Chris Leib is an American fine-artist and graduate of anthropology, renowned for his iconography of Bonobo chimps and astronauts and cosmonauts, often juxtaposed, with exquisite technique and scrupulous attention to detail. Transcending whimsy, his paintings are laden with meaning and intellectual contemplation. Chris’ work explores themes of heroism, human endeavour and the sensitivity of human hopes and ambitions to possible realities of science-fact. His work challenges us to contemplate a collision of science-fiction, reality and religion, this three-car pile-up viewed from the vantage point of our evolutionary ancestors who have quietly continued to evolve themselves.
“Our own position in the evolutionary scheme is potentially precarious, especially if our actions are petulant and impulsive. The Bonobo in these scenes feels like she is reigning in the little space child, trying perhaps to preserve the path started long ago by their common ancestor.” —Chris Leib
Luke Barrett: Chris, there's one question I've been dying to ask you for a long time, so I'm just going to come right out and hit you with it, straight off the bat: what's with all the Bonobo chimps? Are you just really passionate about chimpanzees? Is this body of work the equivalent of your own private Gorillas In the Mist? Or have you chosen the Bonobo for something else which they represent?
Chris Leib: Ha! Less Fossey, more Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan … or maybe I should say, Grey*brush*stroke … [gestures hitting a snare drum with a paint brush]
LB: Ha! I’m going to take that as a reference to Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist… but just in case, I’m going to keep my Fossie Bear antics to a minimum from here on! And perhaps we can pass over the loin cloth thing (and when I say, ‘pass over’, I mean ‘skip’, not ‘hand over’). Wocka wocka. Seriously though, tell me more about the Bonobos.
CL: At one point in a series I was doing called Sabotaging Eden, I thought to paint a pieta theme of an astronaut holding a Bonobo. After some sketches it turned into a Madonna and Child theme, with the Bonobo holding a baby astronaut. The metaphor really stuck, as it had many levels and it touched me on a very personal level that I didn’t understand at the time. When I was a child there was a pet supply store near where I grew up that kept a Bonobo in a tiny cage. He sat and rocked neurotically all day long, distressed to the point of madness. I wanted to let that poor guy out, I was furious. The adults ignored my requests, it seemed pointlessly cruel. I’m sure my interest in apes began then, and eventually I studied anthropology in college.
In Western history, apes were basically seen as degenerate humans or deformed humans - products of sin. They were portrayed as mischievous and imitating the less graceful human behaviors. This past representation still persists, but today they are also seen as representing one end of our evolutionary trajectory. Artistically, this portrayal is very useful when contrasted with technologically advanced humans.
Far from primal humans, Bonobos have evolved parallel to us, they are fully equipped for their environments. I initially introduced the Bonobos to mimic and ‘misrepresent’ moments in Western history, knowing of course that they will be viewed as one end of an evolutionary spectrum. But rather than portray them in a mischievous bacchanalian role, I flipped that narrative, portraying them as wise and mature.
LB: Another recurring icon or symbol in your work is that of the astronaut or cosmonaut. If I can ask you a similar question to what I asked about Bonobos: does this simply reflect an interest of yours or perhaps even a childhood dream, or have you chosen astronauts and cosmonauts for some deeper, symbolic purpose?
CL: I was lucky enough to see the tail end of the Apollo launch programs, that and Star Trek were big events at our house.
The astronaut and cosmonaut represent our civilization’s highest aspirations and achievements. They were irreproachable modern heroes. Initially I thought to place the spacemen in historic settings, acting as provocateurs to influence events, sowing chaos that was hidden by humorous antics, their maligned actions and appearance contrasting their heroic status. I started with Eden, the mythical birthplace of Western culture. It sort of stuck and grew from there. Once I introduced the Bonobos, the space hero took a diminutive infantile form. Though still mischievous, the space hero’s provocations were impulsive rather than planned.
LB: I have noticed that you tend to be quite particular in describing these characters as being “astronauts” and “cosmonauts”. Is that just an exercise in post Cold War diplomacy, or are you deliberately introducing some ambiguity about their point of origin? Or perhaps you are making a statement about how irrelevant international boundaries are - or should be - when it comes to great human pursuits, like space exploration?
CL: The latter. Space explorers are universal heroes, their aspirations extend beyond national boundaries. The Apollo moon landings were celebrated around the globe. Most cultures have looked to the heavens and wondered. The heavens capture our imaginations. When you think about it, the notion of a hero relies on our imagination. What makes astronauts and cosmonauts such powerful heroic symbols is that they explore at the boundaries of possibilities.
The converse of that possibility is also powerful. What if there is a limit, an economic or technological governor, that makes it impossible for any species to leave solar systems? When you let that possibility sink in, that no life in the universe has ever in billions of years left their solar systems… That the necessary advancements to achieve interstellar travel would end up devastating a species in the process … that thought is sort of debilitating. After all, we humans have always operated on Icarian impulses. Even though it’s nothing we would see in our lifetime, if we knew that was the case, would that change everything for us?
In it’s incubation, Sci-fi imagined a higher destiny for the species. It is the quasi religious wing in the time and rise of science. So much of that fiction over the last 40 years has hedged towards dystopia. This pursuit to explore is a human trait, beyond artificial boundaries, but we are at a place with our collective imagination where exploration is focused on various paths of avoiding human demise.
LB: Earlier on you mentioned the pieta and Madonna and Child theme from your Sabotaging Eden body of work. Your astronauts, cosmonauts and Bonobos cross paths quite often, with the Bonobo generally in a position of dominance or influence. What are your thoughts on the relationship between your astronauts, cosmonauts and Bonobos? And why are the astronauts and cosmonauts child-like in scale?
CL: The diminutive astronauts originated as a form of Christ child or space-age Savior symbol, held by the mother, the primal mother, Bonobo. It was based upon Madonna Child imagery of the early renaissance. The primal versus the civilized, Dionysian versus Apollonian, are conjured up in the juxtaposition, but reversed in the characterization. The astronauts are diminutive and infantile, prone to tantrum. They are held, comforted, parented by the ‘primitive’ Bonobos. I wanted to flip the expected relationship, having the Bonobos appear as dominant and civilizing, the astronauts as infantile. Our own position in the evolutionary scheme is potentially precarious, especially if our actions are petulant and impulsive. The Bonobo in these scenes feels like she is reigning in the little space child, trying perhaps to preserve the path started long ago by their common ancestor.
LB: If you had to make a cinematic analogy to the themes in this body of work, would you reference the apes and David Bowman's astronaut character from Stanley Kubrik's 2001: A Space Odyssey? Or perhaps a Planet of the Apes type paradigm? In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the apes and the astronaut are at the opposite ends of an incomplete evolutionary spectrum; whereas in Planet of the Apes they represent parallel or alternate evolutionary possibilities, and in the sequels the apes become astronauts themselves. Or have I taken an interpretative wrong turn and ended up in tangent-city?
CL: It would probably fall more in line with Kubrick’s 2001. I don’t want to go near the time travel loop complications of Planet of the Apes! Both movies were a large influence growing up… but I’m not specifically commenting on either film. The star child parallels were unintended but quickly apparent after my first painting of the Bonobo with Space Baby.
I’m interested in how science fiction parallels the political atmosphere of it’s times. Godzilla follows Hiroshima, Monsters are Due on Maple Street follows the McCarthy era, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead follows the Civil Rights Movement, his sequels follow the Consumerism gone mad of the 80s, and so on. There’s been a lot of dystopian sci-fi since the 70s. Dystopian fiction assumes a posture of warning, of a need for prevention… by it’s very presentation, it is tied to hope. We have arrived at the murky ground where these worlds of fiction and reality conflate and blur. In my life, we’ve gone from 3 channels on black and white TVs to self-driving cars, robotics, drones, environmental disasters, and all the conjurations of fictional corporate states on the horizon. To me, an American, the self-driving car is in many ways the capstone of the creeping movement of dystopian visions that the most prophetic writers of science fiction speculated on decades ago. So, from here on, is science fiction a dead genre, or is it the new naturalism?
LB: With science fiction and reality conflating, what implications does this have for religion, because I have detected some religious symbology in this body of work? We have already touched on the Madonna and Child imagery in your work, and your last exhibition at Beinart Gallery included a painting of a Bonobo cradling an astronaut holding a crayon-drawing of God; and you have just completed a painting for the upcoming group show at Beinart Gallery of a Bonobo cherub with angel wings. Are you calling out the tension between the Genesis creation story and Darwinian evolution? Or perhaps you are even offering a reconciliation of the two - because if they were both to be true, and if a maker created life in their own image, that would certainly explain the presence of hirsute angels! No doubt your background in anthropology would put you in an informed position to make an artistic statement about the emergence of creation myths in different societies and cultures, which is possibly an extremely human propensity that we may or (more probably) may not share with Bonobos.
CL: I’m certainly making light of the idea of a creation in a maker’s image, giving a wink and nod to evolution. Imagine you got to heaven and… ‘Grape Ape!’
Literal interpretations of creation and other folklore are doomed for failure or require heavy costs to prop up. These tales are cultural building blocks. Forms of the Genesis story are preceded in other myths, for example, Gilgamesh. And setting aside neo-platonic explanations, which might be revived soon enough given today’s climate, these stories are reflections of our psyche and collective histories. One view is that Genesis can be looked at as a sort of nostalgia for cave dwelling times: a story of innocence before humans left the warmth and security of the cave, embarking on the unknown project of agriculture and civilization.
The cross-culture parallels in tales should make it clear that they are outside the property of any one religion, that such stories are not fact but folklore. New myths continue to be made, churned out in similar formulas. Even without organized pantheons to worship, we humans would create our own, reflections of our cultures. Look at the rise of comic book superheroes post the second world war. In an age of science, these are basically new saints. They have creation stories, many birthed from science rather than spiritual events. The heroes have special powers, like the miracles of saints. They protect the weak who reach out to them for help. Sometimes their motives are to redeem themselves in the eyes of society. Storytelling defines the human species. It is important to our cultures and our self-conception.
LB: The other piece you have created for the group show at BeinArt Gallery is called Reward Compliance: here we see a lone Bonobo as a traveller through space, or perhaps through time, or both. Is this intended to be an evolutionary synthesis or merger of the themes that we have been discussing? For me, it is as if the astronaut and Bonobo are finally revealed as one, or as one continuation of a shared evolutionary spectrum: freed of the artificial dichotomy, the spacesuit can be shed, revealing its true identity.
CL: I conceived it as the primal space traveller, both a celestial and neurological mastermind. He is both in the mind and outside the universe, but unknown to us, pulling the levers in a sort of pavlovian lab, offering carrot and sticks, demanding compliance and offering rewards. In the background there is a tunnel of complex supports and structure that led to this ‘control’ station. As I painted it I never determined if that complex path was the labyrinth of a space ship or a metaphor for the brain. But I did see the creature as an ancestral god, so deep in the maze of the psyche that he is forgotten.
LB: The Bonobo in Reward Compliance is not like other Bonobos, however - this Bonobo only has one eye. Is this a reference to Norse Mythology? According to Norse mythology, Odin sacrificed one of his eyes in exchange for gaining cosmic knowledge and wisdom. Or perhaps you are channeling the cyclops from Homer's Odyssey, hinting at some obstacle in an attempt to return home - perhaps our original home, a Garden of Eden? Because we know Eden was a previous body of work for you.
CL: I was initially thinking of Odin, as this was the creature in control, the top dog. But this character is more cycloptic, the eye above the nose, as in some portrayals of the Greek cyclops. But the cyclops can also be seen in that light, one of cosmic power at least. They helped Zeus obtain power, forging his lightning bolts, so in a way they were a source of cosmic power. The original cyclops were builders and craftsmen to the gods. I use this reference a fair amount. In the painting Thoroughbred, for example. It’s a painting of a purple skinned, blue haired ape, another character in the simian pantheon, that has two colored eyes. The lighter one being blind.
The one eyed creature translates a 3D world into 2D, into graphic form. While such a creature can’t catch a baseball very well, they are positioned to step back from the 3D world, they have to analyze the world in order to operate in that environment. The single eye translates and maps the world. That is their power. The monocular position, a vantage point of special knowledge… that emanates and is absorbed by a single point and perspective. It’s a form used in cult and conspiracy related symbolism. In this case I thought that since this being was perhaps in the mind, he might in a sense be the ‘minds eye’.
LB: I couldn't help but notice that the one-eyed Bonobo has six fingers. Is this another homage to Darwinian evolution and adaptation? For a one-eyed Bonobo to survive in the world, having to translate three dimensions into two dimensions, as you were saying, it would need to adapt and an additional finger might just give it that edge that it needs to survive!
CL: Great observation! I didn’t specifically think of it that way. I wanted it to be viewed as an ape whose status is otherworldly. The sixth finger had a playful appeal, like a child’s drawing that adds an extra finger. One thought was that since this creature would be dealing with so many buttons and levers, that it made sense he would have an extra finger to handle all that. So yes, in that way, it was an adaption!
LB: That’s the second time you’ve made the ‘child-like’ point. The child-like extra finger, and the child-like crayon drawing of God. Is that just a coincidence, or is there something about a 'child's eye' view of the world that you feel drawn to?'
CL: The sixth finger reminded me of small, often unnoticed, additions or subtractions of appendages that one finds in children's drawings. I liked that it was a distinguishing trait, but something that wouldn't necessarily be seen right away.
The stick figure in Drawing God with a Crayon was obviously purposeful, it can be seen different ways... conceived as an abstraction, the idea of it as conceived in our image, the absurdity of our attempt to grasp the infinite. Perhaps the Bonobo looks up in resignation at human self-flattery to conceive God as standing upright? Or perhaps at the futility of our attempt?
LB: Thank you for sharing so many insights about your new pieces, Chris. I sense you have been pretty busy in the studio lately – before we part ways, are you able to give us any hints about what you might have in the pipeline?
CL: I have new works in several group shows: the Small Works show just opened at beinArt Gallery. There’s a group show Flower Child at Modern Eden in San Francisco, and If Our Days Won’t Last at Distinction Gallery, curated by Jon Jaylo in the Fall. Then I’ll being moving studios and taking a few months to concentrate on larger paintings in preparation for 2018 and 2019.
Mind Games - Oil on panel by Chris Leib