Screen captures from Star Wars inspire Chris Woods' SANDSTORM

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Chris Woods: SANDSTORM
At Gallery Jones until August 3

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“SANDSTORM”, Chris Woods’s new series of paintings, is a thematic and stylistic departure from the work that has garnered him attention and acclaim. The Chilliwack-based artist has long been identified with a tightly painted photo-realism that parodies advertising and critiques consumer culture. He frequently quotes from art-historical sources, giving his pop-culture subjects high-culture resonance—and philosophical heft. Poised in cathedral-like shopping malls, convenience stores, and fast-food outlets, the characters in Woods’s paintings seem to be staring into the void where their spiritual lives should be.

The dozen “SANDSTORM” paintings on view at Gallery Jones are based on screen captures from the original Star Wars trilogy, the genre-defining sci-fi action films that are arguably the most influential Hollywood creations of the late 20th century. Star Wars references are widely and deeply entrenched, not only in popular culture but also in politics, religion, and technology. Still, Jedi knights, evil empires, “May the Force be with you”—Woods takes such tropes as a given. What he’s interested in is examining the nature of evil, the possibility of redemption, and the archetypes that connect contemporary movies to historical western art. His images are oddly tilted and slurred, their distortions indicative of their fictional point of view, that of archvillain Darth Vader.

In paintings that might have been plucked from Vader’s premonitory dreams and nightmares, Woods gives us numerous scenes of enslavement and death: Princess Leia strangling the gangster Jabba the Hut with the chain that has imprisoned her; rancor, the fearsome, fanged, and ultimately sorry monster, slain by Luke Skywalker; Vader himself, unmasked, deeply scarred, lying dead on the ground. Woods’s interest in how Vader was “drawn to the dark side” is consistent with the contemporary trend in popular culture to deconstruct fairy tales in order to understand how goodness is corrupted. Vader’s point of view also enables the artist to loosen the way he handles his medium: these are the most painterly works he has created in years.

With Dead Soldiers, based on a scene deleted from Return of the Jedi of a crowd of Imperial Stormtroopers slain by Han Solo and his allies, Woods alludes to a long tradition of depicting battles and fallen human figures in art. This includes Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 painting Liberty Leading the People, whose foreground is strewn with the bodies of dead soldiers. Like Delacroix and other artists and poets of the Romantic era, Star Wars director George Lucas was clearly on the side of the democracy-seeking rebels. So, I’m sure, is Woods. Still, he also wants us to consider, for a moment, the beings inside the Stormtrooper armour. To consider everyone who, for whatever enlightened or benighted cause, suffers and dies in battle.

Dead Soldiers.

The most visually beguiling image in the show, Heroes in Sandstorm, is based again on another deleted scene. In it, Luke, Leia, and Han, wrapped in scarves and robes, represent yet another Vader-ian nightmare: the good folks who threaten to undermine his evil cause. And the most amusing painting here, Self Portrait as George Lucas, is just that. Woods depicts himself looking sideways with an apprehensive expression on his face—a face that is otherwise accoutred in Lucas’s hair, beard, and glasses. In both its realistic style and cheeky mood, this work is closer to Woods’s previous paintings than it is to the Vader–POV paintings in “SANDSTORM”. Hanging in the gallery’s front window, it pops us with a satirical punch before we enter that other, angst-filled realm. That galaxy far, far away.

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