The SPRING 2024 Cover Story: Trapped in Light with Christian Rex van Minnen

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Trapped in Light

Interview and portrait by Alex Nicholson

We arrive at things from the inside out, from within our experience to everything outside of it. The wonderful thing about Christian Rex van Minnen and other great artists like him is a conviction that, no matter where we arrive from and whatever unique conditions brought us here, we are all working with the same raw, human material. He welcomes the outside in and the inside out, trusting in the transformative power of this reciprocal exchange. There is nothing to hide, and the most valuable discoveries lie just beyond our fears.

Van Minnen’s reverence for the Old Masters and insatiable thirst for knowledge have always transcended historical or theoretical exploration. He actively puts the ideas of the past to the test, seeking not just technical mastery (which he has clearly found) but a profound understanding of his own and, inextricably, our own seemingly unlimited potential. He is a 17th century master resurrected, an old soul reanimated to describe the bewilderment of the human experience in a way only the mind of someone shaped by the unfathomable changes of the turn of this century could. His paintings are of the evolving present, of his own evolving transformation, and consequently, rooted in our collective history.

The SPRING 2024 Cover Story: Trapped in Light with Christian Rex van Minnen

Recently, a particular quality of light has shifted in van Minnen’s paintings. Or, perhaps, it’s that a source of light that has always been there has been revealed. Prompted by a comment about beauty from his son Desmond, Christian found himself painting a window—a window, he explained to me—into what was a previously hermetic, sealed space. “All of a sudden,” he said, “I get it; that’s complete. That’s the last missing piece.” Eureka moments are rare in revelations. For Christian, revelation is often disguised as transformation, the byproduct of a long, sustained devotion to process and craft. There are no shortcuts. A few days into 2024, I joined van Minnen for a hike near his Santa Cruz, California, studio. As we were ascending the first ridge, he spotted a flock of wild turkeys, and a conversation of light and color began, meandering into the dappled shadows of the forest and reemerging as the sun, amidst lingering storm clouds, began to set over the Pacific Ocean. “Oh, look at those turkeys. Look at those feathers! Oh, my god. So beautiful. Red, green, yellow…”

The SPRING 2024 Cover Story: Trapped in Light with Christian Rex van Minnen

Alex Nicholson: They’re so vibrant! But look how it all fades to dull brown when they turn. 

Christian Rex van Minnen: Incredible. I’m guessing this is just a group of young bachelors. They are definitely not in fear of being hunted by us. I’ve taken up archery; did I tell you that?

You didn’t! What inspired that? Have you ever read the book Zen and the Art of Archery

I’m familiar with it… Eugen Herrigel?

I think he ended up being problematic, but it was a big inspiration for the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. He saw a lot of parallels in aligning the eye with the heart and achieving a level of mastery where pictures are unconsciously composed. How did the content of your paintings change as you mastered technique?

I mean, it’s for better or worse. I think that you can mutate yourself into an artist just by reps. Adhere to a hard-core schedule year after year for a decade, and you’re going to be a different person. A lot of things will be automatic. Whether they’re good or functional, I don’t know.

Does it feel like you have achieved mastery, or is that an elusive concept?

Oh man, I’m totally still learning, but that’s just part of automatic drawing. The default is being driven to texturize, to make things even more crowded and dynamic. Textures on textures on textures. There’s no end to that pursuit, but this ability to quickly transfer the outer to the inner… 

What do you mean?

I think a lot of the artists I admire arrive there in different ways. My way is just more blue-collar. I don’t want to fancy it up because, more than anything, it’s just feeling really uncomfortable if I’m not doing something. I can’t fucking take an afternoon off, man! If I can’t figure out how to get through something, I’ll just sit there and be miserable. I can’t just check out and take a walk. 

That can’t be part of the process? 

It’s changing. But historically, it’s as if all the asshole bosses I had in all my labor jobs are still there, and I’m still afraid of them. That was ingrained so deeply. It’s not some great spiritual practice; it’s fear—fear of economic insecurity, shame, weakness…

The SPRING 2024 Cover Story: Trapped in Light with Christian Rex van Minnen

You say it’s changing. You were explaining these new paintings earlier. Are there obvious parallels between change in the work and personal change?

There have been big moments of transformation in my life, but they don’t always precipitate change in the painting, which is kind of weird. Except maybe this recent shift, but then again, it could just be that I thought about it; whereas I’m usually always on autopilot, not thinking too much about the big picture. That conversation with my son really did have an impact, or maybe it was just a little catalyst to nudge me in that direction. Nothing is a huge surprise or anything; it’s just a window.

In this case, it just happens to be an actual window. And that’s what it feels like to look back at your old work?

There are a lot of things I wouldn’t do today. There was a real, legitimate struggle with my own shadow for many years that is maybe more subtle now. Painting is its own weird thing. I can’t even really see it for what it is or why it is.

From my perspective, it always feels like you’re making some new discovery, something new about yourself and your painting. I always feel so lucky that I have a life where I even have these types of conversations and that these ideas can bounce around in my head.

We’re lucky that the word transformation even comes out of our mouths. Our whole purpose here is to discover that inner magic. It’s your birthright, and you can be conscious and active in the cutting-edge evolution of the human species. What have we been doing for the past several hundred years but expediting that process, from the printing press to all of it… in service of waking humans up?

I’ve never thought about it that way. It’s easy to idealize the past, but it’s true. It’s easier to be exposed to ideas like these than ever before. It can seem so awful out there sometimes, and the future so ominous… 

It’s difficult to be in the struggle, fearful, hand-to-mouth survival, and have an open heart. It’s like the clenching and closing of the heart happens to protect oneself. It’s a real luxury to even consider vulnerability and all this anatomy of the psyche. All this stuff has sort of been hidden in the esoteric for the last three centuries or more.

And on the other side of that too, being too comfortable, there’s a sweet spot…

Because it’s that pain, it’s that grief that brings you to love. It’s the greatest paradox. It takes that discomfort and looming sense of heartache to actually go towards it and not away from it. This is what I’ve learned in my direct experience. It’s a very counterintuitive movement, heading towards elements that appear dark. 

The SPRING 2024 Cover Story: Trapped in Light with Christian Rex van Minnen

Your paintings have often had these disparate elements: attraction and repulsion, ugliness and beauty. Do you think it’s important to sit with both? To take in the uncomfortable?

The assumption is that I’m painting for people’s reactions. I think that I get to that, but it’s in a nested sequence kind of way. It’s a trust that if it works with me first, whatever that is, whatever feeling that a thing is instilling in me, if it is doing that to me, it’s going to do it to other people. I’m not that different from anyone else. So, it’s a trust thing. 

What that is for me is keeping fear close. Or maybe it’s being open to whatever comes that is the key. I guess that’s the thing that has unconsciously drawn me to making subject matter that’s ambiguously charged. It’s an inner knowing that the secrets to everything are behind things you might find frightening. No matter what that is, it’s always right behind it. You know what I’ve been thinking a lot about, Alex?

What’s that? 

The risk of just telling the truth. Like the risk of just speaking plainly.

I’m often afraid that the words that come out of my mouth aren’t necessarily reflective of what I want to say, that maybe I’m not articulating who I actually am. But in fact, it’s all me, right? 

Well, that’s what I mean. The fear of telling the truth is like the fear of appearing as messy as you, in fact, are. I guess maybe that’s the last frontier of fear. 

How did you understand the content of your paintings when you first started? I imagine they have elicited an evolving range of reactions over the years.

It’s taken a long time to be brave enough to let come what comes because sometimes it’s embarrassing. I don’t always love being associated with that directly. If, growing up, someone is like, “What the fuck is wrong with you? You don’t look like the guy who’s doing this. Do you need help?” That’s the story of my fucking life. And so what you see is a person who has worked really hard to appear normal and to check all the boxes of a normal guy, a good kid, and that’s created this weird tension. I don’t even know… I don’t see what I do as clearly as I think other people do, which is strange. 

The SPRING 2024 Cover Story: Trapped in Light with Christian Rex van Minnen

Can you even picture a different version of yourself had you not tried to check all those boxes?

I mean, it would probably flatten out and be boring, right? The energy in every system exists in the tension between forces, so whatever schematic was put in place given my unique upbringing and conditions… it’s charged. It has permitted me to make it so… like, anything goes.

It’s all you. 

It’s complicated. I’m still figuring it out. I’m just barely waking up as a human being and seeing a lot of this stuff fresh, alarmingly fresh. All of a sudden, like, what the hell have I been doing? You know, what is anybody doing? And why am I doing this? And why is it so different from what everyone else is doing? It’s a weird feeling. 

Is there anything you might think about painting that you’re still hesitant to?

I feel pretty good that whatever’s gonna come out is gonna come. It’s still always a surprise. But in some ways, to be engaged in this process of psychic and spiritual transformation, in earnest, it does scare me that I’ll put myself out of business. What if I kill the golden goose? Like, what if I’m good and I don’t need to do anything anymore, you know? That’s the scariest thing. And it’s a reality that I want to look at directly and kind of even plan for—that it doesn’t have to go on to the bitter end. I don’t see that a lot or hear that discussed in the weird, paperback novel version of an artist’s life, you know? This sort of artist mythology of “to the bitter end” and its misery, but maybe there’s some reward, you know? Fuck that; that’s ridiculous. 

How does Western Biological, this workshop, and the group of apprentices you’ve been developing fit into it?

It’s all pretty experimental still. The function of the workshop is to make great painters and great paintings, but it is also a way to make an entirely new body of work different from my own, which is kind of insane to think about. The nexus of painting craft, local community, and natural wonder.

Having other people execute your vision?

It’s definitely my vision, but I think for the time being, I just want to get everybody on the same page and allow it to grow and evolve on its own. 

The SPRING 2024 Cover Story: Trapped in Light with Christian Rex van Minnen

So not necessarily have them work on your paintings?

No, I can’t delegate in my paintings because it’s all surreal, right? That’s why I invented this thing—to actually be able to do something with teaching this technique. It’s literally just picking up where painting left off before Cézanne and then allowing the style to emerge, given these very specific guidelines. Subject matter in service of the method, method in service of the subject matter. 

And this is inspired by Peter Paul Rubens’ 17th Century workshop?

Kind of, also by the Schildersbent movement, I think a lot about what that looked like and what he was able to put that in service of. It’s kind of mind-blowing, and it wasn’t exploitative; it was a real way of nurturing great artists. It’s a delicate little cloud of something, and I don’t know; I’m a little afraid of defining it. It’s in a special place… 

Look at that moss in the light coming through the trees. It reminds me of some of the things you have in the studio for the workshop to paint.

It has to be rooted in naturalistic wonder; it has to be of this place. You literally have to get those things that you’re going to paint, understand them, study them, and understand the relationships of why they’re here now. Those are basically the guidelines. We try to figure out the best possible way to paint these things, and everybody gets better as a result. I get to be a better painter, they get to be better painters, and we’ll end up making the best still life paintings ever made in the history of the world!

During the pandemic, I started walking the same loop every day and trying to see if I could photograph something new I hadn’t noticed before. Often, it was these rays of light through the trees that revealed that something.

You invited a little apocalypse into your life. I think we can use the idea of an apocalypse in a less apocalyptic way. The world didn’t change; you did.

I would just follow the light around, hoping to find something magical, something similar to how I imagine I saw the place as a kid.

That is the one thing that every apprentice has said—that they start to see the world completely differently. Because, and I really can’t overstate the importance of this message: not all painting is the same. Dynamic color mixing is a different way of thinking and looking at light in the natural world. You start thinking about what light is doing on surfaces phenomenologically, not just in terms of color, shade, and hue. Is it bouncing off of this thing? Is it moving through these gelatinous surfaces and catching on the backside? That’s a big part of the training. 

Yeah, wow, a deeper level of…

It engenders wonder, right? It’s incredible. I don’t want to lose touch with that either. I think having kids has really brought that back fully into my life. There’s no opinion-making in wonder. 

The SPRING 2024 Cover Story: Trapped in Light with Christian Rex van Minnen

There’s a word I read recently: hierophany. A manifestation of the sacred.

I think that’s it. It’s like the apocalypse reveals exactly what you’re already seeing, but with an open heart…

You’re going to have to explain this apocalypse thing a little more…

I learned that the word literally means the lifting of a veil. What is a veil? A veil is not a curtain; a veil is see-through. You’re already seeing it. It’s just when that spiritual awakening happens in you, you see it with less ignorance, you see it maybe as the miraculous insanity that it is. It’s a shift. 

That’s so beautiful, but I guess I’m struggling to reframe the word in my mind.

It means the same thing to me as it means to you. Think about it like this: to really see the world as it is, to really understand what we’re doing to each other and the planet, and the amount of grief and pain that a full apocalypse would bring is probably unbearable. But all of a sudden, your heart is wide open. You don’t have any defensive measures from the ego; you see the world exactly as it is. That’s devastating; that would be devastating; that will be devastating. Even little doses of it are devastating.

Speaking of devastating and apocalypses, I finally read The Road. I know you were a big reader of Cormac McCarthy. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the experience of reading that book, but it’s also perfect. I deeply appreciated the experience. 

We are built to compartmentalize, ignore, and create these systems that allow us to make it in the world, to survive through the virtue of ignorance. I think that McCarthy represents the truth of spiritual growth—that you don’t get to pick and choose from the enlarging scope. As your ability to perceive joy and love grows, so does your ability to understand terror and hate. He’s the full spectrum. There’s no parsing; it’s taking the whole cosmic view. His perspective is in all of us. It has to be reconciled, it has to be seen, and it has to be given a voice. That has to be witnessed, or we have to have somebody witness it for us. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s intense. But until you zoom out and just think of what humanity has gone through to get here. That’s not so much some dystopian fantasy as just the reality of how we got here today.

The wars, the plagues, the famines…

Yeah, if not worse. It’s not something off in the future. It’s exactly like where we’ve come from. Think of the tens of thousands of years, hundreds of thousands of years before history, and what that was like, and that we carry all that in ourselves. God knows what else…

The SPRING 2024 Cover Story: Trapped in Light with Christian Rex van Minnen
SPRING 2024 Quarterly

Let’s go back to talking about light… Where is this new light in your paintings coming from? 

Well, there was always a light coming in from somewhere, but I guess overall, the space generally felt closed and hermetic, but I’ve come to learn a little bit of a different story about the hermetic tradition. We use hermetic to mean sealed off and sort of dark and dank. But it can realistically be thought of more as an open-air setting with a lot of light and air and beauty and community, not like this single marginal human being locked away in a basement with a stove, you know? It’s more like, what would this, what do I look like in the light of the sun? Maybe that’s the bigger message. 

By the way, look at the light of the sun right now—those God rays filtering out onto the water…

Yeah, wow… I don’t think people always consider that. What does all of your activity look like in the light of the sun? If all of a sudden you realized you couldn’t hide anything away, it’s neither meaningless nor the most meaningful thing. It just is what it is. I don’t need to feel ashamed or weird about it. Like, it’s… just… look at everything. 

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