Artist of the Week – Chris Crites

Posted on September 10, 2013 · Posted in Artist of the Week

Great Depression – 1930's Los Angeles. Case Information Unavailable. 25.625"h x 18"w

Chris Crites paints portraits, or rather ‘mug-shots’ on brown paper bags. The effect that the bags have is startling. The tawdry ‘canvases’ shift these people further into awkward and uneasy states and conditions. There is an eeriness to Crites work, that have visual historical references to 1800’s ‘Wanted’ posters. Through these paintings we see these people as rejects who were shunned from society, living in the shadow and cusp of illegal and immoral doings.

These graphical images, that also include guns, are painted in bright bold and synthetic colours. This adds to the uneasiness of the image. Crites moves them from the 1800’s, reinventing them into contemporary popular culture images.

In 1999 Chris Crites painted his first four mug shots in acrylic on paper bags. Since then he has frequently exhibited his works throughout the US, and has also exhibited in Canada and the UK.

In his own words

Burglary. 57.5"h x 41.5"w

Could you please introduce yourself, your background, to create and why?
Hello! Chris Crites is my name and I have a Bachelor’s degree in general studio art and an Associate degree in Technical Arts and Graphics. I have been drawing and painting for as long as I can remember. My grandmother was an amazing, self-taught artist who worked in watercolor and colored pencils. From when I was very young she used to encourage my brother and I to draw by putting various things in front of us. She was incredibly talented but extremely shy about it. My brother is a very talented artist as well so that has always been a motivating encouragement. Art is something that comes out of me and I am glad to have the ability and time to provide an outlet for it.

What do you try to express in your work? How do you choose materials to help you do this?
Excellent question. To be honest, I am not exactly sure what I am trying to express. It is more an examination of images from the past that interest me. I am fascinated by history and have always enjoyed looking at old mug shot photos – trying to figure out what the story behind these lost images could be. In my color choices, it is an ongoing experiment. Not totally random, but close. I am sure some of the images combined with the colors chosen could have strong meaning to some viewers but it is not something I intentionally attempt. Colour choice is also affected by my use of brown paper bags.

Larceny. 57.5"h x 41.5"w

You paint a lot of guns. At a time when the world is watching the States over its view on gun ownership and the Constitution, personal politics (if you want) aside what effect does your art have?
The effect I am attempting by painting strong images or power symbols (like the firearms) in this brightly colored way is to get people thinking. By seeing an unusual image presented in far different colors than expected hopefully brings up questions about what the image is and why it is being presented this way. I believe we should never stop asking questions: about power, about people, about the past. I believe questioning is a necessary thought exercise. The gun paintings did start with a deliberate color scheme and idea in mind. I can remember when I was pretty young reading that the Uzi machine gun was developed in Israel. Being completely ignorant of history at that age I couldn’t figure out why what I thought was a predominantly religious state needed such a weapon. Much later in life of course I learned more about history. I thought it would be funny to paint such a powerful, even “macho” symbol if you will, in pinks and purples, stereotypically “feminine” colors. What would that do to the interpretation of this powerful image?

Again, not sure what it is I am trying to say with these paintings, I just wanted to explore what happens when I presented them in my bright, limited palette style.

What influences have driven your work and why?
My grandmother and brother have always been huge influences on me because of their strong talent and impressive work. The American painter Chuck Close has always inspired me. Also really like Caravaggio, Van Eyck, Rembrandt and other Dutch Renaissance painters but I can’t specifically say they have driven my work in any particular direction.

Adultery. 12"h x 9"w

Recently been looking at a lot of Gerhard Richter’s paintings and admire the techniques he has developed. Since I work in acrylic, not in oil like he does, don’t know how I could incorporate any of that into my style.

I have a lot of amazing peers and colleagues here in Seattle that produce a lot of great art. That inspires me to continue striving forward in my own work.

Your paintings have a narrative approach. Are your images single stories, or are they related, combining themselves in larger works?
The images I work from are usually in batches from the same time-period and area. For example, I have had a couple of shows based on San Francisco mug shots from the 1940s a show based on Australian mug shots from Sydney in the 1930s. Individually they each have a single, mysterious story. All I usually have is the image and the crime that they were accused of. As a whole they do combine to form a story of human interaction and the circumstances people face that put them in hard situations where they may end up in the prison-industrial complex.

I haven’t thought of it as an ongoing story, but it is something I will continue working with for a long time to come. There is almost no end to subject-matter for me, with the mug shots at least.

Burglary. 12"h x 10"w

Why is the artist in a unique position to make statements that cause us to relate? What do you think the artist offers that say a public speaker, leader or a teacher cannot?
Visual artists and musicians have the ability to reach people on a more emotional level I think. Spoken word is a powerful thing but images can provide much more for interpretation and consideration. A strange thing about art for me is that the audience is selective, but as a creator I have no idea what each viewer will bring to it in their own personal selectivity. People respond in so many different ways to art. With a visual image, whether or not you like it, once you have seen it, there will be an effect.

What’s next for you?
More and more painting! Recently got represented by a gallery in Seattle, G. Gibson Gallery, which is exciting. I scored an artist-in-residency at Pratt Fine Arts Center here in Seattle. That will give me full access to a complete printmaking studio where I can begin experimenting. Also I’m taking part in a fine art fair in San Francisco in May through my gallery there, Jack Fischer Gallery. I’m working on a couple of commissions as well, so there’s a busy year ahead. Lots of fun.

A page from Crites' work journal.

Chris Crites, born in California in 1972, is a painter and curator, who currently lives and works in Seattle. He studied for his BA in Art General Studio Practice at San Jose State University, San Jose, California; and for his AA in Technical Arts/Graphics at the College of San Mateo, San Mateo, California. In 2008 he was awarded the PONCHO: IFA Artistic Merit Award.

All images courtesy of Chris Crites   |

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