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Dec. 9, 2019

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Vancouver artist playing around with pop culture

Pop-art tributes, transformations recycle imagery to elevate, poke fun at cultural heroes

By , Columbian Arts & Features Reporter
Published: September 5, 2019, 6:03am
12 Photos
Chris Stevens, whose specialty is recycling pop culture and science fiction imagery with additional layers of strangeness and sparkle, builds a picture frame in his Salmon Creek studio. Amanda Cowan/The Columbian
Chris Stevens, whose specialty is recycling pop culture and science fiction imagery with additional layers of strangeness and sparkle, builds a picture frame in his Salmon Creek studio. Amanda Cowan/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Chris Stevens’ favorite formative memory, he said, is hurrying home from first grade to watch daily “Star Trek” reruns with his brother. That’s when he first experienced pop-culture fandom that’s really more like religion.

Long after we’re all gone — maybe even centuries from now — Stevens predicts that our descendants will still be worshipping cultural icons like Mr. Spock, Princess Leia and Batman. Not only does nostalgia for certain classic stories and characters never go out of style, he said, it even broadens into mythology and legend.

The heroic epic of “Star Wars” and the multi-ethnic (make that multi-planetary) inclusiveness of “Star Trek” are themes that go deep, he noted, and never seem to stop moving people.

Stevens has spent the past decade exploring the gap between just-for-fun media fandom and faithful worship by recycling and augmenting movie and TV imagery into paintings and screen-prints that both elevate and poke fun at cultural heroes.

If you’ve ever felt in need of a uniquely hand-textured portrait of Lt. Uhura, or the Millennium Falcon, or even Bill Murray dolled up as The Joker (a role that seems perfect for Murray, though he’s never played it), check out the upcoming First Friday opening at Angst Gallery, where Stevens’ pop-art tributes and transformations will be on display.

If You Go

What: “Culture Smash,” featuring the art of Chris Stevens and Jacob Herring.
When: First Friday opening reception from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday. Exhibit on display through Sept. 28.
Where: Angst Gallery, 1015 Main St.
Learn more: popoctopusblog.wordpress.com, angstgallery.com

Sharing the gallery walls with Stevens’ images will be works by a fellow pop-culture surrealist, cartoonist Jacob Herring of Portland.

Celebrities and soup

Stevens grew up in Boise, attended art school in Seattle and moved to Vancouver about 15 years ago, he said. He and his wife are just getting ready to leave a Salmon Creek apartment and move to a house near the Fourth Plain International District, he said.

Stevens’ biggest influence was his mother, a painter always looking for artistic opportunities while managing a print shop. Stevens studied graphic design in college, waited on bars and restaurant tables after that, and eventually went into surprisingly lucrative business for himself as a T-shirt screen printer.

He did that for about a decade, he said, until technology started making it affordable for everyone to print their own T-shirts.

That’s when Stevens moved into pop-art paintings and prints featuring recycled mass-media imagery that recalls the celebrity portraits and soup cans of pop art mastermind Andy Warhol — whose oddball pieces aimed to question the very meaning of art as anything more than a commodity for sale.

Stevens has dabbled with paintings and illustrations that don’t reference pop culture and science fiction. But for the most part he’s interested in preserving and updating famous images that he loves — and that people will want to buy.

“It’s awesome to spend your time making art, but if it just piles up in the closet it’s not doing anybody any good,” he said.

Dad art

Who is done any good by a goofy grin from “The Dude,” played by Jeff Bridges in the Coen Brothers film “The Big Lebowski,” or a hypnotic glare from Dwight Schrute, the painfully competitive salesman played by Rainn Wilson on TV’s “The Office”?

Dads, Stevens said. His artworks are frequently purchased for dad birthdays or Father’s Day, and end up displayed on the walls of man caves. Wives and children are his most frequent customers, he said.

“America is such a weird culture. We are so bizarre,” Stevens said. “What we brought to the world is a kind of casualness and rugged individualism.”

That somehow goes hand-in-hand with mass production of everything from hamburgers to heroes. Only America could have created the Hollywood dream machine, he said.

But when pop-culture royalty passes on, Stevens added, he’s put in an awkwardly profitable position.

About three years ago, Stevens woke up one morning to discover that he’d just made a nice bundle online overnight. All his David Bowie portraits had suddenly sold out. That’s how he learned about the eccentric rock star’s death.

The same goes for his Anthony Bourdain artworks. The charismatic Bourdain was a globe-trotting celebrity chef and documentarian who seemed on top of the world when he died by suicide in 2018. Stevens felt “ghoulish” about cashing in on that shock, he said.

Then he got back to work.

“Famous people from the pop generation are dying now,” he said. “My job is preserving them so people can keep enjoying them.”

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