Arts Magazine: Ecchy Homo and Subderma

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

Listening to Monsters: Local artists James F. Cleary and Chris Mars explore complex philosophies by looking at the dark side

by Cynde Randall
The idea of monsters has captivated human nature throughout history. Two contemporary artists, James F. Cleary and Chris Mars, explore the concept of “monsters” through two distinct bodies of work. Cleary presents a series of madcap and irreverent mixed-media works, illustrating his perception of the human condition in “Ecchy Homo”; Mars offers a series of deeply expressive and fantastical paintings that explore the issues surrounding metal illness in “Subderma.” These works are paired in a new Minnesota Artists Exhibition (MAEP)Program exhibition in Cargill Gallery September 23 through November 20.

Though Cleary and Mars maintain and express radically different points of view about the world, they have had similar life experiences. Both grew up immersed in 1960s pop culture; both have been avid draftsman since early childhood; each suffered the loss of a family member early in his life.

Cleary showed a penchant for drawing as a young boy. He often felt an intense need to express his feelings and drawing gave him a cathartic release. Fourteen years his senior, Cleary’s brother introduced the boy to myriad aspects of pop culture, from Mad Magazine and UFOs to the latest inventions in science and medicine.

The unexpected death of Cleary’s mother in 1971 traumatized the fifteen-year-old, who was by that time the only child left with an aging father. Cleary internalized his anguish for years.

By 1980, Cleary began to express his feelings. “Since I couldn’t become mad scientist, I decided to become an artist,” he said. He pursued a drafting degree at Sierra College in Rocklin, California, and later studied medical illustration and figure drawing. He moved to Chicago in 1988 to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1990.

Cleary’s signature style was born toward the end of art school, when he began incorporating newspaper fragments into his gestural figure drawings. He cut up his medical illustration text books and reassembled all sorts of human parts into dark and dramatic photomontages, harking back to the anti-aesthetic of Dada and Surrealism practiced by artists such as George Grosz, John Heartfield, and Max Ernst.

Citation: Cynde Randall, “Listening to Monsters: Local artists James F. Cleary and Chris Mars explore complex philosophies by looking at the dark side.” Arts28, No. 5 (September/October 2005): 16-17.