Unpleasantly Beautiful: Christian Rex van Minnen’s Contemporary Grotesque

“…I have always been attracted to the grotesque because there is a truth and beauty that is inseparable from what is immediately unpleasant… I don’t paint these things with the intent to produce something explicitly unpleasant or for shock value, but at the same time it is my tendency to ‘enter the forest where it is darkest.’” – Christian Rex van Minnen

I recently visited Robischon Gallery’s current exhibition, Christian Rex van Minnen: Golden Memes (on view through March 7). The show, along with the other two solo exhibitions currently on view (Jerry Kunkel: Descriptors and Jean Lowe: A More Beautiful You) blew us away. Each of the artists’ work provoked feelings of confusion, awe, incredulity, discomfort, amusement, outright laughter, and wonder, reactions that continued to deepen and permeate our thoughts long after leaving the gallery space. Although the shows played off one another in interesting ways and should all be seen together, each solo show at the gallery deserves its own literary space, so here we will focus on Christian Rex van Minnen’s “Golden Memes.”

"VOC Jellyfish Fry," oil on linen, 48" x 72" (Robischon Gallery)
“VOC Jellyfish Fry,” oil on linen, 48″ x 72″ (Robischon Gallery)

The show is immediately striking upon entering the gallery: an initial glance over the works gives one a momentary feeling of familiarity mixed with discomfort, and already a sense of impending mind-melting. We recognize compositions of traditional portraiture and still-life, but after a split second realize that the subjects are entirely unrecognizable and unfamiliar; we are suddenly and violently ripped out of one assumed art-historical place and time, and thrown into a space of contemporary confusion.

This sense of strange liminality and the collision of worlds is related to the show title, “Golden Memes,” as well as the titles of the individual pieces. van Minnen’s works are situated at the meeting of the 17th century Dutch Golden Age and the contemporary world, the “memes” — transmitted ideas, recognized cultural touchstones, knowledge, or inside jokes– of both worlds colliding. Cultural standards or memes of both worlds, including excess, materialism, exoticism, and now complete world-wide access, are taken to an extreme. The first piece in the gallery for example, “Eva Prima Pandora,” is van Minnen’s own version of a 1550 painting of the same name by French painter Jean Cousin, the lounging woman here placed in a grotto in Hoboken overlooking New York City. Like nearly all of his subjects, this body is distorted and faceless, its skin transparent and glowing as if lit with burning embers from within. Floating over the figure is a banner of rainbow Arabic writing, an inaccurate Google translation of “EVA PRIMA PANDORA.” van Minnen takes these memes from wholly different places and times and mashes them all into one image, seamlessly and such that the viewer is left feeling “in” on some jokes, lost on others, and long continuing to process just what is going on.

"Eva Prima Pandora," oil on linen, 48" x 72" (Robischon Gallery)
“Eva Prima Pandora,” oil on linen, 48″ x 72″ (Robischon Gallery)

One of the technical “golden memes” employed throughout the exhibition is the mastery of specific painting techniques, perfected by 17th century Dutch masters and now appropriated by van Minnen. Surfaces of water droplets on epicuticular wax, for example, appear throughout the series, not as they would in nature or in the Dutch paintings, on waxy plant leaves or the flesh of plums or grapes, but in van Minnen’s own grotesque and extreme appropriation: on glowing purple and red human skin surfaces like that of his Eva Prima Pandora. That surface is so widespread throughout the show, in fact the main subject of one piece, it becomes a caricature of itself; by using this particular technique, van Minnen situates himself in the same circle as his Dutch predecessors, but then takes the joke to an extreme, laughing harder and longer than anyone and creating a uniquely 21st century grotesque.

This grotesque aesthetic can be traced back through history to Ancient Rome; the word itself comes from the Italian grottesche, describing the decoration found on the walls of the excavated grottoes of Ancient Roman Emperor Nero’s pleasure house, an extravagant style of “pagan phantasmagorias” then copied by 15th century Italian Renaissance artists. What do we mean, then, when we talk about van Minnen’s work, or any art, as grotesque? Art critic Robert Storr’s essay “Disparities as Deformations: Our Grotesque” (2004) systematically examines the term from as many different angles as possible, helping us to understand what “our” grotesque is, or the different ways we come to understand the grotesque of this era. One particularly resonant definition of the grotesque in art, and one that can be applied to van Minnen’s paintings, describes it as the result of “an eruption of things systematically denied: like subconscious thought, like minorities by majorities.” Part of the task of identifying the grotesque of this era, Storr writes, is the acknowledgement and redeeming of varying tastes, sensibilities, and values in art; and the questioning of an assumed hierarchy or set of rules. Applying this task to van Minnen’s work can lead us to a deeper understanding not only of his work, but of our own cultural time: what are the assumptions we have about high art, in our era and in previous eras, and what possibility lies in the destruction of these assumptions?

"Thunder Perfect Mind," oil on linen, 72" x 48" (Robischon Gallery)
“Thunder Perfect Mind,” oil on linen, 72″ x 48″ (Robischon Gallery)

Walking through “Golden Memes,” it almost feels wrong to stare at van Minnen’s subjects’ confusingly and often violently deformed bodies, yet it is our natural human desire to do so– to look at other humans, at grotesque faces and bodies, at people who look different from ourselves– and van Minnen’s paintings push this tendency to a new level. van Minnen says, “…I have always been attracted to the grotesque because there is a truth and beauty that is inseparable from what is immediately unpleasant… I don’t paint these things with the intent to produce something explicitly unpleasant or for shock value, but at the same time it is my tendency to ‘enter the forest where it is darkest.’” By placing these denied, repressed subjects in the lavish portrait studios usually reserved for wealthy Dutch merchant class and painting them with exquisite technique, van Minnen elevates the repressed in some sense, and allows us a prolonged stare within the space of the white cube.

"As Above, So Below," oil on linen, 54" x 44" (Robischon Gallery)
“As Above, So Below,” oil on linen, 54″ x 44″ (Robischon Gallery)

Another theme throughout van Minnen’s work which lends it a particularly contemporary grotesque aesthetic is his use of tattoos. van Minnen has exceptionally rendered tattoos on all of the bodies, creating an illusion of the ink existing under the skin, growing with the skin, distorted by the natural curve and movement of the human body, again referencing a “golden meme” in his mastery of the medium. The tattoos themselves are a sort of contemporary meme, as a socially acceptable form of body modification, a kind of grotesque phenomenon which has become universally ingrained into our 21st century culture. In the 17th century Dutch world, in contrast, the tattooed body would have been denounced as primitive, degenerate, and never allowed in the realm of high art. van Minnen comments on another tension in his use of tattoos: “I love the aesthetic of interference and dissonance…tattoos are a good example of that and have become an effective approach towards exploring three potential ways in which to read illusion; as the tattoo itself, the object itself and the relationship between the two… I am really interested in this space of confusion– and the inherent difficulty to really embrace a plurality of truth.” This space of confusion and the acknowledgement of various truths is one of the long-lasting effects of van Minnen’s grotesque.

"Rosa with Dirty Sweatpants," [detail] oil on linen, 46" x 33" (Robischon Gallery)
“Rosa with Dirty Sweatpants,” [detail] oil on linen, 46″ x 33″ (Robischon Gallery)

The use of caricature is another key aspect of the grotesque, and, as in the example of the excessive epicuticular wax, clearly a theme in van Minnen’s works. Caricature, Storr writes, is “the diabolical twin of representational idealism.” As opposed to classical beauty, which enhances and exaggerates pleasing attributes, caricature exaggerates the ugly or ridiculous attributes unique to one person or typical of groups. The bodies and faces in van Minnen’s work embody the most obvious (and possibly disturbing) use of caricature in this exhibition. The artist has commented on the voyeuristic aspect of his faces, saying: “…because they incorporate these basic elements of portraiture, we want to see a face completing a sentence or a dialogue. By not having the eye contact or immediately recognizable facial features the viewer is left to fill in the blanks, often with aspects of ourselves.”

"Frat Albert," oil on panel, 14" x 11" x 2" (Robischon Gallery)
“Frat Albert,” oil on panel, 14″ x 11″ x 2″ (Robischon Gallery)

The viewing experience is a constant push and pull of wanting to stare and wanting to look away– we are drawn in by the beauty of the paint itself and the masterful rendering of the subjects, but feel we should look away because of their violent deformities; then we are drawn back in because the subjects are missing eyes and cannot stare back. van Minnen’s grotesque is not only the extreme caricature of ugly and ridiculous traits, or the embodiment of formerly repressed thoughts and images, but the mixing of all these things within the space of the gallery: the mixing of tastes and values– high art and low art, beauty and repulsiveness, humor and solemnity– and the dissonance created by this mix. The importance of understanding the grotesque in van Minnen’s work and in our contemporary era lies within this dissonance, and has to do with the idea that art is not always meant to elevate the mind, to uplift the soul, to promote universal understanding. The grotesque, as a long-established aesthetic, opens up possibilities to blowing apart these culturally-constructed assumptions about art.

Head over to Robischon Gallery (1740 Wazee, Denver CO) to see “Golden Memes” before March 7th. For more information on Robischon, visit www.robischongallery.com.

To see more of Christian Rex van Minnen’s work, visit his website: www.christianvanminnen.com.