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Coloring Outside the Lines
From the humble wax crayon, Christian Faur creates sophisticated photorealistic portraits.
One of the small thrills of growing up in the pre-computer era was a brand-new box of crayons, especially that coveted 64-count deluxe set. Opening it for the first time was a sensory experience: that waxy fragrance, the glorious sight of all those perfect, lustrous tips lined up in rows like a rainbow choir, with poetic names like Sea Green, Carnation Pink, Periwinkle, Burnt Sienna. It always made you a little sad, though; in order to color pictures, you had to ruin your crayons. No wonder today’s kids just download a coloring book app.
But then there’s the art of Christian Faur. A self-taught maker with a background in physics and expertise in new media, Faur captures the interplay of art, science, and technology in amazing photorealistic portraits, each composed of nothing more than wax crayons – thousands of them.
Using a technique he originated, he colors wax and casts it, then stacks the crayons one by one atop each other in rows, following a map he has generated on a computer, so that their tips become the “pixels” of an image. (He melts the back of the whole thing to stabilize it in the frame.) In this way, he creates the ultimate box of crayons, existing in the aggregate as art while remaining compelling little objects in their own right.
A Faur crayon piece looks something like a pointillist painting or a grainy photo, depending, of course, on how far away you are standing. Come close, and the image dissolves into what he calls “random crayon data” – pure matter.
“I love the idea of communicating in a way that’s not through language, but through materials,” Faur says. “And I have a lot of fun using materials in ways that either subvert or enhance their communicative powers. I love playing. I feel like a kid.”
Faur was born in 1968 in New York City and moved throughout his childhood, from Chicago to Los Angeles to Sacramento. Making art was his constant, “the thing I always kept for myself.” After serving in the Army, he earned a degree in physics from California State University, Northridge, then taught physics and math at an L.A. middle school while exhibiting his oil paintings on the side. In 2000 he and his wife, Gabriele Dillmann, settled in Granville, Ohio, where today they are on the faculty at Denison University – she as a professor of German language and literature, he as director of collaborative technologies in the arts. In 2008 he finished an MFA in visual art and new media through the Transart Institute, a program based in Austria and New York.
It was Christmastime in 2005 when Faur was building a wooden crayon box as a gift for his daughter that inspiration struck. He was painting and sculpting with encaustics then, and had come to enjoy the versatility and properties of wax, “this fantastic surface quality that’s neither glossy or varnishy or highly polished, nor matte or dull.” But handling those crayons, observing how their tips absorbed light and conveyed dimension and texture when piled en masse, spurred his imagination.
He’s been playing with crayons ever since, to the delight of viewers both close to home, with three solo shows at Columbus’ Sherrie Gallerie since 2007, and in the high-profile setting of New York City, where his works have sold briskly at Kim Foster Gallery. There’s an undeniable wow factor to the technical skill involved, from creating a perfect digital map to mixing precise pigments and arranging all the cast crayons. A small work about 1 foot square might take him four days, a larger, multi-panel piece (up to 3 by 8 feet) several months. As for his material, the artist good-naturedly acknowledges the novelty appeal, though his approach is wholly serious. These sophisticated pieces delight (and trick) the eye, challenge the mind, and touch the heart.
“I’m captivated by people’s faces, their expressions. It’s something I love re-creating, reinterpreting, reflecting upon,” Faur says.
We might not know them, but his subjects are hauntingly familiar anyway. His Forgotten Children – blurry faces based on playmates Faur recalls only vaguely – read like faded photographs, memories we can’t fully retrieve. In A Series of Melodies, he takes an image of his now-teenage daughter and renders it in a variety of shades and patterns, achieving a spectrum of moods, from wistful to melancholy to slightly fierce. Another series, The Land Surveyors, presents stark archival portraits from the Depression that resonate all too powerfully these days.
Faur has always drawn on his dual interests – art and science – to bring density and dimension to his creative work. His early paintings were informed by poetry and literature (T. S. Eliot, Kafka) and embedded with mathematical elements (numbers, symbols, prime knots) to add layers of texture and meaning. Working with crayons, he’s found, has opened up new avenues of experimentation: trying different ways of “weaving” pixels to get certain effects or intensify colors; exploring the phenomenon of color blindness; even creating his own color alphabet. Lately, he says, he’s delving deeper into the idea of the pixel. “How does it work? How do we see pixels? How does our brain bring this discrete data point and melt it together to form imagery?”
At his university job, Faur is steeped in electronic media, which he sometimes references directly in his art. In 2012’s Parrish, five panels show a little boy’s happy face progressively disappearing into what looks like TV static – a comment, maybe, on the overwhelming digital noise that surrounds today’s young people. Faur, for his part, stays grounded in real stuff – crayons, and occasionally other media such as shredded paper, in works that can be highly conceptual.
“For me, working with the object, the material form, is still super-important,” he says. “The idea is great, but it needs physical manifestation.”
Christian Faur’s show “Rods and Cones” is at Kim Foster Gallery in New York through June 30. Joyce Lovelace is American Craft’s contributing editor.