Chris Leib likes to contemplate whether the documenters of history have ever been giving us the true picture when it comes to the meaningful and momentous happenings that have occurred on our planet. Are the historical events of the western world presented to us via a machine engineered to manufacture our manipulation? With his latest ongoing series of paintings entitled ‘Eden’, Leib explores these concepts through iconic and symbolic imagery featuring a fabulous cast of astronauts and Bonobo apes. He transplants his characters into humourous scenarios, often set in historically significant surroundings, where they run amok and generally tamper with events as we know them. Painted with tremendous skill and personality, Chris’ works pull us into situations from eras gone by that pose intriguing questions and leave us wondering where the truth lies.
Chris was born in the San Francisco Bay Area. He began his art education at The University of California at Berkeley and then later at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. After which he served an apprenticeship with the master Italian painter Roberto Luppetti. Chris’ work has been exhibited internationally.
WOW x WOW was eager to learn more about Chris and his art, and so was naturally delighted when an opportunity arose to ask him a few questions. Read on to find out what he had to say.
Hi Chris, thanks for taking the time to join us. First of all, please let us know where you’re from, where you currently live and what it is that you enjoy about the area?
Thanks, glad to be here on WOW x WOW. I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area. I spent a few years living in Brooklyn, which I loved, but just recently returned to California. Now I am living on the Monterey peninsula, which has incredibly beautiful beaches and cliffs. I don’t think there’s really any way to describe the majesty of the Pacific coast. In the mornings when it’s foggy, one can walk through the small town here and sit at the beach. There’s a sense of solitude and calm, which is very different from the cities I’ve lived in.
Before studying fine art at Academy of Art College in San Francisco, you gained a honours degree in Anthropology from Berkeley. Tell us a little about your background, touching on what inspired you to study Anthropology and what it was that eventually lead you down the path of wanting to become an artist?
My father is an incredible artist. As far back as I can remember I wanted to draw like him… I’m still trying! In his studio he had lots of books on classical and renaissance art and books about ancient cultures. The books on mythology in particular captured my imagination, I drew stacks of mythical creatures and heroes. When I got to high school I had an art teacher that was determined to make art boring. At that point I stopped drawing and concentrated on academic pursuits. Eventually I ended up at Berkeley. Studying Anthropology seemed a natural fall back given my childhood interests. And the physical and social similarities of apes and humans fascinated me. Initially I wanted to become a professor, but I really didn’t have the patience required for such a long term course of study. I began bringing sketchbooks to lectures and taught myself to draw again. It was my main incentive to stay in school. A month or so before graduating, a friend handed me an ad seeking people who could sketch. I called and met with these two guys who were also just graduating and starting a company in San Francisco. I didn’t think anything would come of the meeting, but months later they literally showed up on my porch and offered me a position illustrating fantasy art. Hmmm, draw dwarves and knights or keep my job moving furniture? I took the offer. I loved it. We drank beer and drew all day. It was great. I felt like I found my tribe. Eventually I saved money and got a bit of formal art training. Then I worked for a number of years as an illustrator at McGraw-Hill, before showing in galleries.
Your current body of work takes the form of an intriguing series of paintings you’ve titled ‘Eden’. Can you talk about the themes you wanted to explore when you initially started the series and how the ideas and paintings have evolved since you began?
The main theme I wanted to explore was the manipulation of history. How history is used as a means of control. There are personal subtexts in the mix too, but that’s still the main theme running through the series.
When I first began the series the narrative was more elaborate. I concentrated on astronauts and cosmonauts because they were these irreproachable modern heroes, they summarized the height of Western achievement. Originally, I was going to focus on a single astronaut and place him in various historical settings, sort of a Forrest Gump provocateur, influencing and sabotaging events. The first place he started was ‘Eden’, the mythical beginning point of western culture. The scene sort of stuck with me. It was symbolic ground for both Western history and art. It grew from there, with spacemen traveling back to renaissance portrayals of Eden, acting as agents of influence and trickery. I saw it as an absurd world where cause and effect were to be obscured by humorous antics and chaos.
Later I introduced the Bonobos with the idea that they would ‘ape’ and misrepresent human history. The images also became more iconic, the narrative more simplified. It’s not strictly set in the ‘Eden’ landscape anymore, but many points along the Western cultural timeline.
‘Worthwhile’ is a prior series of works you produced which has a different visual aesthetic if compared to ‘Eden’. Aside from the subject matter, the most obvious difference is in the way the figures are represented. You have introduced a stylistic distortion of heads and bodies in ‘Eden’, contrasting with the photorealism of ‘Worthwhile’. What brought about this new development and what was your motivation behind the change?
When I painted Worthwhile, the exterior augmentation represented the sitter’s feelings of physical short coming. It was an artifact of their psychological understanding of themselves.
I liked the series but it felt like the viewer was an outside observer to a lab experiment, looking on passively at the usual feedback loop of naturalistic painting. After that show things became very chaotic in my life. Photo-realism for me at that point didn’t reflect what was going on in my life, or in the world. I had played with distortion for years and I think with the Eden series, unknowingly, I was returning to work I had left off some time before. Work that was darker and more imagination driven. Only this time it was tempered with more experience and years of still life and portrait work.
With Eden I consciously tried to create distortion that was both disturbing and humorous. I thought it was important to counteract the cartooned features with life-like and corporeal flesh and fabric. Making something distorted or grotesque undermines a sense of what is ‘normal’. Just like when a word in a sentence is mispronounced, the listener must pause in order to reconstruct the meaning. It’s the same with a visual distortion, casually observation gives way to an active interpretation.
As a painter whose work contains a strong narrative element, can you let us in on what initially got you interested in visual storytelling?
It was definitely comic books. When I was growing up friends and I would make and share comics. I’m sure that’s when it started. It’s a great medium… words, visuals, and no limit but the imagination. In school I was consumed with illustrating creatures and worlds for games and stories I read. Later I even made attempts at writing fiction. I could pull in the reader with interesting scenes and plots, but I could never really end a story. Which, in a way, is actually helpful as a painter. Giving too much information in a painting, can kill mystery and intrigue. Unlike with a novel where there’s a build up over time, in a painting it’s all right in front of the viewer. Laying out the ‘question’ and the ‘answer’, can become boring and dogmatic. It becomes just a punchline on the wall.
You have previously sited the old masters as being important influences on you, in particular the works of Rembrandt and Breugal. How vital do you consider it to be for artists to have a strong appreciation and solid understanding of art history and what has come before them?
It was important for me. I don’t think it is necessarily vital though. Understanding the issues they tackled and the technical aspects of their work, of course, can be very helpful. Referencing certain art historical themes can signal depth to certain audiences. Any knowledge is useful. The problem comes when certain values or ideas are seen as the only way to proceed. A lot of people quit because they can’t follow an ordained path. When in fact it’s just not their path. Being obligated to particular sets of rules and canons, can be very stifling.
And Art history should be looked at skeptically. The romanticism and stories around artists sells paintings, it sells real estate. Many art ‘myths’ are the result of the smears and boasts of outside interests to boost investments, tax write offs and mystify the public. What becomes ‘art’ and what artists have to concede, and why, should also be taken note of. Art and art communities are where questions begin to first take physical form. Sometimes the questions artists ask are not always pleasant. What pressures or incentives existed on an artist should also be considered when reading art history. When these are considered, sometimes the works and biographies read quite differently.
Are there any particular artists in the scene today who you feel a kinship with? Be it through philosophy, visual aesthetic, exploration of themes, etc.?
Tricky question. There’s such an amazing amount of creative work and incredible talent in the scene today. It would be a long list. I wouldn’t want to leave anyone out! I’m always thrilled to see how much amazing work is out there when I go to shows, or online. Other than the aesthetic aspects of the work today, I probably feel the most kinship with artists that peak beneath the Mickey Mouse ears to reflect the workings they observe.
Do you have any rituals or common practices before you start a new painting?
I’ll look through my sketchbooks for ideas, and cobble together a drawing. Then I like to prepare a smooth surface to paint on whether it’s a panel or canvas. I guess those are not really rituals so much as practical measures. I used to start my day with multiple trips for coffee, ritualized procrastination.
You have been painting professionally for a couple of decades now. What do things feel like at this point in your career?
Good question. I was very insecure when I started out, mainly because I didn’t have a formal degree in art. I was self taught to some extent. But I’ve weathered some bumpy roads in this field, and I don’t stress about it now. Now, I am very focused and hesitation doesn’t creep in. I rarely feel a lack of ideas… too many perhaps. It’s a really good place to be.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learned? This can be art related or otherwise.
If you eat salad have a toothpick handy. Integrity is also important.
How do you tackle a creative block?
I haven’t had one for some years, thankfully. But sketching in grubby coffee shops or on the subway works for me. The G train in Brooklyn was an incubator of creativity… and probably many other things. I think those environments make it necessary to focus on one’s own space, yet remain vigilant to distractions. And when one pauses and looks up, there’s plenty of odd things to influence. Any place where one is trying to avoid something seems to work. There isn’t the luxury to second guess, and the ideas just sort of flow freely.
What’s next for Chris Leib?
First up, is a really fun group show called ‘Storybook’, at Modern Eden in San Francisco and curated by Michael Cuffe of Warholian. It features an amazing line up of artists. Having a lot of fun with the painting for this one, a reinterpretation of Jack and the Bean Stalk.
Then I have a bunch of shows to get ready for this year and next. Lately I’ve also been playing with complex patterns and twisted but humorous symbols that I’m hoping to integrate into the next batch of paintings. There’s more monkey business on the way…