Visual Arts

"Only Tenants Reside: Chris Mars" at Mesa Contemporary Arts Takes a Second Look at How We Perceive Mental Illness

In the mid-1960s, when artist Chris Mars was 5 years old, his 16-year-old brother, Joe, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized because of his mental disorder. An incurable but now-treatable brain dysfunction, schizophrenia is often characterized by delusions, hallucinations (both visual and auditory), social withdrawal, and a sense of being controlled by outside forces.

Mars would visit Joe in the mental hospitals to which his older sibling was confined, on and off, for years. The Minneapolis-based artist has written that "[a]s a child, my brother's schizophrenia was met with horror, depression, confusion, and fear — fear of the system, fear of the words, the hospitals, the demons others saw. Fear that it would happen to me next."

It is this traumatic — and tragic — early experience that has relentlessly driven Mars to abandon a notable musical career and create paintings like those on display in "Only Tenants Reside: Chris Mars" at Mesa Contemporary Arts, which runs through Sunday, August 1. The classically rendered, somewhat fractured, narrative pieces in this show of Mars' most recent work are the simultaneously repellent and seductive devices the artist deftly puts into service to grapple with the psychological ramifications of his brother's lifelong condition.

Peopled with monstrous, often morphing, creatures doing impossible things in nightmarish landscapes, Mars' pointedly titled paintings reflect the artist's dedication to championing human beings, such as his brother, who are labeled and pigeonholed as damaged, disordered, and downright evil — perverse pronouncements that are light-years from the truth and cause suffering to those so branded and their loved ones.

Mars' scrupulously executed images appear to be spawned by an unearthly convergence of the medieval, hallucinatory paintings of 15th-century Netherlander artist Hieronymus Bosch and droll, finger-up-the-nose imagery of the Munsters and Addams Family. In this artist's universe, monsters are most often angelic, emotionally tortured rather than terrorizing, with the real villains making appearances as doctors and nurses. The occasional beautiful creature (many seem to bear a weird resemblance to Angelina Jolie, but with rigor mortis) is portrayed as a strangely ugly and soulless automaton. Ultimately, the viewer has to conclude that the gothic ghouls and goblins inhabiting Mars' artwork are decidedly more pathetic than pathological. They are lost souls in limbo rather than habitués of Hell.

For example, in The Curse of Head Medicine (2004), two eerie characters with red crosses on their sleeves, one of which is dressed in clerical garb, are surrounded by other maimed and aberrant figures as they pull out a small alien creature from the split skull of their obviously drugged patient. Disembodied numbers and letters, evocative of bureaucratic filing systems for both people and information, crop up and, in some instances, crowd canvases, as in Respite (2006), a potent representation of mental turmoil and its disorienting ability to render the surrounding world meaningless. Madness and merriment join forces in Something Empty (2009), in which pitiful creatures surround a deflated red-and-white-striped body bearing the drooling head of arch-conservative TV personality Bill O'Reilly. In the foreground, a vapid model stares blankly at the viewer. For me, however, Mars is at his most powerful in his solitary portraits, like Cheesecake (2009), A Lack of Ointment (2008), and The Expense of Incestuous Relations (2009). In these, a central, usually miserably deformed, figure is isolated for us to examine shamelessly; in doing so, we are really engaged in forced self-scrutiny of our own mental and emotional defects.

Now considered to be a critical member of the lowbrow art movement, Chris Mars initially gained notoriety as the drummer in The Replacements, a highly regarded underground rock band formed in 1979 in Minneapolis. A critical favorite eluded by commercial success, the group was legendary for its unpredictable, drunken live performances. Mars left the band in 1990, cut several albums sporting his own artwork, then devoted himself full time to making visual art. (It's been reported that, nowadays, he will not talk about his musical history to interviewers.)

In 1995, Mars was given a one-man show at La Luz de Jesus Gallery by its founder, Billy Shire. An important Los Angeles art collector and creator of Melrose Avenue's iconic Soap Plant (the original pop culture emporium opened in 1974 and was located on Sunset in Echo Park until 1986, when it moved to Melrose), Shire opened La Luz de Jesus directly above the Soap Plant and specialized in showing art of the bizarre, deviant, and non-mainstream persuasion. Shire is considered a prime mover in L.A.'s lowbrow movement, which has also been dubbed "pop surrealism." He was the first to promote the work of Robert Williams, Manuel Ocampo, and Joe Coleman, all of whom thereafter were included in LAMoCA's seminal 1992 exhibition, "Helter Skelter." Curated by heavyweight Paul Schimmel, it was the first museum show to give credence to lowbrow work, which has been fostered since 1994 by Robert Williams' Juxtapoz magazine and is now routinely shown at established museums and galleries through the world.

Lowbrow art, depending on the places from where its artists hail, embraces an unrelated assortment of above- and underground influences, including, but definitely not limited to: hot rod, motorcycle, and lowrider culture; tattoo art; surrealism; Dadaism; SoCal surf culture; punk rock; folk art; outsider art; religious art; 1960s and '70s underground comics; Mexico's Day of the Dead; horror movies; and sexual practices outside the norm (whatever the hell that may mean at this point in American cultural history).

I can't even begin to unravel all the meaning, implications, and symbolic references with which Chris Mars has imbued his grotesque but compelling work. And therein lies the genius of this self-taught artist's work, which will linger in your consciousness, then disrupt your dreams — guaranteed.