Bird’s eye view

Chris Lanier

Many of us have lost parents or grandparents to the spiraling memory loss of Alzheimer’s disease. We’ve witnessed firsthand the inability to maintain the thread of a conversation, questions asked and then asked again only seconds later, an inability to recall names or understand context. Real events are quickly forgotten, and other events slowly imagined. There’s a fundamental disconnect between one moment and the next.

In what he describes as an “homage” to his grandparents and other family members who have suffered from the ailment, Chris Lanier has approximated the experience of Alzheimer’s disease for a gallery exhibition at Sierra Nevada College’s Tahoe Gallery. Lanier is currently an art professor at SNC and previously worked as an artist, illustrator and critic in San Francisco. His artistic background is diverse, ranging from graphic novels to digital animation to multimedia collaborations with dancers and musicians.

This exhibition, titled she’d hallucinate ghosts, is Lanier’s first exhibition in Nevada and the first time he has combined his comic book-style illustrations with digital projections.

The central pieces of the show are two large drawings, both illustrating brief narrative scenes depicting an encounter between a young man and an elderly grandmother character. In one drawing, the grandmother imagines a ghost in the room. In the other, she thinks she’s being visited by a gathering of birds—specifically, peacocks.

The grandmother character is based on Lanier’s own grandmother, as well as his grandfather and other people he has known who have suffered from Alzheimer’s.

The drawings are rendered in the loose-but-detailed graphic style that has characterized Bay Area comic book art for decades. Projected onto both drawings are digital animations that add color and help to flesh out the narration of both scenes. And though there are two distinct loops, each about two minutes, one corresponding to each drawing, they’re both projected onto both drawings. The echo of one drawing on top of the other is one of the many hints of madness in the work.

Lanier was drawn to graphic novel art as “a way to tell visual narratives that can be very personal … And I grew up in the ‘80s … the movies sucked, the music sucked, but the graphic novels were great.”

Along the walls of the gallery are drawings of birds. At first glance, many of the birds look very realistically rendered, but closer inspection reveals subtle discrepancies of proportion and shape, as though they represent, not real birds, but figments of an imprecise memory.

“Those were really fun to draw,” say Lanier. “It’s really too bad that there’s not a job out there that’s just doing anatomical drawings of birds incorrectly.”

A recording of various bird calls can be heard softly in the background of the gallery. Despite the fact that the show is essentially about the loss of a mind, the overall effect is not horrifying, but serene.

“Some of her hallucinations are scary,” says Lanier. “But others are comforting to her. It’s like the brain comforting itself even as it’s falling apart.”