Chris Regner In Depth About His Paintings, Life, Becoming an Artist & More

by Rubén Palma
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Chris Regner is an artist born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He works serially, using autobiography as a jumping-off point for satire, humiliation, and explorations of the grotesque. His work tackles a variety of topics, including religious and cultish indoctrination, the effect of technology on societal discourse, how to navigate adulthood as a male with no strong role models, and stereotypical notions of masculinity that find their way into every subject he explores. Using his personal experiences as a foundation, his paintings have questioned archetypes found within these themes, all the while challenging his own values and beliefs. He positions himself as an anti-proselytizer, complicating the easy answer and presenting morally questionable individuals with the intent of causing contradictory interpretations by the viewer. Navigating this discomfort is vital when searching for a greater truth.

Chris is a recent graduate of RISD’s MFA Painting program. He is represented by Kravets Wehby Gallery. He has shown his work internationally, including at the Kunstmuseum Schloss Derneburg. His work is a part of multiple private collections internationally. His work is in the Pizzuti Collection of the Columbus Museum of Art and the Hall Art Foundation.

Hi Chris, thank you for sitting down with me. This is my first question and I always ask this. How does a regular day look like for you in Rhode Island?

I’m glad to have the opportunity! I actually don’t live in Rhode Island anymore, but a regular day for me looks like waking up, going to the studio or working on my computer, and then coming home to hang out with my wife. Occasionally I’ll go out to my favorite dive bar in Milwaukee, The Newport, to hang out with friends from the active, albeit small, painting community here.

I appologize, I fucked up my research.. So you’re back in Milwaukee now?

No problem! Yea, when Covid hit during the last semester of grad school, I stayed around Rhode Island to finish my degree and worked in a studio there until that November. I moved back to Milwaukee then, as it’s much more affordable than the east coast, in general. I’ve been here since. I don’t think this is where I’m going to fully put down roots, but it works for now.

Ok, so being from Milwaukee originally, what brought you to Rhode Island?

I wanted to acquire my MFA in painting ever since I was an undergrad student, so I applied to a bunch of east coast graduate programs in 2017 and due to extreme fortune, I ended up getting into RISD. That was my dream school and I still feel very lucky and grateful that I had the opportunity to study there. I also wanted to be closer to New York in hopes of making some inroads with the “art world”. Milwaukee has a passionate art scene filled with talented individuals, but there is very little opportunity here to make a living off of your work. I felt like I needed to take a risk by leaving.

Assuming that everybody draws when they’re kids. What made you stick with?

I was an avid drawer when I was a kid, mostly copying the illustrations from video game box art, comics, and cartoons. I would draw Pokemon characters during church services. When I hit middle school I got really into skateboarding and focused on that throughout a good chunk of high school. When the reality of graduating started to creep up, I decided to take art more seriously. Thankfully the school I attended had a top-notch art program and I ended up going to MIAD right after. I dropped out the first semester, as I didn’t really know how to take school seriously. I thought that maybe I would pursue music, so I focused on fingerstyle guitar for a few years. After life knocked me around for a while, I decided to go back. I’m not sure why, but it seemed like the right thing to do. I intended on majoring in graphic design, but after I had my first observational drawing class, I was completely hooked. Ever since then I’ve been drawing and painting consistently.

I think I realized I had more of a knack for drawing than I did for my other interests, and I loved the challenge of it. It feels like the best way to express my thoughts, besides writing. 

Alright, so at some point you start to paint. How old were you at that time? And how did you get introduced to the airbrush?

I was 25 or so. I had majored in drawing in undergrad, and while I took some painting courses here and there it never really clicked for me the same way drawing did. I started to make these odd collages that mixed photos, painting, and drawing about my time working at an art supply store. I was looking for a way to apply paint in a flatter manner, and I wasn’t achieving it with a normal brush. I started an Instagram account around 2014 and I immediately started to notice artists like Jamian Juliano-Villani, Michael Dotson, and Josh Reames were making work with the kind of finish I was excited about. So I picked up an airbrush and started using it in a really simple way, just filling in flat areas of color. I then realized that you can render just about anything with it, and the rest is history.

While we’re on the subject. What is it about the airbrush that makes it your preferred choice?

The application of paint with an airbrush makes more sense to me than that with a typical brush. The way in which the painting gets built up, through light, transparent layers, feels like drawing with graphite. It was a much easier transition into painting given the mediums I had prior experience with.

So originally your paintings were inspired by your own personal experiences. But also experiences you might have missed when you were growing up. Talk to me a little bit about what you felt like you had missed, and why painting is your prefered medium of expression.

I think I’ve always had a bit of insecurity about my masculinity given that I didn’t have many great examples of it growing up. I felt like I was lagging behind my friends in this way. I’m also a bit sensitive, so that can cause problems with other men. Since I didn’t grow up around positive images of masculinity, I tried to find examples from other sources, like video games, film, advertising, books, articles, etc. So I’ve had to carve my own path through the experience of being a man. I find painting to be the perfect expression of these thoughts as a lot of what I pulled my pseudo-knowledge of masculinity from was images, animations, comics, etc. 

Staying on the subject. You’re very honest about the main topics you choose to depict, whether it’s religion, technology or masculinity. Talk to me a little bit about why your topic choices are important to you.

I want to be straightforward about my subject matter. I think it’s risky to put yourself in vulnerable positions with your art but I feel that it’s necessary to relate to the viewer and say, “It’s ok to feel uncomfortable. I am too.”

In order to come up with ideas for a painting, I need a topic to focus on. I’m not the kind of artist that can intuitively paint, making it up as I go along. I wish I knew how to do that, but I have to work to my strengths. Narratives and specific topics give me a foundation that I can build an image up from. Without that, I’m swinging blindly and it’s hard for me to get excited about that approach. It also provides an emotional foundation to work from and I have an idea of the feeling I want the viewer to get from the image. 

You seem to have knowledge about various complex subjects. Would you consider yourself a book or a documentary kind of guy?”

I’d say a little of both. I try to stay open to any source of inspiration, whether it’s news articles, videos, documentaries, novels, artist biographies, or film. I give equal time to all these forms of research.

You’ve been pretty open about how growing up without a father has impacted your work. From your show titles to your actual paintings. Can you talk to me a little bit about the full scope of this?

It ties in to my previous comments about feeling a sense of insecurity in my masculinity. That series of work focused on my interpretations of what makes someone an inspiring, but flawed, father figure to look up to. Some of the paintings explore the experiences I feel I missed out on growing up, such as the comfort of hiding behind a physically imposing guardian and how to be assertive and how it’s different from aggression. The paintings are prototypes of stereotypical, strong masculine figures. 

The different characters and creatures in your paintings. Sometimes there’s one and sometimes there are several. They’re usually mixed together in various different themes like animals and mythology etc.. Who are they and what do they represent?

It depends on the painting, as it varies from image to image. Generally speaking, they can represent me, mythological narratives and characters, references to art history, film, and games. I try to leave the possibilities as open as possible, even if I don’t think everyone will understand every reference. I feel like that makes it even more special when someone will pick up on it and we can share that unique realization together. 

The animals are more specific. They represent primal instincts and genetic predispositions. Behavior and thoughts that might be embarrassing to express as a human can be represented through the animals. 

So when did you start to develop that style of blending various protagonists or themes together? And why do you think you prefer that over just one?

I started working this way in the final semester of grad school. I liked the idea of using the silhouette of a generic male figure and adhering things to it. It gave me a solid conceptual foundation that I could build an image upon that allowed for variation but maintained a similar meaning throughout multiple paintings. While my compositions can be similar, I tend to not want to repeat myself from painting to painting. As far as the blending of themes, I would say each painting has a fairly simple idea, and the disparate objects I choose to paint are all related to that theme somehow. The connections might not be readily apparent, but they’re there if you want to dig for them.

Right.. so when you start on a new painting do you already have something visualized of what you’re going to paint? Or do you simply go with the flow?

A lot of my “painterly” way of working happens digitally. Every piece starts out its life as a digital collage first. They are conceived in Photoshop, where I will jam together images from online, sculptures I’ve created in VR, digital paintings, and other sources. A lot of the manipulation that happens is intuitive and experimental. Sometimes these collages will take me a few hours, and sometimes a few weeks. Sometimes I’ll have a specific composition or image in my head and things will flow easily, and sometimes I have no ideas and I just have to start throwing things together. The collage is generally worked out all the way before I begin my painting. I will leave myself some room for interpretation while painting, but not a lot. The challenge the painting provides is how to actually translate digital images in an analog fashion, and how to translate impossibly vivid digital color into a painting.

That’s an interesting process. When did you come up with that technique? And how long have you been developing it?”

I started toying around with it in 2010 or so and began taking it more seriously the past couple years. It started out as an attempt to create believable, realistic scenes for me to draw from when I didn’t have the luxury of sitting with a model. After attempting to make seamless worlds in Photoshop, I decided to just lean into the awkwardness of the collages. It’s more fun that way in my opinion. It also creates some tension wherein the collage looks like it might fall apart at any moment.

What do you hope that we, the observers take with us after viewing some of your paintings?

I love hearing all sorts of different interpretations of the paintings. Some people love the gaudy, fun nature of them. Some people love the dark humor and grotesqueness. Some love the emotive quality of the figures. Ideally I’d want you to feel all of that at once. Love and hate, comfort and discomfort, joy and sadness. I don’t want the paintings to be one-note emotionally, and they definitely aren’t just pretty pictures to me, so if I can evoke a complicated mix of emotions from the viewer, I feel like the painting is a success. 

Besides painting you also do make sculptures. How did you get into that?

I don’t make a lot of these, but I’ve been thinking about starting again after looking deeper into Ashley Bickerton’s practice. When I was in high school I took a few ceramics classes. I’ve always enjoyed working with clay. I also like that I can come to the medium with no real expectations of how it should look or what I’m going to get out of it. I feel like I could use some more of that in my practice now.

What motivates and inspires you?

Narrative, mythology, ancient and contemporary art, film, music, philosophical conversation, ideology, museums, artists, psychology.

Having had your work exhibited at several solo shows, I gotta ask. Do you ever get nervous or do you have any kind of rituals before exhibitions?

I’m usually shitting bricks beforehand, but once I get there it’s fine. Besides a shot of whiskey and a Xanax I don’t have too many rituals. I just try to think of it like a gathering of friends and not a performance that I’m putting on. People are there because they want to be and if people don’t like the work they’ll just leave and I’ll never know any better.

I’m curious about your love for sneakers, cause i’m a sneakerhead myself. Talk to me a little bit about that.

The way I dress is typically more conservative. I like high-quality basic pieces, like button-up shirts, joggers, and hoodies. The one article of clothing that I feel I can go a little crazier with is shoes, so that’s the expressive part of my outfit. I like them being the focus and I am amazed at the creative expression that shoe designers can achieve. Some are on par with paintings in their thoughtfulness. I wouldn’t call myself a bonafide sneakerhead as I don’t spend a lot of time researching drops or specific models of shoes. I do, however, go on GOAT frequently and I can spend hours trying to find the perfect pair. Here are a few that I’ve had my eye on recently:

Air Force 1 Low “Marbled Swoosh”

Air Force 1 Low ’07 LV8 “Pop Art-White”

Oski x Dunk High SB “Great White Shark”

Sheesh.. the Oski’s and the Pop Art’s are fire.. Could you describe a perfect day for me?

One free from drama, fresh emails about showing opportunities or sold paintings, hours straight of painting that is going perfectly or a collage that is flowing easily, a solid meal when I come home, a bourbon Sidecar and a joint, and a relaxing night with my wife. If I’m in New York, any day that I get to spend at The Met is perfect.

That doesn’t sound too bad! Okay Chris unfortunately we’re nearing the end of the interview, and I only have 2 questions left, which I always ask cause I’m curious like that.. What’s your favorite movie(s) and why?

2001: A Space Odyssey: A perfect, visual tour de force

Alien: A tense, atmospheric, creative sci-fi horror flick

Hard to Be a God: A grotesque look at human behavior

Andrei Rublev: A film showing the power of art through dark times

The Green Knight: A film exploring what it means to live an honorable life

Great list. And last question. What song do you listen to the most right now?

I’ve been listening to “Maybe We Could” by Kllo on repeat

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