Chris Elliman moved to the US from England in his teens, when his father landed an industrial design position at Apple in 1985. Through his creativity, talent, and persuasive persona, he finds himself thoroughly linked to the creative culture and history of the South Bay and Downtown San Jose. 

Disregarding high school, Chris landed in the middle of San Jose’s skateboard scene and began hanging out with Corey O’Brien, Steve Caballero, and Ray Stevens II (Faction and Los Olvidados), the latter being one of the first people Chris met when he came to San Jose.

In the early 1990s, Chris found himself working at the now-defunct nightclub One Step Beyond as decor designer, occasionally DJ’ing with records he had acquired during his time as a display artist at the Tower Records that was on Bascom Avenue in Campbell. 

Moving on to the Metro Newspapers as graphic designer, he met Chris Esparza (owner of Naglee Park Garage and Giant Creative) and the two of them developed underground parties called the “King of Club,” which they used to co-found the club Ajax (pronounced “Ai-yax”) in 1991. Named after the Dutch football team, the now legendary South First Street club, formerly located above Cafe Stritch, closed in 1995. 

Searching for what to do next, Chris nearly headed to Portland, Oregon, but was offered a warehouse space in the American Can building on South 5th and Virginia, which he has both subleased as an artist collective and used as a studio himself for the last 30 years.

In his studio, lightly littered with a design and visual history of San Jose and framed by shelves of albums, Chris speaks about his paintings. (We’ll save his cycling and graphic work for another time…)

“Life cycle”

I think I have the courage to make many mistakes, which allows me to grow from those mistakes. What I paint is life—my surroundings, what I see, people. I like to think that, in every one of my paintings, I am communicating about culture…I think paintings should say something.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with aesthetically pleasing paintings. Aesthetics is a great thing. It’s got its place. I’m OK with that. Sometimes I do things that are strictly aesthetic, but I like to think that most of what I do has got a social or a political charge to it, a psychological charge.

I’m looking at society and I’m looking at what is almost an illness or a psychological situation. I feel like I’m trying to paint a little bit of that into each piece, so there is definitely something behind every piece.

I like to say that most of these paintings—maybe all of these paintings—are like portals. 

There’s a flat surface that you see, but what is really taking place is what is behind that surface. There’s a story.

With abstract painting, abstract art, you bring your story to it and it completes the paintings. I feel like everyone has a story and these paintings get completed with their stories.

It’s like truth. Everyone’s got their own truth. Truth’s ever-changing…

“Systematic Deconstruction”

This particular painting is not actually completed. My concept of finishing this painting is when someone purchases it, we’ll go to a target range and we’ll shoot. I’ll allow them the choice. They can shoot holes through it, which would be ideal. That way they have now become a part of this piece. Or we’ll allow the instructor or whoever it is to do the shooting [laughs] if they don’t feel like doing it.

“America: Stars and Strikes”

The Mickey Mouse and the figures, which were a couple of friends who modeled for me, they represent for me…what was behind this is “American Apparel.”

You’ve got two young models, fairly innocent in their attire, which is just underwear, yet provocatively posed.

In America, everyone’s trying to be a celebrity or successful, so there’s a fine line in Hollywood between starting out as an innocent Disney character star, and then moving over into pop music or movies. Those who “make it” are the stars. Those who don’t are the strikes. 

The innocence is in the Mickey and Minnie Mouse. It represents what is behind this American Apparel. There’s a fine line…that goes down the path of, “I didn’t make it in Hollywood but I became a porn star,” or “I became a sleazy magazine advertising model.” 

For me, it’s just a hard hit on Hollywood and the media, and what drives people.

“A Visual Discourse in Non-objective Cageian Randomness”

Right now, I have moved on to what is a “Cagean” philosophy, from John Cage, the composer, who was a Buddhist practitioner and who studied “randomness.” 

I’ve been exploring John Cage and his thoughts about randomness in a few pieces. He composed music randomly because he felt that was more natural, and I felt like that’s what I was doing. I read this book on John Cage so I could understand him better. I felt like there was a great connection. I was actually doing what he was talking about through some of these pieces. Then I thought I’d explore it a little bit further. 

Then the X’s. Yeah, I created the X’s, so they’re all the same size. I cut them out and threw them down, and allowed them to land randomly. There are 27 X’s because I’m very fond of the number three. Those X’s were thrown down randomly, and wherever they land, that is the serendipitous part, the randomness. They just land, and I’m not going to dictate that.

Those colors aren’t my favorite colors. However, I did have those colors. I had at some point chosen those colors. Since I have these pots of paint, I decide to randomly select this bunch of paints and looked at them and said, “OK, I’m going to use those.”

As a designer I’m fighting it a little bit, thinking to myself, “Oh, I wish I hadn’t had that color.” [laughs] But I’m going to go along with the experiment, exploring, and I’m going to allow that color to stay because that’s what Cage was doing.

“Serendipitous Deconstruction no.2: Pussy Riot”

I had loosely called it “Serendipitous Deconstruction” because I was deconstructing what I was building. Serendipitously finding interesting things in the piece, and allowing what I thought was interesting to remain.

Each time I did something, I allowed the interesting portions to remain, so it was serendipitously deconstructed.

“The World is Flat But It’s an Un-level Playing Field” 

This is geographical. It is all the countries of the “round of 16” of the World Cup, placed geographically. Russia, Japan, Korea, Australia, Argentina, Chile, the United States, and Mexico—all connected to the nations they played against. Each game is strung up together.

  I changed the colors in the spaces, but all of these shapes were created because of the outcome of the games. I mean anyone could have won the World Cup, right? Random.

That’s the eye of the artist—you’re able to recognize what is potentially going to become art.