“Chris Classen: Minimalism, Dramatics, and the Hand in Contemporary Painting”

by Heika Burnison

In his 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime,” the proto-modernist architect Adolf Loos wrote, “the evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament.” This mantra, fervently adopted by subsequent generations of modernists, echoes throughout the painting practice of the contemporary artist Chris Classen (b. 1976, Nebraska). Classen’s work summons both a direct connection to those world-changing ideals that early modernism brought and recalls the complicated history that they have since incited. On the surface, his work appears to fit seamlessly within the tradition of high Minimalist painting; there is no denying its quiet, austere, and steely presence. However, unlike Minimalism’s absence of the artist’s hand, or even pop art’s rejection of painting itself, Classen’s work relies heavily on manual labor and the handiwork of brushed paint––most noticeable along the edges of the artist’s canvases. His paintings’ smooth, lacquered surfaces offer an illusion of mechanical processes while their edges reveal the random and unpredictable chaos of a hand working with fluid paint.

These stylistic and historical dichotomies in Classen’s work, however, are less a problematic contradiction and more a mediation on the evolution of austerity in modern art. Though they utilize Minimalism’s reductive visual language, Classen’s paintings contain––in both their production processes and final results––the subjects and themes more often found in the classical works of old European masters. The foremost of these parallels is in his paintings’ composition: Classen organizes the layout of each piece with opposing ‘characters’––much like the components in a classical play. Each work begins with three main subjects––a protagonist, an antagonist, and a supporting member. The artist then feverishly adds layer upon layer of supplementary characters until the ‘cast’ of the painting is so dense and dramatic that the work is able to tell its own story. The result is a compositional narrative told through highly controlled and mechanized aesthetics, a narrative whose parts can be peeled away to reveal a visual set of essential and opposing constituents.

These intensive, crescendoing rhythms in Classen’s work are only offset and finally released by his paintings’ contrasting edges, which exist as much as a part of the works’ stories as their facades. Along these borders Classen’s paint oozes and drips across the frames of the stretched canvas, conjuring images of stalactites found in the ancient caves where early man invented mark making, or the sacred reaches of gothic cathedrals molded centuries ago in Europe. In a post-movement era, when the art of painting has long been declared “dead,” the juxtaposition of Classen’s smooth painterly surfaces with their unruly edges act as reminders that the hand of the artist, and the imperfectness of the painting medium, is in fact still alive––no matter how complicated that existence may now be.

Chris Classen holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Nebraska, and a Masters of Architecture from the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI_Arc). He currently lives and works in Los Angeles.

2010 essay on the work of Chris Classen by Los Angeles Arts and Culture writer Heika Burnison (twitter: @culturelens)

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