In the Studio: A Conversation with Christopher Mir
Featured in edition #68 of New American Paintings, Christopher Mir’s apocalyptic dreamscapes have been gaining attention as of late, including being featured in the 2010 DeCordova Biennial. His surrealist visions of possible near futures mix mythic, archetypal characters in conflict with contemporary military and corporate threats. We met recently in his studio, a beautiful little backyard shed in Hamden, CT, where he also lives. —Sam McKinniss, contributor
SM: How do you approach image gathering? I know that you collect from a myriad of photographic sources. Do you start with an idea and just start sifting?
For the first few years, I was just feeling my way through it, but what became apparent were these isolated categories that needed to be fulfilled in order for it to feel like it was my work or for it to feel like I had something to say or do. And it basically works out of the “figure in landscape” template of the early Renaissance. That’s the project. Then, how does this digital media moment play into that and affect it?
The gathering itself is impulsive. I just sort of look and will read something or hear about something, usually a landscape or something in the world. Or like these Mormon cult-type communities where they’re still doing polygamy and stuff and I see the way the kids are dressed and I’m really into that, so I look for “Mormon children” because I like those weird dresses they wear.
SM: Oh, who wouldn’t?
They’re so awesome… those crazy hairdos. Once I get into something, I become obsessed with it and gather as many images as possible. And then they fall into the categories, like the landscape, which is like the stage. Figures usually are archetypal. There are a lot of warriors, goddesses, gods, and those sorts of characters. I went through a period where I wanted everybody to look like George Harrison, Jesus, or Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. That was maybe three or four years ago. Everything was about the hippy thing versus the corporate menace and that would be another category: the creepy office building, the apartment building, the military helicopter. Another category is spirit animals. The last category is magic in the space age.
The landscape is the most important because that’s the whole feeling of the thing. The magic and the space age is about the hallucinatory part. Things like snowflakes, some sort of weird pattern, the light show, those uncut diamonds or sparklers.
The gathering of the images is almost a daily ritual. I just look on Google image search. But I’m also taking some of my own captures. If there’s anything with my son or my family obviously I’m taking those pictures. Periodically I’ll do a shoot with models. I know what the basic template is, and then the fitting in of images is trial and error. It’s sort of by the process of irritation… The way the images fit together is almost on the level of abstraction.
SM: I like the idea of there being a habit of just gathering or searching. It sounds like stream of consciousness.
This often happens. I’m painting it because I’ve put this thing together, which is just out of automatism, playing with images until something arises. It comes and goes. I try all the time, but putting the images together doesn’t always flow, [as with] painting. The creative process sometimes is like walking over broken glass, and sometimes it just flows and it’s almost effortless. I finish a really large painting in two weeks and I’m astonished. It’s the same thing with putting the images together. Sometimes there will be a week or two where everyday I’m making four or five [collages], and I have hundreds of these things. It’s just a matter of seeing what resonates.
I’ll start a painting without any clear narrative and then while I’m painting it I’m like, “Oh my God.” Of course this is my mother and me. I was thinking of Jesus and Mary, where you have the mother and child, or Isis and Osiris or something. But, you know, this is very clearly the kind of situation that I grew up in. I was born on a commune and both my parents were really radical hippy types. It was a drug, rock and roll culture that I was born into, and filmmaking. My mother did hair and makeup for John Waters films when I was a kid and I was on the sets of a lot of weird-ass films when I was really little. She also took me to art museums.
Perfect From Now On, 2009 | Oil on canvas, 55 x 67 inches
SM: There’s a certain contemporary anxiety in your work, but I don’t think it’s the same thing as modern angst, or any real resentment of previous generations.
Like I said, I’ve inherited the failed dream of the hippy movement. So, there’s this idea that there’s this promise and then they couldn’t deliver. There’s this feeling of loss. There was almost another moment of humanism and then we let it go. I want to put the vulnerable, fragile, beautiful stuff in the foreground generally, and then put the underlining threat in the background. On the horizon of this idyllic world are really terrible people doing terrible things.
SM: Or even awful nature. Like these clouds are totally ominous. Or that too-big mountain is just too big.
Sometimes I’m having an aesthetic breakdown where the world itself is turning into shredded pieces of digital noise, the Wrong Sky. I go through phases where I want it to be really unstable because I feel really unstable. The painting can be a projection of the psyche. Wherever you are, whatever you have to offer can go right in there. I go through periods of relative calm or equanimity where I just want something that is like a seamless three-dimensional world and I can go into that space and there’s something soothing about it.
…The artists I respond to, who I want to emulate are Sigmar Polke and Neo Rauch, a couple of German lunatics. I really love them. The idea that you would make something that’s like a hallucination, like a dream in a convincing way. There’s a fair amount of digital manipulation in Photoshop done beforehand to create that feeling of your reality slipping a little bit.
Remembering the Future, 2010 | Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 64 inches
SM: It’s possible right now to make art that only exists on the internet, only viewable that way. I appreciate the way your paintings invite a dialogue with problems basically set up during the Renaissance.
Or you could say it’s the Greek view. Which is democracy, philosophy, looking for truth and beauty, realism is born in the Greek moment. I don’t think anywhere else on the planet. The Romans trying to do it again made it so beautiful and so sensual. When I go to the Met I go straight into Greek and Roman sculpture. I want to look at that all day. Bellini’s “St. Francis in Ecstasy” at the Frick? It’s just overwhelming.
SM: “Ecstasy” is great! A lot of what you do is about ecstasy.
It’s escapism. The fact that it’s painting and it’s about the information that we see coming through the nervous system and being translated through these pigments, and you’re touching the surface over and over again, you’re creating a sense of light. That re-humanizes the experience. Many people have said these composite collages, on a good inkjet printer, that’s art in and of its self. Well first of all, I’m obsessed with painting and I have been since I was a kid. But I also think that’s part of the problem. Let’s say globalization and the information age has dehumanized us. Our interactions are all really weird and there’s emotional short-circuiting going on. This is a millennia long problem but we are sort of disembodied as human creatures. We can spend a lot of time just out there and not really experiencing our physiology or our whole self, including the nervous system and our bodies. Some kind of alchemy happens where you’re manipulating these crude materials and then that turns into light. That turns into actual feeling.
SM: A lot of what painting does, versus your printout collage mock-ups, is it invests labor, time, and materials, really basic ways to spend human effort.
And then you earn it. I really love Matisse and Picasso, I love to go and look at it, but it’s very unsatisfying compared to Bonnard, where I look at Bonnard and I really sink in because he did. So you get in, and I get out of the work what he put into it. Put in a month on a little painting, and it has presence and density.
SM: Do you travel?
I travel for shows. Other than that I’m really devoted to this room. That is the escapism part. I don’t take these pictures of Patagonia. That’s not something I’m interested in doing, actually backpacking to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. For my purposes, I really just want to play with these images. Going there definitely has appeal, but I’m some form of mutant monastic. I do this contemplative work in this little building and it’s very satisfying. It’s very cliché, but the universe is within. That’s the place to go. Even if you do travel to the far reaches you’d still have to go in there and react and feel light and have it sink in. There’s a Beatles song in there somewhere.
Christopher Mir was featured in edition #68 of New American Paintings. In January, he was included in the 2010 DeCordova Biennial at the DeCordova Sculpture Park + Museum in Lincoln, MA. He has exhibited recently at Galeria Senda, Barcelona, Rare Gallery, New York, and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, CT. He will be featured in a solo show of his work in May 2011 at TMproject, Geneva, Switzerland.