Wearing looks of firm resolve, two McDonald’s employees salute one another in a parking lot, each one holding onto the corner of a bag of takeout. Another headset-wearing McWorker, a service-industry Shiva, holds burgers, Cokes and other items in her eight arms.
A bored-looking couple sit in a bus shelter, oblivious to their precise reproduction in the shelter’s Gap poster. A long-haired man sits at a table in a fast food restaurant, with dabs of ketchup in the palm of each hand. His female friend pokes a french fry into her stigmatic companion’s palms.
These are some of the generic-looking characters that populate the mass-market dreamworld of British Columbian artist Chris Woods, whose hyperrealistic canvases have been reproduced on the covers of Adbusters and Saturday Night magazine.
For the past decade, Woods has choreographed friends and acquaintances in ironic juxtopositions with suburban backgrounds, which he photographs and then projects onto large canvases in his modest studio, reproducing them in oils. Common Ground spoke to the 33-year-old artist from his studio in Chilliwack, where he is working on his latest commission, the cover of the next Bare Naked Ladies album.
Mining megamall culture for scenes that deconstruct the bright and shining lies of big-budget advertising, Woods has become something of the Norman Rockwell for the No Logo generation. He welcomes the comparison to America’s master mythmaker in oils, knowing he is every bit as much a product of his time as Rockwell was. "I’m like the flipside of that optimistic patriotism," he says. "I like a lot of the feel of what he didI’m not necessarily subverting it, but adding a extra layer to it."
Like Rockwell, Woods is a master draftsman a rarity in an age where creativity has been disconnected from technical skill, and art is whatever you can get away with.
The artist lives and works in the Fraser Valley, which might lead you to suspect he has an ambivalent relationship to the suburban culture he addresses in his paintings. Is living in the Belly of the Beast the way to go, inspiration-wise? "We’re obviously surrounded by mall culture," he responds. "The suburbs are really a better place to engage in broad popular mall culture, rather than right downtown, in the city, where you have kind of a more rounded, sane kind of life." He laughs as he offers this assessment.
Woods adds that "cookie-cutter suburbs" are more of an interesting place to live, "because here I can really see Where the rubber meets the cultural road." Many of the characters in his paintings are buddies, and the backgrounds are the eerily could-be-anywhere landmarks of the local strip-mall economy.
Is the restaurant stigmatic, and the other lost souls he portrays wandering the mass-market wilderness, meant to be funny, sad, or poignant? Woods leaves interpretations open to the viewer. But I find myself wondering this: by conflating images from religion and myth with brand-name advertising, does the suburban artist accomplish the final triumph of pop art, with all its turbo-charged irony: empty ALL belief systems of purpose and meaning?
Perhaps his food-court acolytes and Gap-smacked mall rats, alternately beatified and bored, have nothing more to offer than their acquiescence to the consumer dream. Yet is Woods suggesting that pre-market religion, myth, and visionary experience are just as illusory as the idea of salvation through advertising? If we have a choice between illusions, is there any compelling reason not to choose the Golden Arches over the golden rule?
"It’s always my intent to focus on popular culture, and use elements of the sacred to criticize that," Woods says after a pause. "Frankly it never occurred to me to sort of dissect organized religion, but I’m not one to say that’s not a legitimate interpretation."
At their best, Woods’ paintings succeed in deconstructing the myth-making bunk of big advertising with a gimlet wit. Yet his early paintings don’t have quite the same bite they did a decade earlier. By now most of us know the drill on consumerism and the mental environment advertisers create.
Today, irony is the second language of everyone from mall rats to Madison Avenue advertising executives. That motto of critical abandonment, "whatever," leaps from the lips of grandmothers. Especially now that advertisers themselves are playing the antimedia card in shilling product cleverly deconstructing their own propaganda, while ensuring you remember the brand name the only option for postmodern artists like Woods to go is deeper, to places the advertisers won’t.
Having expertly mined the sacred/profane vein for nearly a decade, Woods says he now moving toward "darker kind of work," shifting from small consumer goods to the car culture. The focus of the new work is "not so much that we consume cars, as we are consumed by the car."
He describes his new work as more "brooding" than the "cheery, chipper" paintings he’s known for, with their sunlit tableaux of duty-bound food proles with sharp pleats.
It will be interesting to see what Woods does with North American Autogeddon. With his sharp sense of irony and unerring brush, no painter in Canada has a better fix on the distemper of our times.