A Weird and Wild Wagonload

The Artwork of Chris Millar

Chris Millar wants you to throw your smartphone in the garburator.

It’s not that he has anything against modern technology — in fact as a lifelong student of science fiction futuristic and fantastical inventions pervade his artwork; it’s more that with today’s devices everything is at one’s fingertips and that immediacy takes away both the mystery and the excitement that comes with discovery.

“I remember the feeling of going to the mall and getting Sam the Record Man to order a CD of a band you heard about — when it came in it was really special. No one else you knew had it and you were hearing it for the first time” says Millar. “Now you can have any music you want on the Internet for free and instantly… but there’s something really fun in finding something for yourself.”

This sensation of fun and excitement is something Millar is struggling to bring back to his viewers and in no way will it be an immediate experience.

Opening Friday April 11 at TrépanierBaer and running until May 10 Millar’s exhibition Lost a Cartful Found a Wagonload will take time to fully appreciate but the payoff will be worth it.

Entering the gallery you will immediately notice “Reap.” Standing about two metres (six feet) tall sinuous and alien this sculpture is an entire exhibition in itself. The product of over 14 months of intensive labour “Reap” is what you might expect from Dr. Seuss if he was free of any 1950s constraints and had been raised on a steady diet of comic books Dungeons & Dragons and steampunk. It is an entire world with multiple seasons and climate zones ranging from the frozen and the barren to the lush and tropical; it’s an interconnected web of ideas and references; and it’s capped off with a translucent alien Bacchus.

“The figure harvesting the grapes is a multi-appendaged gelatinous vinous scavenger who gathers grapes and coverts them to wine by use of a portable wine press and fermentation wagon” says Millar. “This sculpture continues my examination into concepts of infinite cycles and perpetually self-sustaining systems as well as ponders the potential of intergalactic life forms.”

Yet despite the outrageousness of the subject matter Millar is still intent on making the viewer feel at home in the foreign setting. “The goal is to make an art object that when you look at it it feels like something somewhat familiar and comforting” he adds “like seeing your uncle in line at the A&W at the food court.”

Made in order of prevalence out of resin styrene acrylic paint wood metal silicone modified found objects epoxy glass string and finally LED lights Millar achieves his goals of comfort and familiarity by inserting little treasures that can be understood and appreciated by all members of his audience. Alongside the alien the various protruding eyeballs and enough tentacles to make Cthulhu proud are hidden references to Harry Potter everyday household objects and staying true to his uncle multiple installations of comfort food.

For Millar creating his sculptures is a freeform process relying heavily on improvisation. “There is very little visualizing the piece as a whole” he explains. “Objects are made piece by piece and the end product is an accumulation of dozens of smaller ideas.”

Yet although viewers could spend their entire visit lost in its details and intricacies “Reap” is not the only object on display at TrépanierBaer nor is it the only piece with a narrative to discover. On the surrounding walls Millar has created a series of miniature paintings. Ranging from approximately seven to 35 centimetres (three to 14 inches) in height these small works in ostentatious gilt frames tell their own tales. From a heartbroken bride torturing herself with visions of what could have been to a world of bird creatures chirping at one another through the switchboard it is clear that in all he does Millar is a storyteller.

Unlike his sculpture however the narratives in the paintings are closely calculated before any paint hits the canvas. Using a digital stage to plan out intricate collages Millar packs myriad details into his paintings then using a vivid and diverse colour palette he adds layers and depth to the canvases that belie their diminutive stature. Just like the sculpture viewers will have to get in close and spend some time to fully appreciate all they have to offer.

“I want the viewer to feel like they are a detective viewing a very small part of an epic elaborate narrative” says Millar. “It’s their mission to play out the entire narrative in their mind. I like that even the smallest detail like a discarded Jolly Rancher wrapper can be a significant signal in some sort of strange scenario.”

Yet even though Millar’s approach to sculpture differs from when he works with a brush it’s hard to separate the two practices. His sculptures contain a great deal of detailed painting and likewise his paintings are often festooned with three dimensional sculpted objects.

“I like to alternate” says Millar. “I get burnt out of painting after a few solid months and the same with sculpture. They use different parts of my brain. Sculpture uses the puzzle solving part of my brain painting uses the observational part of my brain. Too much of any one of these turns my brain to screensaver mode.”

Thus Lost a Cartful Found a Wagonload a product of two years of labour represents all of Millar’s diverse talents and at a time where he is beginning to hit his prime as an artist

After receiving his diploma as a pure painter from what is now MacEwen University in Edmonton in 1998 Millar entered an exceptionally fertile class at the Alberta College of Art and Design. Here while steeped in an atmosphere of inspiration collaboration and competition he began to develop his affinity for three-dimensional art and sculpture a process of experimentation that he took with him in the years that followed.

It was at this stage that he first came to the attention of Yves Trépanier the director of TrépanierBaer gallery beginning a relationship that has now spanned more than a decade.

“(We were attracted to) his unconventional approach to painting his zany world view the complex personal narratives he weaves into his paintings and his complete immersion in a counterculture that obviously pokes fun at and challenges the establishment all of it wrapped in a disciplined approach and commitment to his practice” says Trépanier. “The work has integrity.”

This is an important aspect for Millar who along with identifying as a storyteller and dreamer considers himself a craftsperson. “A very large concern with the works is formal competency” he explains. “They need to be beautiful as objects for their narrative to have any worth.”

And the beauty and craftsmanship in his artwork has not gone unnoticed. Although he is still in the early stages of his career Millar’s creations are already housed in the permanent collections of the Art Gallery of Alberta the Glenbow Museum the Alberta Foundation for the Arts and most recently the National Gallery of Canada. In 2012 Millar was also a recipient of the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artist Award and prior to that was shortlisted for the RBC Painting competition in both 2005 and 2007.

“From a commercial point of view the work fares very well” says Trépanier. “Collectors love Chris Millar’s work. Despite its unconventionality they recognize it as work that has depth and integrity.”

Yet it is that unconventionality that draws many to his work. Lost a Cartful Found a Wagonload which by an unintentional quirk in scheduling coincides with this year’s Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo represents artwork fuelled and inspired by comics computer games science fiction and the growing popularization of “nerd” culture.

And while Millar admits to being fully entrenched in this culture he finds it difficult to see what he is creating as contributing to the increasing appreciation.

“I guess my art practice could be considered ‘nerdy’ in that it focuses on imagination and the humour of absurdity” he admits. “It’s hard for me to see my actions as being part of a broader cultural trend.”