art review (long ago & far way)

I recently found some old reviews that I wrote in the archives of a couple of publications I worked for in a past life. Maybe the artist(s) or curator(s) who created the exhibitions I reviewed will also find them interesting. Maybe not…

I'll start with Tim Crowder since he's having a show at David Lusk Gallery this summer, which I'm looking forward to seeing.

(more to come…)

Crowder Paintings Whisper Volumes

Publication: The Commercial Appeal
Section:  Fanfare
By: Cory Dugan Special to The Commercial Appeal
Date: December 21, 2003
Edition: Final
Page:  F1

Tim Crowder claims to need a new language. But judging from the collection of paintings on exhibition at David Lusk Gallery through Tuesday, he seems to be communicating quite effectively. In fact, Crowder's dense layers of imagery and paint almost seem to speak. The voice is a whisper, sometimes threatening or accusatory, sometimes a throaty riddle or an under-the-breath innuendo. The sentences are incomplete, the messages are unfinished and often the words aren't even in English. Make no mistake, however: Listen closely and Crowder's paintings can talk.

Crowder sets the tone of the exhibit with its title, "pathetic attempts at god-like power," juggling lower-case irony and enigmatic fatalism. The Herculean task of the painter, after all, is to fashion a world from little more than imagination and a few mineral-based pigments. Crowder's world has bright blue skies and lush green grass, but its gravity is allegorical rather than physical. It is populated with cute storybook animals and silhouettes of children, appropriated from primers and classic juvenilia but cast into single-scene dramas laden with ambiguous adult paranoia. It is a darkly comic universe, filled with anxious nostalgia and surreal narrative. It has been created, but one gets the sense might be out of the creator's control.

Recurring images appear as in episodic dreams — silhouettes, word balloons (often as not empty), hatch-marked tallies, botanical images, plump songbirds. A disembodied hand holds a terrier's leash in one painting, echoing the disembodied foot that approaches a floating stairstep in another. Words and phrases - sometimes in English, more often in German - appear like handwritten captions or headlines or just notes in unseen margins, in careful-schoolboy cursive or block caps and lower case.

Crowder's painting style is actually an adept amalgam of styles, ranging from casually realistic modeling to expressive sweeps of the brush, from flat areas of dead gray or white paint to lively meandering drips. As a whole, the surface of Crowder's paintings is a sumptuous strata of color and enameled texture, laid generously upon wooden panels that often still bear the scabs of hardware and sometimes proudly wear patterns of small holes like ritual scarification. A few paintings employ cutout wooden shapes, flowers or silhouettes, for collaged bas-relief effects. Lengths of metal wire, twisted into cursive script, adorn the surface of one painted panel. This surfeit of styles and materials might seem overindulgent, but in conjunction with Crowder's disparate iconography and eclectic cast of characters, it only seems appropriate.

In the exhibition's centerpiece painting, "Thing of Great Beauty," a white plate decorated with a single blue Delft flower is suspended like an enormous moon above a quaint country cottage. A boxlike shadow extends into the picture plane, mysterious and as solid as asphalt. In the upper left corner, a quickly sketched squirrel appears to have scampered along a scrolled trail of holes in the wooden panel. Counterbalancing it in the lower right corner is a single word — LIES — inscribed like a shouted accusation. Gravity, scale and three-dimensionality are all out of kilter in this picture, but we are left with the impression that it is not the laws of physics that are being called lies. The lies are elsewhere, unseen and ominous, outside the painting.

On the low and scrubby horizon line of "Alles Jagdbares" a grass hut and corrugated-metal shack flank the uninstalled shell of a swimming pool; the face of a blond white man, obscured by a blotch of white paint and parenthetically captioned "our hero," floats in the perforated expanse of sky above. A thought balloon bubbles from his forehead declaring "Ich bin hier fremd" (roughly translated, "Strangely, I am here"). The painting as a whole is captioned at the bottom "Swimming Pool in Burundi." The damning implications of Eurocentric imperialism are unusually obvious in consideration of Crowder's typically inscrutable subject matter, but the statement is as politically poetic and powerful as the image itself.

The use of German in Crowder's new work (he has previously used French in similar fashion) is alternately effective and gimmicky. In most cases, it adds an extra flavor but little extra substance. Translation usually adds minimal insight; Crowder's narratives would be no less intriguing if rendered completely in English. In the series of small works on paper entitled "I Need a New Language," wherein singular objects are painted on flat fields and labeled simplistically in German, the result is bland and affected. Lacking the irony of a Magritte une pippe and all too preciously rendered as faux artifacts, their only interest is as a glossary of objects found in other paintings. If taken out of the context of this exhibition, even that small level of interest would quickly dissipate.

But this series is Crowder's only minor misstep. The larger panels, and a series of small paintings on pages from grade-school textbooks, are unsettling and lyrical. Their images have the potential to haunt. Their words are amusing, sinister and puzzling. Whatever their language — English, German or just paint — they communicate.