Christian Rex Van MInnen

In Mourning and Rebirth

Interview by Evan Pricco // Portrait by Benjamin Timpson 

There are artists working today whose technical skills rival the museum stalwarts of 400 years ago, and there are those who combine humor, satire and the fantastical, along with the likes of Tim Burton and David Lynch. For years, Christian Rex van Minnen has balanced the incredible intuition of a fine painter with an almost cinematic approach to character creation. But, as this conversation will reveal, these are surface-level observations. The NYC-based painter works in a larger scope, one that examines not only his own personal identity, but some of the ugly truths and struggles for meaning that, perhaps, most American men have yet to understand in themselves. In a mood of self reflection, Christian and I dove into a wide-ranging talk about his recent stay in Colorado, Twin Peaks, UFC, male identity destabilization and the beauty that will emerge after this period of fear in America.  

Evan Pricco: You were just back in Colorado, which is where you grew up and lived prior to coming to NYC. So let's do the small-town Colorado summertime question: Did you go to the rodeo? 
Christian Rex van Minnen: Yeah. I went to the rodeo on Thursday. And that was awesome. It's just really, really nice. Wholesome. I felt washed over and wholesome. There's a lot of, like, pomp and circumstance. It was the Western Colorado rodeo style where they talk about God, country and brotherly love, the virtues of friendliness. It's kind of crazy and awesome. I love it. It's a good thing to witness from time to time.

Let's say you see somebody from your high school and they ask you what it is that you do, so you say you're a painter and you show them your newest work. What is the first reaction?
Everybody knows. It's like everybody really follows my work. Everybody likes it but that's kind of where it ends. It's humbling because it’s more, "Oh, you're doing this weird job. Congratulations. What else have you been up to?" I can leave New York kind of full of this false sense of self importance and grandiosity. Then you come back here and it's just sort of like, "Big deal."

Christian Rex Van Minnen: In Mourning And Rebirth

Thinking back to home, what did an early Christian Rex van Minnen painting look like? 
I think the first oil painting that I did was Magritte-esque, like this portrait of a skeleton holding mouth parts that had been torn away held up to its own face. I don't know exactly what that was all about. I'm still trying to figure it out, like the rest of my work. I never really know what I'm doing until much later.

You've always been into this almost surreal-alternate portrait style. Almost like birth defect-y sort of portraits?
I've always seen them as rooted in allegory and the more poetic side of that, where it's not so rooted in science fiction as much as it is in archetype and spirituality. That definitely comes from my dad. That's how we grew up. Deep into the Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell stuff. It's probably more on that side of things. My interest in science is sort of minimal. 

Christian Rex Van Minnen: In Mourning And Rebirth

There is an intriguing interplay of gross-out, grotesque and expertise in your work, but that’s just on the surface. Then you delve into these deeper parts of what you do, the allegorical and spiritual, and I want to know how you balance the gross-out mixed with these deeper connections you are trying to make. 
I want to paint what works on me first. So I'm not painting to the audience necessarily. It's gotta function in this specific way for me. Fundamentally, it's about that dynamic of attraction and repulsion resulting in some sort of destabilization. It's in that area of destabilization that you can find novelty, that you can find growth. It's discomforting, but I think it's fruitful. 

I never want to be provocative just for provocation's sake. I'm really cautious about being too ironic, or even flippant. I think it has to come from a place that's sincere, otherwise it comes off the wrong way; so what you say is true. The power of the technique itself is that you can kind of put anything behind it and it'll look good. In history, that's been a very manipulating force. You have to be careful. What is the message behind it?
And if it's devoid of message, then it's just manipulation. 

Provocative is the word, that's kind of what I was aiming for. The way you balance substance and technique with the sort of provocation that makes you look further into it. I've been with other artists who looked at your paintings, and rave about your technique, especially those with the floating gummies. This may sound silly, but how does good painting happen? Is it just work, work and work? Is it studying? How do you become a better painter?

Christian Rex Van Minnen: In Mourning And Rebirth

I think it has a lot to do with intimacy with the material, just being present with it and enjoying that kind of back-and-forth, and watching what's happening in the present moment; not necessarily forcing it as a means to an end. I enjoy that. Fundamentally, I just enjoy seeing what's happening with the paint and following it, testing the limitations. I just have a love and a respect for the materiality and seeing what it can do, walking that fine line between celebrating material.

It's like the middle point between Modernism and what you would call the Old Masters. In Modernism, it's about the material, about the paint; whereas what distinguishes Modernism from everything else that came before is this sort of materiality lending itself to a didactic presentation of ideas. There's a clear message, and the paint only supports that through illusion and technique. So I think, given those two paradigms, I'm always interested in the space between. 

Technically speaking, do you find inspiration from the Old Masters?

Yeah, technically. I kind of have a mixed relationship with that history as well. I find that in the Dutch Golden Age, where oil painting as a material reached its zenith. In terms of what oil paint can do, I think that is the height of its technical application. But I also see that period in history as the root of a lot of the world's problems, the sort of early celebration of the material and capitalism and the global economy. Everything that made that art market explode, allowing artists to be free to explore the material and subject matter was because of this explosion in the merchant class. That had a lot to do with slavery and the global marketplace, and colonization, so I have mixed emotions about it. 

Again, we come back to surface versus depth in this discussion. 
Because, like you were saying, you get so enamored with what's right in front that you kind of stop at the surface. They're just so stunningly beautiful. It's rare that people go and actually see what they're seeing. That celebration of this merchant class of wealth gets dark. I've always thought that was a really interesting dynamic. I played with it, inverting and revealing a little bit more.

Let's say that 400 years from now, someone is looking at your paintings, and we haven't blown up the world and aren’t on Mars. We are in a museum looking at Christian Rex van Minnen works. What do you think your paintings say about the time that we live in now? Or better yet, what do you want people to understand about your version of the world in 2017? 
That is my wheelhouse, man. I think it very much reveals the state of the white male identity crisis, and it's specific to Americans. I've been thinking about this stuff for my whole life. With my dad being from South Africa, half-Afrikaner, that was the conversation, like what do you do with this history as a white man coming from a colonized state? All this baggage comes with that, and what do you do with it? How do we reformulate our identity as being white? All that stuff has really built up, and it seems like it has come to a head now. 

Christian Rex Van Minnen: In Mourning And Rebirth

So it almost feels like the work that I'm doing is more important than ever. I feel conflicted about how valuable my voice is in that matter. I'm just trying to understand it myself and it seems to resonate with people. But I don't think it's like I have any real valuable conclusions. I'm just sort of trying to truthfully and honestly reveal my own process, thinking about my identity as a heterosexual white American male. It sort of reflects where I'm at personally. I have a lot of undesirable traits that I feel like I'm trying to move forward and grow from. I feel like I'm in this in-between state, doing a lot of this spiritual work, this psychological work, and I'm not there yet. I'm just sort of in this liminal state. I think a lot of people are seeking help in that way. Wanting to move on, but it's painful.

It's kind of the death throes of this part of the psyche that has to die to be reborn. Unfortunately, there is an identity crisis that doesn't see that there's this really like positive, beautiful, next chapter for the country. But it's like this has to be the sort of painful, letting-go process. So it could be anything; it could be a statue, it could be whatever. It's just a perception of being attacked. And I think it comes from this multi-generational paranoia of retribution, because accounting of what we've done in the past that has real implications today. I think it's a common refrain growing up to hear this sort of, "Well, my parents didn't own slaves, so, therefore, my hands are clean." But underneath that is this real paranoia of someday you're going to have to pay that check. It's like your great grandparents bounced this big ass check and it's just floating around. People are paranoid. I think it's become subconscious, packed down through generations to where people are paranoid of retribution. People are projecting their darkest fears onto people who are different, thinking that this might be the person who will extract this payment from me. I think it's from that paranoia that all the darkest things come out.

So you would say you are painting the realization of that paranoia? Or is it more of the dissection of identity and what it looks like when all the defects and darkness are brought to the forefront? 
Nobody is stopping to do that internal work. And I'm not talking about hiding your head in the sand, but we have to look inward as well. I believe in there needing to be this “ecology of healing.”  And some of this has an outward expression, searching for social justice, and there's real tangible things to be done. But equally as important as this soul searching is dealing with these darkest parts of our past, and what's in your psyche, and sorting through your own bigoted ideas and fears. It also plays out in the realm of sexuality, it's not just race or class. But I think it has a lot to do with sex as well. 

As we think of all of that, let me ask you, does it ever happen that while you are working in your studio, being in a groove and making strides on a painting, you take a step back and realize that you just drew a penis for a neck? And does that make you laugh to yourself and go, "That makes me pretty happy."?
I don't know if I've ever drawn a penis in a face! I'm saying that's all on you, man. That's your shit. 

Okay, well, I need a good therapy session. 
Yeah, no, I have a good time, a really good time. Sometimes it's like, "Oh shit, that just happened." I listen to a lot of audiobooks and other media. I kind of have UFC playing constantly. I serve myself up a hefty dish of distraction while I'm working. So stuff just kind of happens. Then, all of a sudden, you see it for what it is, and it's just like, "Oh, alright... I guess that's there now."

Wait, hold on a second. Let's just rewind here for a second. Did you say you watch a lot of UFC?

Christian Rex Van Minnen: In Mourning And Rebirth

Yeah. I'm a big fan in a weird way. Not in like a... I don't know. I've got a weird relationship with it. 

I never got into UFC. Not even like a cursory interest or even like a sociological interest. But I know people that, like yourself, watch it with a kind of almost evolution or de-evolution of man sort of study. Is that what it is for you?
It's two things. I've experienced a lot of violence in my life. That's part of my past, so I have this weird… let’s just say I get excited when I see that. And sometimes I'll indulge myself there, with the violent sport of it. But then I think about it more and more, and I’ll watch the reality show Ultimate Fighter. I actually just listen to it, which is weird. But it's very much about this fragile idea of masculinity. The fragile male ego. You listen to these guys in this house, they're just little boys, you know, struggling with ideas of prescribed masculinity. It's all kind of homoerotic. It's very much coming from a thing where, “Those are my kind of people.” Those are the people that I grew up around. It's an odd, underdeveloped sense of masculinity. 

I can never just enjoy it. I always have a little bit of heartache and feel kind of gross about it, but also really amped up. Like, "Holy shit, just calm down." I went through this period, especially from the earlier part of this year, when that was all I listening to and watching. And I was just so angry. I asked myself,  "Why am I so fucking angry?" Well it's because you're watching Ultimate Fighter for 12 hours a day, dumb ass. It's so obvious. I had to kind of pull back and go into calmer territory. I don't know, the studio is weird. Those are some weird places.

Christian Rex Van Minnen: In Mourning And Rebirth

I’m not going to lie, nor am I embarrassed to say that, as a die-hard Warriors fan, and I’m beyond obsessed now, I used the entirety of the NBA season to block out the entirety of Trump’s election and first six months of presidency. When the season was over, it was a dark reality of news I returned to. 
Well, you and I have the luxury of being able to block it out. I have to remind myself of that. Have you been watching Twin Peaks?

I have not watched the new season!
I've been really enjoying the new season. And also rewatching the first two seasons and reading the Mark Frost book, The Secret History Of Twin Peaks. It goes as far back as the founding of the country, with Meriwether Lewis and Thomas Jefferson, and this series of different types of aliens that have lived among us for forever, since man came down from the trees. Just like the UFC, I went way too hard on this stuff. The lines between reality and fiction was really beginning to blur, which I think is his aim in this book. You start to see these sort of roots of Twin Peaks reaching into every part of life. And all of a sudden, you start becoming paranoid that there are aliens living among us and feeding off of our pain and suffering. It's not necessarily that aliens could be coming from outer space, but that they’re walking among us. Or underneath us. It's a fun idea.

Christian Rex Van Minnen: In Mourning And Rebirth

The reason we started this interview was to talk about your upcoming solo show at Richard Heller Gallery in Los Angeles this fall. So, from identity, to UFC and Twin Peaks, you have a lot on your mind. 
I'm pretty close to done. For maybe the first time, maybe now more than ever, the show feels really, what's the word? It just feels solid. It describes something very specific. I think, in the past, the thread has been more ambiguous. This show feels very clear. I still play around with ambiguous ideas, but that body of work feels really solid in describing something specific. 

The show is called Mourning Wood and Liminal Dawn. It's very much about what we were talking about, this liminal in-between space in masculinity, ideas around masculinity and sex and identity. 

What does the body of work look like in terms of size and medium? 
The centerpieces are these eight medium-sized works, and then there's a few big works that are kind of built around this narrative. So the eight paintings depict decapitated heads on these sort of gummy phalluses, these sort of whimsical, very phallic-looking objects. And on the faces are tattooed these phrases that, of course, belong to the perceived identity of these figures.

When I saw the new paintings, I don't want say like, "It's a darker body of work," because that sounds awfully simple, but, hey, it is a darker body of work. 
It connects with the idea of purgatory, or the Bardo state, the states in between light and dark, death and rebirth. And that's not literal, I think it has a lot to do with psychological and spiritual growth. I'm still sorting out their meanings, but it feels reflective of where I'm at personally and my evolving sense of identity. 

The filter seems to be off with you right now.
Definitely, yeah. I'm so grateful and also kind of bewildered. I feel like I keep pushing the limits of what I think is going to be acceptable, getting closer and closer to what I really want to do, and what I've maybe been scared to do in the past; putting ideas out there that I'm really nervous about because I feel really naked and really vulnerable.

I think artists are now, more than ever, available for, like, really vitriolic attack. Not that I feel like what I'm saying is super controversial, but it's just scary being so naked, just being really revealing. Putting stuff out there that's frankly kind of embarrassing, it's exciting, because every time I do that, the response is great. Every time I make a painting where I'm, like, "Oh shit. This is gonna fuck me over. This is three months of my life. I've got a mortgage. My family depends on this.” And, of course, I think, "There is no way this is going to sell. People are gonna hate me for it." And then the opposite happens and I'm like, "Oh shit, it’s empowering! I can actually be completely honest and people are into this!" It's really wonderful. 

Christian Rex van Minnen’s show, Mourning Wood and Liminal Dawn, will be on view November 4–December 23, 2017 at Richard Heller Gallery in Los Angeles.