In Christopher Umana’s fantastical paintings, every picture tells a story
Urban Beets50 N. Sierra St.
Reno, NV 89501
Christopher Umana’s paintings feature cartoon-like characters in colorful scenes. The paintings imply entire stories, often with underlying lessons like the morals in Aesop’s Fables. The characters in Umana’s artwork take the forms of animals, most often birds, and represent his view of the world. However, unlike many children’s books, Umana’s illustrations have a dark side to them.
“There’s a certain cynicism that I throw into it,” says Umana. “Growing up, nothing is ever really cookie cutter. There’s always something underlying. … It just kind of makes me aware that there is always some kind of danger lurking below the surface. Especially watching my own girls grow up and trying to keep them out of harm’s way all the time.”
Umana’s family and the anxiety that comes with being a parent are huge influences on his work. He has two daughters, ages 4 and 6, and he says watching them grow up has made him recollect his own childhood. He combines that child-like view of the world and how we react to new experiences into his paintings.
Originally from Long Beach, Calif., Umana got his bachelor’s in illustration from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He graduated in 2003 and began showing his work off and on in Los Angeles. He moved to Gardnerville in 2004 with his fiancée, whose parents live there, because they thought it would be a great place to raise kids. Umana took a break from art in 2006 after his second daughter was born, and he started showing again last year. Now he focuses on being an artist full-time and shows his work every month.
“The [online] social networks have been such a great help getting the work out there,” says Umana. “When I started showing the work in Reno, it got a really good reception,”
Currently, Umana has a small collection of his paintings and prints up at Spread Peace Café in downtown Reno. The show is titled Oblivious, and is presented mainly in a small side room just off the main dining area of the restaurant, with a few paintings and prints in the larger seating area. The pieces represent a broad view of Umana’s solo work, as well as his collaborations with his brother, who goes by the artist name Ichae Ackso and lives in Los Angeles.
Recently, Umana has done the majority of his work in acrylic paint, but he also combines collage, spray paint, drawing and printed editions into his repertoire. He also has a series of Facebook-exclusive drawings.
The name for the exhibition is taken from Umana’s painting “Oblivious,” in which a personified dodo bird, wearing suspenders, stands in a barren landscape. The stark trees around him have been hacked at and are devoid of leaves save the few floating to the ground around the dodo, who seems unaware of them and unable to understand the floating balloon and flying contraption that hover in the sky above him.
“I wanted to have them be ideas or thoughts that are going way over his head that he can’t comprehend,” says Umana.
The objects and characters in his paintings are very symbolic, and his titles add a layer to the symbolism that enriches the stories they tell.
The painting “TomBoy Tom-Foolery,” combines a personal aspect with the natural and the historical. In the piece, a woodpecker lies at the feet of an ermine, who stands with her hands folded across her chest blocking the way to a tree with ripe, red berries on it. Both animals wear denim overalls. Berries are scattered about the foreground and a stereotypical child’s drawing of a house drawn in a flat, red outline, occupies the background. Looming clouds create a gloomy atmosphere.
“It came from watching my girls interact with each other,” Umana says. “As a parent, you always have this notion of how we want our kids to be, and life takes its own course. They develop their own personalities. My girls get along really well, but occasionally they have their fights, and I kind of wanted to capture that.”
The animals are wearing the same type of clothing to imply a relationship between them, an implication that they are from the same family. The illustration of the house in the background, made to look like it’s drawn in crayon, represents the perfect home or environment. The rain clouds help break down that idea as well as the characters being placed at a distance from the home. The conflict in the foreground shows the two characters fighting over the little things—the berries.
“I’ll take natural predators and put them in pieces together,” says Umana. “Woodpeckers are considered the guardian of the forest, so I wanted to find an animal that would actually attack the natural world, and I found the white weasel, or the ermine. She’s taken the power away from the guardian of the forest.”
Umana’s influences from underground comics from the ’60s and growing up with Warner Brothers and Disney animation come through in his artwork. He was inspired by how animals can be personified—not just in animation but also culturally.
“Animals have always been personified,” he says. “I wanted to keep going on that track and try and create my own characters. That evolved more into focusing on humans mixed with birds.”
Umana has always drawn. He started looking at a lot of Japanese artists and comic artists and began developing his own style. It didn’t really solidify until he was out of college.
“I never really felt like I could do anything serious with [art],” admits Umana. “Then I saw where it could actually take me.”
Umana collaborates with Ackso, and the brothers ship pieces back and forth to each other. There are no rules—Umana says he likes to see what stories come out of just sending them through the mail and seeing what comes back. His brother’s style is more abstract than his but also influenced by cartoons and comics. Their first collaboration was in 2003, and they didn’t show the work in galleries until last year. Several of their collaborations are featured in the exhibition at Spread Peace Café.
“I like to tell stories, but I also like to leave stuff up to chance and let the viewer bring what they have to the table and make up their own stories, as well,” says Umana, who recently had his work described to him as “one-frame movies.”
The narratives in the paintings may be ambiguous, but it would be hard not to read into them and take away some sort of story. Like the layers of paint applied to the surfaces of his artwork, Umana’s stories are rich.