Spirit animals, wanderers, and the corporate menace

Painter Christopher Mir keeps it (photo) real
Written by Hank Hoffman

Chris Mir. Photo by Harold Shapiro

The quest is one of the enduring tropes of mythology. So it’s no surprise that painter Christopher Mir — for whom the imagery of myth is a rich trove of inspiration — is on a constant quest to keep his art practice vibrant and alive.

When I visit Mir in his home studio, I find that his quest has taken a detour from the work with which I am familiar. Mir has made a name for himself over the past decade painting narrative, figurative works rich with allegory, mythic and religious allusions, and references to both art history and contemporary society. His “hyperreal” or “photorealistic” dreamscapes, as he refers to them, have been featured in solo shows in New York City, Berlin, and Barcelona. But the works on his studio wall this night, while sharing conceptual ground with his better-known work, have a stripped-down graphic style. Line work delineates forms that are then filled in with fields of flat acrylic colors.

According to Mir, he did work not dissimilar to this to get into graduate school. Mir has long felt the “cartooning impulse.” As a child, Mir was a comic book fan.

“That was my goal in life — to be a comic book illustrator,” says Mir. “It wasn’t until I was 16 or 17 that I thought I’d be a painter, a fine artist, and put away ‘childish things’ and took painting seriously.”

Mir studied art and anthropology in college. In the mid-1990s, prior to graduate school, Mir participated in a drawing marathon led by painter Elena Sisto as part of the Chautauqua Summer Program.

“At some point we were drawing the figure and I drew a cartoon version of the figure with bold outlines and put a bird’s head on it. I was just having fun,” recalls Mir. “She was ecstatic — ‘Now we’re getting somewhere!’ And at the same time, I discovered Philip Guston’s work and became a huge fan. In a way, (Sisto) gave me permission to go back to childhood ambitions ands impulses.”

In graduate school, Mir began painting from photographs while still hewing to a neo-Primitivist style influenced by Guston and Goya’s “black paintings.” Even while working in a more hyper-realist or photorealist style over the past decade, he retained an interest in the work of those artists as well as contemporary artists with a cartoon-like or folk-art aesthetic such as John Wesley, Marcel Dzama, and Chris Ofili.

Around the beginning of this past decade, not long after Mir’s son Evan was born, Mir began evolving the style he has become known for — painting from photographs with a keen attention to detail but also, as he says, “distorting them dramatically” by collaging imagery from multiple sources.

According to Mir, his method for the “hyperreal” paintings is to “make a digital collage in Photoshop of disparate images, make a print, project that image with an opaque projector, trace and paint carefully, and study the photograph and try and make a moment-by-moment reaction to that visual information.”

In terms of subject matter, Mir’s paintings fall well within the Western tradition of figures and landscape. But he adds his own twist to it. Mir scours coffee-table nature books and Google image searches for evocative landscapes. Typing the phrase “twisty tree” into Google yielded the image that became the centerpiece of the 2006 painting Mortal Mirror.

In Mir’s paintings, settling on the landscape image is determinative.

“I would see the landscape as the stage and the characters or events would play out on the stage,” he says. In building up the composition in Photoshop, Mir uses a process of trial and error, inserting figures, architectural images, and creatures “until something sticks and by ‘sticks,’ I mean feels inevitable.”

Over the last 10 years, Mir has switched back and forth between working with oil paints and painting with acrylics. And while he affirms a “never say never” approach, he says now that he has settled on acrylic paint as his medium of choice.

“Acrylic is like drawing. It’s much more about making changes, making edits, being graphic. That’s what this medium lends itself to. And I do like that there’s this freeze-dried emotional quality, a remove. For me, it makes sense for the imagery and for the inherent meaning of the work.

“And I think of myself as a colorist. I want to illuminate spaces with color — that’s primary,” says Mir.

While a painter can do that with oils, “that’s what acrylic is: color in resin. Oil is almost like an organism. And for me,” Mir says, “it has a tremendous amount of cultural baggage attached to it — the whole history of Western painting.”

Mir’s paintings suggest narratives. But does he have specific narratives in mind when he creates his works?

“I like to usually not have a story ahead of time and just play with forms. I want it to be playful and have a light touch, especially when putting it together, because I think the more transparent and open I am, the more light can shine through it,” he says.

In a 2007 gallery talk for his solo show at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Mir explained that he populated his “stage set” with what was essentially a repertory company of tropes and mythic figures: the beautiful woman/goddess figure, the God or wanderer (“Jesus, hippie, Charles Manson, ‘the dude’ — he represents the primal state”), raw nature (“pure, beautiful, sublime landscapes”), a child or children, the “spirit animal,” the “corporate menace” (“my fear of being sucked into the moment of climate change or unchecked greed”), and magic, “usually represented by little spheres of light.”

Mir says he is inspired by the stories and structures of myth “but I don’t feel a real allegiance to them or the need to be precious with them.” As an example, Mir referred to a recent painting he has been working on. The painting is inspired by the mythical story of Athena’s birth — bursting forth fully-grown and armed from the skull of Zeus.

“I would think of it as a metaphor for the birth of an idea,” says Mir. “Tear it out of its context and mix it up.

“I want art to be a projection of the psyche, to explore regions of the mind and soul usually hidden — that’s out of Surrealism and automatism,” says Mir.

The neo-Primitivist paintings on the studio wall the evening of the interview are a reflection of Mir’s creative restlessness. The photorealist works constitute his primary emphasis but he has “tried to introduce folk art multiple times over the last 10 years,” Mir says. He still feels the pull of the “cartooning impulse,” seeing in the style a “universal aesthetic language” that is manifested in such disparate art as Japanese woodblock prints, aboriginal art, folk art, children’s’ art, and outside art. And, Mir says, he still retains a deep respect for painters who work in that genre such as Dzama and Wesley.

“The whole point of this is to keep the studio alive and the job of the artist is to be inspired. I believe that. I don’t believe it’s just hokey, old-fashioned romanticism. If something new is required, you have to try it, and like Bob Dylan said, ‘You work with what you’re given,’” says Mir.

The Bob Dylan reference is telling (although Mir couldn’t recall in what context or song Dylan made the statement). While painting is what Mir is known for, he’s also a prolific songwriter, recording his own tunes at home both by himself and with fellow painter Zachary Keeting. His most current album’s worth of songs — distributed as mp3s via e-mail to friends — evidence the cross-pollinated influences of folk music and indie rock. He says that his visual art and music efforts are “very interconnected, even in terms of the actual forming of songs and paintings.”

“It happens in the same room – happens one right after another, so there is a direct continuity,” he says. “I’ll be painting and take a break from painting because I need to rest that part of my brain. I pick up the guitar or bang on the drums or form song lyrics in the same place. That’s the sweet spot for me. I think playing music is freeing up psychic energies in a different way and painting is freeing up psychic energy, so one is kind of feeding into the other.”

Mir adds that he sometimes uses a Jungian exercise known as “active imagination” — looking at a painting and speaking from the point of view of a character in the painting.

“They have a lot to say and it’s strange stuff, like automatic poetry. Usually what happens is it turns into song lyrics,” says Mir.

It’s an important part of Mir’s studio practice to be open to experimentation, to be “available,” as he says, to the moment of inspiration whether in art or music. Of the neo-Primitivist paintings he had been working on recently, Mir sees them as “an important valid side experiment, but a sidebar to the more important, rich work I have to offer.” He has created “parallel, non-convergent styles.” Inevitably, some experiments may turn out to be dead ends – or, if not dead ends, roads that do not yet lead to a satisfying destination. It’s all part of the quest.


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