Painter or jazz musician?
Chris Janzen doesn't have to choose.
The Fresno Pacific University professor has a master of fine arts degree in oil painting, but he's always been equally focused on guitar playing. (Along with teaching design, drawing, painting and sculpture at Fresno Pacific, he also teaches guitar.) You can often find Janzen leading his Fresno Underground Trio at various JazzHop venues.
With "More Again Now," his new exhibition at Fig Tree Gallery, he's participating in another "Hop" — this one ArtHop, the monthly open house of galleries and studios in the downtown and Tower District neighborhoods.
The exhibition — a style Janzen calls "Menno Pop Surrealism" — demonstrates the happy collision between painting and jazz, he says.
"I compose paintings the same way I compose music. I improvise," says Janzen. "Paint is layered on the canvas like a musician layers instruments in the studio. My experience as a jazz guitarist influences the colors, textures and shapes I use to create a finished painting."
We caught up with Janzen via email to talk about the exhibition.
Question: Are you a visual artist first and jazz musician second? The other way around? Or is it fair to make you prioritize?
Answer: I have difficulty prioritizing one over another. I see myself as an artist who uses a variety of mediums for expression; two of my favorites are oil paint and guitar. My formal training is in visual art (I have a master of fine arts degree in oil painting from the University of South Dakota), but I have always been equally as focused on guitar playing. When I paint, I borrow design ideas from the pure abstraction contained in music. When I play guitar, I approach songs like a visual artist, constantly trying to find a new way to play any given song.
How does improvisation play a role in your art?
I apply oil to canvas during time periods of "performance," like a musician in a recording studio, painting forms according to interests that arise in the moment.
Often the painting starts off with a sketch or collage, but when I step back to examine it, I feel that the composition would be more meaningful if flipped upside down. Sometimes incidental "mistake" marks are more interesting than what I originally intended.
Instead of planning what the composition will look like when it is finished, I rely on intuition and chance to help guide my paintings to completion.
Set the scene for us as you paint. Do you listen to music? Do you set a limit on how long you'll improvise?
Here's my art-making ritual: I put on loud, creative music by artists like Alice Coltrane, Sonny Sharrock or Deerhoof. This music helps me disconnect from the rational world by providing an alternative clock to keep time. I also favor music with surprising twists and turns, which remind me to question whether my art is getting too predictable. I then paint for a minimum of two hours at a time until a balance of formal and intellectual meaning is achieved.
Improvisation is risky. I often spend many hours painting layers that viewers won't directly see. I also might accidentally combine subject matter that implies a narrative I do not wish to glorify. For this reason, I always have to make time to rationally evaluate the works in progress after periods of improvisation.
I'm intrigued with the idea of Menno Pop Surrealism. How do you explain it?
I coined the phrase because I needed a simple name to describe the dominant characteristics of my work.
"Surrealism" refers to the improvisational layering I use to create my paintings, which borrows many concepts from the original 1920s art movement of the same name. During the beginning stage of a composition, I rely on the use of "automatism," painting without rationally evaluating the meaning of the work (incidentally, this is also the way one could describe jazz improvisation).
"Pop" is used to describe the subject matter of my work. I choose images from catalogs, magazines, television and other commercial media for the source material for my paintings. This way my work consists of images many members of society have seen before rather than relying only on my own subconscious.
"Menno" is the Mennonite viewpoint that separates my work from other Surrealist or Pop artists. Surrealism is totally irrational and entirely focused on the artist. Pop art glorifies the ordinary mass-produced stuff that is cheap and meaningless. As a Mennonite, I feel it is important to make art that helps society and has something unique to say that can't be bought at a 99 cent store.
You started teaching at Fresno Pacific in 2007. Tell us a little about yourself.
I have been interested in drawing for as long as I can remember. I grew up in the Sunnyside area of Fresno and graduated from Sanger High School in 2000. I studied art and music at Bethel College, Kansas, earning a bachelor's degree in fine art in 2004. In the spring of 2007, I earned a master of fine arts degree with an emphasis in oil painting from the University of South Dakota.
I currently live in the Tower District of Fresno with my wife and two daughters.
What do you hope people take away from "More Again Now"?
I hope that people leave my show with the idea that they can find beauty and meaning in life by questioning popular culture. Some of the weathered textures of my works might also encourage viewers to consider the beauty of an old brick wall or cracked sidewalk. Beauty is all around us, but we have to actively look for it to recognize its presence.
More ArtHop picks
The K-Jewel Art Gallery, 1415 Fulton St., features the artwork of Alvin Greathouse, whom curator Karl Kallmann describes as "not in the mainstream Fresno art scene." Greathouse, a janitor at Fresno City College, uses pens, pencils, markers and highlighters. Details: kjwl.com, (559) 497-5118.
Jerrie Peters, Shannon Bickford and Lylia Forero Carr present the exhibit "New Works" at Gallery 25, 660 Van Ness Ave. Details: gallery25.org, (559) 264-4092.
At Spectrum Art Gallery, 608 E. Olive Ave., there are two exhibitions: Tim A. Fleming's "Black & White and Zen All Over" and Jeffrey David Nicholas' "Windows and Walls." Details: spectrumphotogallery.org, (559) 266-0691.
"More Again Now," through Oct. 27, Fig Tree Gallery, 644 Van Ness Ave. figtreegallery.us, (559) 485-0460.
ArtHop, 5-8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 3. For a list of venues, go to fresnoarthop.org.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, firstname.lastname@example.org and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.