Review: Chris Mars' Tolerance

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

When it comes to combining horror with a tinge of sincere humanity, Chris Mars is the name that most comes to mind. Or, at least, it should. For the past decade, the Minnesota spawned artist has been championing his social and political causes in a most remarkable form. Now, Mars' unsettling dream imagery is easily accessible in a 2008 art book by Last Gasp, Tolerance: The Art of Chris Mars. Before reading more about the collection, however, be gently forewarned: this is visceral dynamite, a visionary booby-trap. Tread cautiously.

Mars' has previously discussed his strong leftward political leanings, immense appreciation of art, and struggle to raise up mentally anguished individuals like his schizophrenic brother at length. Certainly, there is no denying these deeply personal facets inspire and help explain his dark paintings. At the same time, there is another lens capable of evaluating Mars' artwork: the weird context. Delvers into weird fiction and other expressive mediums who proudly wear the "weird" label often seek to relate agonizing depictions of a strange, cruel universe. The most successful cases introduce a heavy atmospheric element, summoned from the psyche's inmost macabre channels and older horror models.

As a visual artist, Chris Mars belongs in the weird category as well, whether he is aware he resides there or not. The hallowed gallery in Tolerance succeeds by every measure of what constitutes weird art. Mars offers an anxious, sometimes painful cruise through vistas that seep decadent richness. His shadowy little villages, baffling temples, and autumnal skies are scenes that might have danced through our collective minds when we visit an exceptionally alien place, or when the fall season is at its unreal, flaming zenith. If there is fear in these scenes--and there is--then there is also comfort in their familiarity.

As queerly enchanting as his imaginary backdrops are, it is ultimately the populace of these places that really takes center stage in every Chris Mars piece. Make no mistake: the subjects featured here are monsters. On the surface, Mars' denizens are damaged, skeletal, diseased, bleeding, and sometimes corrupted by the inhuman elements of machines and animals. But then, just when one is ready to write off these sideshow faces as true outsiders, a confounding emotional spark appears in their eyes. Mars fills his devious looking puppet-people with expressions of compassion, sadness, relief, and most every other notch along the emotional spectrum. Then one realizes who these freaks born of vibrant oils and tenacious fears really are: us. This is an uncanny revelation that propels a lingering existential strangeness found in weird fiction and great art up to the surface, if only briefly, like the gruesome visages of Mars' anonymous masks.

At some unknown point, between fitful dreams and a howling desire for justice, Chris Mars may have entered a landscape eerily bare, unfamiliar, and determined to evoke only a bleak strangeness removed from meaningful art. There are definite traces of this place in this artist's morgue cities and monstrous self-portraits. Not everyone will see it. However, weird aficionados are likelier than others to achieve a glimpse, bringing a unique perspective to highly underrated art. Click here to see Chris Mars' Tolerance, before it becomes a memorable aesthetic scream in the night; audible, but just out of reach.

-Grim Blogger

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