a superb, well-crafted collection of essays that deal with tolerance- or INtolerance, as it were- and was printed “green,” that is, on bleach-free paper using vegetable-based ink and not a whit of child or slave labor. He’s also still, as he put it, having a “good time” creating music for some very provocative and cutting edge animated short films. Once you’ve studied the still paintings he creates, you realize why he feels such a strong urge to see his characters “come to life,” as it were.
You can watch a 61/2-minute Chris Mars short called “A Rung Lower”- which does a fine job of bringing some of those interesting stills from his paintings to life, and find a veritable treasure trove of both his own animated efforts as well as an awesome collection of heartfelt fan tributes using his characters set to various music on YouTube. One zealous fan on YouTube has amassed a huge number of those mini-films- you can find him on YT under the name “cromemsg.” Enter the words “chris mars book” and even more such endeavors will appear. Chris has his own fascinating, official series of animated shorts set to his own, recently composed music under the header “films” on his fact-packed, informative web site, www.chrismarspublishing.com. He’s currently working on a new film, Flowers For Jupiter, which, he says, is based on one of his wife Sally’s stories, and he plans to begin entering his work in film festivals.
He seems genuinely excited to once again use music as a way of expressing himself artistically, though the sounds accompanying his shorts are about as far removed from the rock and pop he helped create with The Replacements (and even his solo work, which, by the time Tenterhooks was released, had found him experimenting with a variety of genres) as that band’s music is from that of Stravinsky. Nowadays, he recognizes that although he’s always had a deep appreciation for rock, pop, and indie music (he concluded an interview with The Punk Globe awhile back with the line, “Punk Rules!!”) maybe some of his infatuation with the life of a rowdy rock n’ roller was his own way of escaping the harsh realities of his youth, and that being in a band may have been a form of repression in and of itself.
“I think that through denial and confusion there came repression, yes.” he admits, “When someone as close as a sibling is going through such difficulties, there is a natural tendency to think that it could also happen to oneself. At times this proved a haunting proposition.” After turning his back on the zany, exhausting world of professional rock and roll, he began learning more about himself as an individual and an artist, and the result was nothing short of a personal/spiritual awakening. “As an adult,” he explains, “the more I drew and painted, the more this ghost presented itself. Perhaps art and creative expression have been a perfect avenue for escape. If something is there that is being denied, eventually it calls to be dealt with. Art as therapy is a great thing. I discovered that when one door is opened and a problem receives examination, it has the potential to open other doors; to open one’s mind on a more universal level.”
Despite the shadowy, sometimes terrifying world Chris depicts and the strange, deformed characters which populate it- one has to truly and deeply study the faces and figures to tell the difference between the wicked and the victims many times (with the possible exception of “Something Empty,” which features a bevy of street folk, one of the only near-perfect female faces in Mars’ output, and Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly’s HEAD lying on a stone street, some sort of noxious-looking drool running down its chin -all the lies?- and sticking out of a pair of old-fashioned red-and-white striped pajamas that are quite apparently completely devoid of a body) this artist is not an angry or disgruntled man.
In person, he’s affable, approachable, humble, and almost painfully shy. Like many of the essays he’s written, Mars fairly exudes an aura of genuine empathy, compassion, and concern, and his eyes hold a glow of cautious hope in them. Incidentally, hands down, the words uttered most frequently by exhibition attendees (Mars’ showing was one of several the night this writer attended, and he’ll undoubtedly be thrilled to know that many of the conversations I overheard revealed that a large portion of the audience had no idea that he was once a member of The Replacements or, being as young as so many were, who that band was at all!) were, “The eyes! Oh my God, look at the eyes! They’re beautiful!” True, many of the commentators went on to speculate and expound upon the characters and subject matter of the works, but nearly every patron walked away from the picture they’d been studying uttering the words, “I still can’t believe how REAL the eyes look!”
Mars himself sees that hopeful attitude in both his fellow artists as well as the young people he’s around in his daily life, saying, “I see a playful- escape-oriented, and a pessimistic- doom-oriented, yet hopeful- message-oriented, flavor in the so-called Low Brow movement. I notice with some artists a melding or hybrid of pop, surrealism and expressionism all at once. In attitude there is a darkness, a flavor and extension of punk’s rouge Gen X attitude where disillusionment and mistrust spawned by wars and the political/personal/religio-cultural battles that preceded Gen X are examined and questioned; a calling-out of the culture wars between our elders who politically or otherwise on either side of the aisle or any given debate seem to be at each others throats and unable to come together. It is a shift in artistic values to work that is more activist, seeking not just observation or accolades, but action. These are some of the threads I notice in the work of many of my peers.” As for the youth of today, he states, “I have a lot of hope in the millennial generation that is just now coming of age, I see something in my nieces and nephews and their peers that is by nature intensely cooperative. Perhaps this is what it will take to pull us all from the brink. I am excited too to see what they do and create.”
As for the future, he definitely sees himself taking an active role in it, not only blazing fresh trails in his current medium, but also expanding into other forms of expression as well. “I hope to continue to push and evolve as a painter first,” he states confidently, “and maybe even a film maker. I still find a great deal of mystery in these two things and hope to keep on exploring them.”
10 Must-See Chris Mars Paintings Currently On Display At The Phipps Center For The Arts:
1- “Only Tenants Reside”
2- “10-31 Jupiter Street”
4- “Something Empty”
5- “Corporatocracy Queen”
6- “Flushing The Celebration Of Ignorance”
8- “Escaping The Albatross”
9- “End Times Of The Armageddonist”
10- “Disappearing Ink”
Chris Mars’ Web Site is at
Showing title, dates, info: Chris Mars The Relinquishing @ The Phipps Center For The Arts Jan.22-Feb 21 2010
The Phipps Center for the Arts
109 Locust Street
Hudson, WI 54016