Interview: Chris Mars

Minneapolis artist Chris Mars is living proof that F. Scott Fitzgerald was dead wrong when he said there are no second acts in American lives. Though famous in the 1980s as the drummer for alt-rock heroes The Replacements, Mars eventually left the music world behind entirely to focus on the visual arts, now specializing in stunningly evocative, macabre portraits. The A.V. Club spoke with him recently—mostly about art, but it was impossible to resist asking for Mars' thoughts on a reunion of his old band—in conjunction with his participation in Juxtapoz Magazine's annual group show of "lowbrow" art, taking place this year at Minneapolis galleries Ox-Op Arts and Soo Visual Arts Center. Check out Mars' website at chrismarspublishing.com. See also our interview with artist James Marshall, a.k.a. "Dalek."

The A.V. Club: Let's start by talking about the inspiration for your painting. The first inspiration for you was your childhood experience witnessing your brother's difficulty with mental illness, right?

Chris Mars: It's a steadfast inspiration that runs [through] what I do. Though my work gets pretty sociopolitical on a larger scale, that's really where the crux of it started, with my experiences with my brother. Because that's where I first learned about empathy, trying to put myself in his shoes—and also about how family members, people in the neighborhood, and society at large, how they deal [with mental illness]. And the stigmatizing of people who are considered different. All those themes started pretty early for me. Visually through my work, over and over, I'm trying to create characters that are—to some people they may be monstrous, and I hate that word, because I think they're just unique. Misfits. I purposefully want to present something a little different so that whether people are disturbed by it or not, they can wrestle with it.

AVC: Your brother was 15 when he was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and you were 5?

CM: I was around 5 or 6. I was pretty young and didn't know what was happening. At that time there was really no name for it. Whenever somebody would have trouble, like maybe someone down the block, [people would say] "Mr. So-And-So had a nervous breakdown." That was always the way my brother was described. "Nervous breakdown," "schizophrenia," there was never any label. It was always very confusing. All I knew is that my brother was there and then he wasn't there. He had to go away somewhere, and that was really confusing and frightening as a little kid.

AVC: What effect did it have on your family?

CM: I think there was a lot of denial. Denial mixed with a lack of understanding of what was going on. And then also, later on in our lives, with siblings especially, there was always this underlying fear that if it happened to someone that you love—your older brother—that it could happen to you as well. There was always that little bit of—I guess not so little at times—concern that it may happen to one of us too. But we never talked about it, so there was denial.

AVC: Schizophrenia does sometimes run in families.

CM: Yeah, that is true. But also, we all just really loved our brother, and we still love him obviously, but it was a very disruptive thing. And obviously [there's more to the issue] than just your family surroundings, but it definitely affected us. When I think about it, it's a blessing in many ways, because I learned very early on about how society treats certain people, and I think that can be a positive to express that and maybe shine a light on that a little bit. So that's what I'm trying to do with my work.

AVC: How is your brother these days?

CM: He's pretty medicated. He's living with my mom, and he's in his 50s, so he's hanging in there. He's been better when he was more integrated in a program, and so I think he's maybe not doing quite as good right now, but he's hanging in there.

AVC: What does he think of your painting?

CM: I tried to explain to him a few times, and I'm not sure if he understands exactly what I'm trying to say or what I'm trying to do, but he's really proud of me. One of the things he just loves is trains, and I just spent the last week building a train set for him. I just delivered to him last night, so that was really fun. That brightened up his day.

AVC: Does he have an awareness of his own condition?

CM: I think he does. Because even last night when I saw him, he said, "you know, boy, I don't know what I'd do without that medication. That medication sure helps me." And although I think in society there's a double-edge [to medication] because there's so much drug pushing going on by corporations, at the same time I think there has been a lot of advancement in the type of medications, and I think they have improved.

AVC: Some of the older drugs could be quite burdensome in themselves.

CM: Yeah. Like Thorazine, or some of the ones that were really just dopey—you know, basically they'd just dope you up. There's more targeted drugs now. Which is great. At the time of the onset with my brother, at that time in history, they knew so much less about the disease. Now with the drugs and the greater understanding of it, I think if a kid was having an onset at this point, through therapy and drugs the outcome could be quite different now, which is great.

AVC: Have you decided what you're going to be showing at Juxtapoz?

CM: It's going to be a larger piece, maybe 25-by-30ish. Yes. It's a very politically oriented piece. The basis of the painting [is] about nuclear testing and this town—Hanford, Washington—that had to suffer from about the '40s from the '60s. There was a bomb factory that would purposefully release this radioactive cloud to see what would happen to people. Basically this whole area got cancers throughout the years, and many, many people died. They've been fighting it to no avail for the last 30 years, trying to fight the government to get compensated for the deaths of family members in the area. I think that's where my work tends to be going. It starts with sociopolitical things around my brother, but then you look at how people treat people throughout the world, and what's going on today with xenophobia, how America views another country, and how we will sometimes invade another country through a lack of understanding. I think those same themes of how people treat people are also the themes that happen on a global scale. It really is a constant theme throughout the world.

AVC: Some of the newer paintings you've posted on your website definitely seem to have a more directly political edge than previously, like "The Poor Steward" that has Pat Robertson in the center, and "The Perils Of Spent Uranium," which I assume is about Iraq.

CM: Yeah, exactly. And what we're doing with our nuclear waste, putting it in bullets and bombs. There is just so much going on in the world, such corruption and destruction and death, it's just incredible. It's hard to think about too hard, because it just gets frustrating because you feel powerless, but I think a lot of that energy ends up getting into my work, especially of late.

AVC: Sometimes people say that times like these are when the best art comes out, but even if that's true, I'm not sure if that's a good price to pay for having those times.

CM: If something good can come from it, I guess that is the upside. Yeah, I think about that too. It really does wake one up. You start thinking about the world in a deeper sense. And [I hope] a positive end of that can be that as an artist you can document some of the ills of the time, maybe as a warning for the future. You hope that you're adding your drop to the bucket.

AVC: What other artists inspire you?

CM: There's some contemporaries that I really like. Sue Coe, who is also very sociopolitical. Joe Coleman is another one. More historically, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Ivan Albright, some of the more German-expressionist type of artists who dealt with a lot of the same themes [as I do]. Hieronymus Bosch, going way back, obviously is a influence as well. Another artist too that I really like is Zdzislaw Beksinski.

AVC: Oh, he's fantastic. It was terrible to hear of his recent murder.

CM: Yes, yes. And it was really odd because we had just purchased a couple of paintings from his agent, and we got this hand-written message and an e-mail from him. Just really a super-nice guy, a sweet old guy, and we were just shocked when we heard it. [His work] really gets into fantasy, but also you can see the expressionism and the political nature of it, which I really like.

AVC: What about Ralph Steadman?

CM: I do enjoy his work. I think maybe earlier on he was more of an influence. He still is.

AVC: Your characters are reminiscent of Boris Karloff's take on Frankenstein's monster, in that the "monstrousness" might be all that's apparent at first. It might take a closer look for it to sink in that they're sympathetic creatures, not evil.

CM: I think that's a good analogy. Sometimes I will portray the more normal-looking people as the monsters and then the more distorted—"uniquely formed" is the word I like to use, rather than monstrous—as the sympathetic characters in the painting. It's interesting because some people will get it right away, but a common reaction is to be a little off-put by it. And that is the whole idea. If it grabs somebody in a negative way, that's my intention. I want something that might not be so familiar to people, and then once they know what I'm trying to say, they will have a deeper understanding. For me, it's directly analogous to people that are considered different or outcasts, and how a lot of times it's just a lack of understanding by "normal" society. Once they get to examine things, they find out that people are just people.

AVC: Do you repeat characters?

CM: No, I try not to. In feel, yes. But I tend to not do any studies of my work, I just sit down and go, and things start to build on one another. I need to keep it spontaneous as an artist, so for me to repeat a face would be redundant and boring.

AVC: In that case, what was it like working on your animated short, The Severed Stream, since animation requires working on the same face over and over to make different expressions?

CM: There's going to be inherently different things that come out of working on another medium, but I tried to go along with [it]. A lot of [Severed Stream] is paintings and pieces that were cut up throughout [the animation], but there is a little constant thread that repeats through it, but it's also very stream-of-conscious themes that get political and psychological through it too, some of the chaoticness of it. An ordered chaos, I guess, is how I'd describe it.

AVC: How did that project come about?

CM: I've always liked animation. Sometimes when I sit and paint, the figures are so frozen that there's a desire on my part to want to see them move. [Laughs.] I just wanted to break up some of my paintings and move them around and see what that'd look like.

AVC: Was Severed Stream done as a commission for a TV channel, or something like that?

CM: Nope. I just wanted to make it. I sat down and thought, "I want to make a film," and just went ahead and did. And I don't really know what I'm going to do with it. Museums will buy original video art—if there's a limited edition release of, say, five or something, they will purchase that and that will be the only way it will exist. I think that's the route I want to go first, but if nobody's interested then I may enter it in a festival. But going into making something like that, I don't really think about where it's going to end up. I just go ahead and try to create and feed off whatever inspires me at the moment.

AVC: You were painting before your days in the Replacements, but when did your art career actually begin?

CM: I was with the band for about 10 years, and the calling of wanting to draw and to paint really started to creep up toward the end of that, like the last two, three years. When I was out of the band, I did a little music on my own, but I didn't tour anymore. I basically sat down and went at [the art]. Lots of pastel drawings, that was my whole pastel period probably for a good seven, eight years. I didn't really show much at that time. I was really trying to get it out of my system and hone the skills as much as I could. As far as starting to show my work professionally, the end of the '90s is when it really started.

AVC: Do you mind if we talk about your music for a little while?

CM: I tend to not want to, because I've really talked about it so much. I really want to concentrate on what I'm doing now, if that's all right.

AVC: Of course.

CM: I appreciate that.

AVC: Just one question. Are you still making music?

CM: I do in the sense of soundtracks. If it's linked to visuals somehow, then I get inspired by it. And every once in awhile I'll get together with friends just to goof around, maybe once a month, I don't know what happened, but there was a time in my life when I just devoured [music]. I loved it, I lived for it. I think I just ended up getting bored with it. [Laughs.] I can't really quite put my finger on it; it still inspires me from time to time, but it's not a very lasting inspiration. I can do it for one or two days, and then I just want to get back to painting. Painting is what really hits the right nerve these days.

AVC: Are you engaged in any direct political activism beyond the themes in your paintings?

CM: If I had more time I'm almost positive I would be. I spend pretty much 12 hours a day painting, so any sentiment I have that along those lines goes into the paintings. Maybe I will someday, [but] the painting at this point is the way I stay active. And I always try to mention my politics, if I can, in interviews and things like that.

AVC: What projects do you have coming up in the near future?

CM: I'm thinking about another film, and those usually happen between paintings. I just finished up a show in New York at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery and a lot of the work [sold], so I'm going to be back creating more work. I don't really have much right now, and there's a couple other commitments that I have—Varnish Gallery in San Francisco and the Ox-Op thing, and another show down in Florida. … I'm probably about good eight months to a year before I have [another] full show. There was a time when I was showing every four months, and when things started to move, it was really difficult to keep the quality of the work up [if I was] just trying to crank it out. The most important thing for me is to have a work be as strong as it can, so I really started to slow down. That's really helped me just concentrate on the work and not on trying to fulfill a quota to do a show; I'm taking a little more time in between.

AVC: I do have one or two more music questions, if you don't mind.

CM: I'll do one, how 'bout that? [Laughs.]

AVC: My understanding is that you're pretty much uninterested in participating in a Replacements reunion. But suppose that you got a call tomorrow saying "Everything's set up, all you have to do is say yes," would you be interested in doing that?

CM: I'm going to have to say no. Because I think to really do that right again it would take more energy than just sort of doing something off the cuff, and I just I think for that reason I think probably more than any, it's just the energy it would take to kind of switch gears, I'm so immersed in what I'm doing right now, that I don't even think I could get into it. I haven't drummed in quite a while. And the way I work right now, I'm painting so much that I don't listen to much music. Because music is another creative outlet, it's a huge distraction for me when I paint. I'll maybe put on classical music or jazz, something where there's no lyrics or anything. I'm just very, very minimally involved in music these days, so I would just have to say no. [Laughs.] It's almost like [I've led] two separate lives—through the course of your life you live multiple lives, in a way, and it does seem like that chapter of my life [in the Replacements] was kind of another life, and that I'm not living in that space. I'm in another place.

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