In his artist statement, Chris Mars rallies a battle cry: “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.
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.”
I find that Mars’ definition of his art is at the core of what the aesthetics of the grotesque tries to accomplish. For certainly, this play of humor and horror rises up out of the artificial boundaries that we create in order to feel safe from that which we can barely name. Mars creates what he calls “perceived monsters,” which is accurate, for these forms are not the classic monstrous body as discussed by other scholars such as China Miéville and Theodora Goss. He describes this cast of characters as “misfits, people who are physically deformed, or rather, uniquely formed (as indeed we all are, each one of us); or, people who are mentally on a different plane than the majority.” In this sense, Mars’ subjects more closely resemble the freaks found in Flannery O’Connor stories – those whose bodies and minds have been broken by nature, economics, and their own culture. O’Connor wanted us to think about the deeper implications of mystery – how that spiritual journey should lead us to become more merciful, compassionate human beings. But that compassion comes at a cost – it is self sacrificial in nature. It means we stay in community with the mentally ill instead of carting them off to a site unseen. Same with the elderly. The sick. The poor. You get it.
But how often do we actually stay in relationship with that Other? Mars’ work allows us encounter the nameless places that the Other is corralled to. In Neglect of the Maimed, we are placed in a graveyard, given the shroud-like material that partially covers the central character’s amputated leg. The pecs are well defined and play in opposition to the open sores that cover his body, as well as the missing limbs. This grotesque resurrection is made even more disturbing by the lipstick chaotically smeared over his mouth – hinting at the story of concentration camps survivors who accidentally received a shipment of lipstick when they were waiting for the allies to take them home. His glance is directed towards the model-like woman foregrounded in the right corner, and away from the machine-like creature rounding up this group of bewildered zombies. The woman’s gaze is haunting, seductive – she is caught between perfection and freakdom, not moving in the direction of the others who are being herded along. One wonders what kind of rescue these two might be hoping for from a society that no longer wants to see their maimed lives.
Telephone plays off the old child’s game, where whisper to whisper communication changes the nature of the original message to some outlandish tale. It’s a fun game to play, certainly, but how is it we can mess up communication when in such close proximity to each other, our lips to another’s ear? What more is lost, or perhaps found, through technological innovation? There’s no clear answer here in this beautifully macabre, carnivalesque town where everyone is mashed together, yet disconnected. Letters and numbers are now bits of data lost in the ether while the creatures still attempt to engage in conversation or the act of reading. Yet I don’t find Mars’ vision to be nihilistic, for certainly there is also a playfulness to this work, with the diminutive wizard on the left looking into what I first thought was a skull-pez candy dispenser. Instead, it is something almost human encased in the house, much like the imprisoned soul next to it. We are watching a society in the midst of metamorphosis, the future of which is still unclear. Mars renders his creatures as luminous despite their surroundings – the gold, silver, and white tones contradicting the bleak subject matter. For in the midst of that neglect and destruction, at the core of humanity is holiness and the creative act, asking us to take the leap from aesthetics into praxis. The grotesque calls out the hypocrisy which keeps us in a cynical, observant state, and through its mind-jamming narratives, drive us further into mystery, into the hunger for community, and a vision for redemption.
To view more of Chris Mars work, go visit his website. On a completely different note, in case you recognize the name, yes, this is the same Chris Mars who was the drummer for The Replacements.