conversations – Interview by Nora Partl – 24.04.2023
CHRIS DRANGE: QUESTIONING AUTHORSHIP
POST-DIGITAL ART AND SOCIAL MEDIA SYMBOLISM
Chris Drange has not painted any of his artworks, although his works are oil paintings depicting contemporary influencers like Kendall Jenner or Gigi Hadid. Drange has found an unusual way of making them: he creates sketches from various digital found objects, like influencer selfies or cute puppies, and sends them to an oil painting factory in China, where they are painted by hand on large-scale canvases. With his approach, the artist questions authorship and originality.
In conversation with Nora Partl, Head of Content & Communication, Drange speaks about the origins of his practice, social media symbolism, and discusses the question of whether a selfie is an expression of emancipation or serves the male gaze.
Nora Partl: Chris Drange, when was the moment you knew you wanted to be an artist?
Chris Drange: I am a big believer in DNA. My father and my grandparents were painters. I mainly grew up with my grandmother and spent most afternoons at her place drawing. She also taught art to schoolchildren, and I was one of her students. I guess I always wanted to become an artist.
NP: Your artistic practice is very diﬀerent from how a "usual" artist works. You select selfies of influencers like Kendall Jenner or Emrata and edit them on your computer. Then, they are enlarged to their full extent by a company in Lithuania before the blueprint file is sent to a factory in China for oil paintings, which finally paints the image in consultation with you. How did you develop that rather complex process, and what is the idea behind it?
CD: The result of my work is more important to me than the process. My process is digital, but the result is always a physical, handcrafted artwork. Today, we live in a world of sheer endless opportunities; we can do whatever we want through the power of the Internet. There are great tools of any sort to automate processes and develop anything. As a student, I started to automate and outsource work online around the globe simply because it was possible. I wanted to be able to work from anywhere in the world and detach myself from the studio.
NP: Kim Kardashian has taught us many times about the perfect selfie. What makes the ideal selfie for you, so you continue working with it?
CD: I am always looking for something typical, common, beautiful, or cute that says something decisive about our times. And at the same time, it should engage in a universal dialog; it should connect to a larger subject matter like portraiture.
NP: There is a lively discourse about selfies on social media, both online and oﬄine. The eternal dispute—is this an expression of emancipation or does it serve the male gaze— remains unresolved. Have you developed a stance on the subject through your confrontation with these images?
CD: I don’t judge. What my work actually tells people is that they are OK. It is about self-affirmation. Affirming that they belong in this world and that people care about them. It's about becoming free from negative doubts, feelings, and beliefs. With a positive mental attitude, you create a kind of consciousness that helps you receive a wider point of view, more possibilities, and more abundance. The images or objects, like emojis, I work with are a result of that affirmation.
NP: As a male artist working with selfies of women, is it okay to just process women's images as a man?
CD: Sometimes my work gets compared to the Instagram works by Richard Prince, which he started in 2015. I love Prince's work; it is always about appropriating images of various subject matters. His main theme is image theft. My work is merely a reflection of the times we live in. It is coming from a much more positive direction.
NP: Have you been met with criticism because of the masculine gaze on social media photographs of women?
CD: Some people certainly think that my work supports a masculine gaze, but I never see it that way. When my two-year-old daughter sees one of my paintings, her response is always the same. No matter if she sees a painting of Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, or Emrata, she points at it and shouts: Mama!
NP: Your work is all about social media and the cliches of online culture. What is your relationship with the Internet?
CD: For me, it is not so much about social media itself as what it can let you do. It is like a medium, a tool, that allows people to express themselves, affirm themselves, and grow personally, emotionally, spiritually, or financially. It’s a rather positive experience. I love searching for imagery and signs online that reflect that feeling.
NP: Your images appear to be exaggerated; they are monumental, and oftentimes kitschy emojis are added to the influencer’s selfie. Do you view your work as a critique of social media and how we consume it?
CD: I know criticism as an element is often used by a lot of artists. But I don’t believe it's the role of the artist to criticize. The role and duty of the artist are to be as open as possible and reflect the world we live in. I don't believe that you can create anything unless you are 100 percent open to it. Only then can you begin to create. Being critical is like closing up, but as an artist, you need to be willing to let in, to let your work fully penetrate you. Art has to go through the artist.
NP: In your recent works, you have included animal motifs, such as cute and kitschy dogs and cats. How did you go from working with selfies to creating images of pets?
CD: I am always looking for ways to expand my artistic vocabulary and subject matter. Working with animals seemed like a logical choice.
NP: Does the fact that cute animals are so popular on social media aﬀect why you changed the motifs you use?
CD: I just love the feeling that rises inside me when I look at a puppy or a little goatling. That same feeling that the image conveys is what I wanted to transfer onto a canvas, just like in the artwork PUPPY WITH YELLOW BLOSSOMS, for example. The motif is painted multiple times larger than you would normally see in the image. It emphasizes all the painted details of the puppy's fur, which is quite beautiful and adds a lot of detail and compressibility to the painting. In addition, I put an extra layer of flowers on the canvas and create a sort of collage. That way, the painting gets another dimension, and the flowers increase the feeling the puppy radiates. Also, the cuteness of the puppy contrasts with the brutal way he is being held and pushed against the wall by a human hand.
NP: For your exhibition at Tick Tack Antwerp, you created a painting that shows a mirror selfie of Gigi and Bella Hadid at the Versace ball, to which you added a large skull emoji. You mentioned that the composition of the mirror selfie reminded you of Hans Holbein’s DIE GESANDTEN. What impact does art history have on your work?
CD: The forerunner painting to GIGI, BELLA & SKULL was also a side-by-side portrait of the Jenner sisters Kylie and Kendall. I experimented with several emojis until I finally ended up placing a skull right below the center of the double portrait. It immediately changed the composition and created the presence of three people in the image. It also created a triangle between the heads of the sisters and the skull, which brought them into a geometric and balanced dialogue with each other. Then I cut out the composition into a circle and made the entire painting round, which emphasized the triangle situation. In Holbein's painting, the skull is heavily distorted because of an anamorphic perspective, a very popular technique during the Early Renaissance. You can only see it if you are standing with a certain perspective towards the painting. I like that, because I also like to think that emojis are positively distorted. The skull is not threatening; he is actually grinning at you. It's like death smiles at you like a friend. For people, history is important to develop an understanding of who we are as individuals. It gives us a development kit to get confidence and a better self-understanding. Art can create a connection to history via reference points.
NP: Painting still dominates our understanding of art and is the prevalent medium at fairs and galleries. Your process is digital, but the outcome is a physical painting. Where do you see the advantages of the medium of painting in your practice?
CD: A painting can change the way you see. It lets you look at things from a more distant perspective and creates another form of reception by eliminating speed. It's a whole different experience. This is particularly crucial when it comes to objective art. I get inspired by the early pop artworks of Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, and especially Roy Lichtenstein, because they were all committed to bringing the objective into the art world.
NP: Where do you see your practice evolving in the future?
CD: Painting has a very big place in my practice and always will. But I am also always trying to find new ways to expand my vocabulary and experiment with different styles and mediums. Right now I am working with different techniques and materials to produce sculptures in China, which is something I have always dreamed to accomplish.
Chris Drange studied at the International Center of Photography in New York and at the Art Students League of New York. Drange is best known for his use of digital found objects in post-digital paintings of contemporary influencers and social media symbolism.
Drange's work has appeared in several exhibitions and magazines, such as Kunstforum, Numéro, Weserburg, Benaki Museum, MDBK Leipzig (LINK IN BIO) and KÖNIG GALERIE (THE ARTIST IS ONLINE).