The Artist is Present
Place is the ostensible subject of Rosson Crow’s painted dreamscapes, and out of the seven canvases in her exhibition, Myth of the American Motorcycle, at the Contemporary Arts Center, only two are outdoor scenes. In all, the artist’s depiction of space is loose and layered, barely hinting at architectural detail or expansive depth of sky to provide the viewer with visceral position. This obfuscation of place is a result of Crow’s process.
In an interview at White Cube Gallery in 2008, Crow said, “I like to paint very fast; it’s very performative.” By her own estimate then, Crow resists representation in favor of action. In every piece the artist’s physical gestures are transcribed upon the canvas in brushstrokes so heavy with enamel paint that they dribble down the canvas. The deliberate drips allow her to provide perspective by incorporating them into a visual framework.
Because they are so large and painted so quickly, the depiction of space requires visible scaffolding. This grid is ubiquitous in Crow’s work, resulting in a life-size single point perspective mise-en-scene. She sets a theatrical stage by painting a set to stand before, replete with mood lighting and thematic props.
The largest painting in Myth, (which Crow quoted from, on the hand-painted jacket she wore for her opening night attire) is the double canvas Ride Hard, Live Free. In it, the artist exploits both the massiveness of her frame and the architectural beams of a ceiling to limn her grid. Upon this expanse, she paints five flags, at least ten motorcycles (some in the back are barely hinted at,) six neon signs, and a seemingly-floating pair of open red lips—and yet the space still seems desolate.
A threat of danger is consistent within the works in Myth. The Boneyard includes an open expanse of sky in the top third of the canvas, and the darkening ombre quality hints at an approaching storm. Obviously, if one were to see this scene along a sign-littered road from the seat of a motorcycle, a sense of risk would be unavoidable. Crow takes this threat of bodily harm to the next level in her piece Unknown Legend (Biker Funeral). In the funerary bar scene she hangs bleeding flags & black wreaths amongst the usual bar accoutrements (stools, neon beer signs). The effect is both somber and foreboding.
Much has been made in the media about Crow’s primary research (a vague yet often-repeated line about a year spent “immersed” in the motorcycle culture,) for the purpose of creating these seven commissioned canvases. According to the wall text in the exhibition, “She has read the writings of motorcycle legends, collected back issues of ‘Easy Rider’ magazine, and explored leather shops & biker bars.” And yet the title of the exhibition, The Myth of the American Motorcycle is perhaps most revealing. The American motorcycle is not the subject of the paintings—the spectacle of the artist is.
Herein lies Crow’s “myth”: this is no representational depiction of American motorcycle culture. Instead, Crow appropriates visual buzzwords for biker lifestyle—suggestive text, American flags, bar paraphernalia, street signs, and advertisements for vices—to signify a fictitious rebellion. While this appropriation of the semiotics of revolution is not new, (as evidenced by Shepard Fairey’s installation one floor below,) what Crow does so successfully is to paint a role for herself into the work. She is the actor upon her mythologized set.
Crow studied with Marilyn Minter and her equally oversize work likewise reflects aesthetics of glamour versus vulgarity. She has shown at Deitch Projects and sang a heartfelt farewell number while dressed in silver sequined leotard and platinum wig, to art dealer Jeffrey Deitch at a private dinner toasting his new position as Director of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Crow is also tight with former Deitch Gallery Director and current head of The Hole NYC Gallery, Kathy Grayson, and is frequently featured on her ‘scenester’ art photo blog. The artist clearly employs & enjoys being part of the spectacle. Being talented, and well-connected has always helped contemporary artists succeed, of course. Playing a role in front of the canvas, should one also be attractive and fashionable, never hurts either.
So how does gender inform her work? Crow herself has said “a lot of my work confronts the sexism that still exists in many aspects of society,” and “as a female painter I’m interested in taking on traditionally ‘masculine spaces’ and really making them my own.”1Crow’s scenes (a leather shop, bars, bike shops, and nightscapes along the American highway) however, are not exactly male-dominated. To the contrary, Crow’s “Easy Rider” magazines, more mainstream magazines like LIFE, as well as the female-owned motorbikes exhibited adjacent to her works in the gallery clearly demonstrate that women have always been present within the biker subculture. Numerous overtly sexualized objects of male fetishism notwithstanding, the iconic “biker babe” was and is ubiquitous.
In Hogs n’ Heifers Crow’s omnipresent drippy grid limns an internal bar scene (one of several) with a checkerboard floor, bar stools, and florescent neon signs. Placed at the farthest end of the gallery,Hogs n’ Heifers barks “fuck around and find out” in hot pink neon, appropriating a biker epithet. The piece’s title is tellingly the same as a female-owned biker bar in New York that is famous for an all-female staff of bartenders who perform dance routines on top of the bar and dress in a style that (not altogether surprisingly) inspired the film “Coyote Ugly.”
What is decidedly masculine about Crow’s pieces is that she wholeheartedly employs the male gaze. She appropriates Ed Ruscha’s Standard oil gas station leitmotif, the gestural abstraction of the male-dominated abstract expressionists, and places herself center stage in sparkly one-piece as the fetishized focal point. Despite her deliberate exhibitionism, Crow’s bold posture mimics and reflects (be it in a distorted manner) the gaze like a living-breathing odalisque staring back at the viewer. Painting herself into a scene—be it a short-sighted, myth propagating one—Crow presents a vision of artist as performer.
– Maria Seda-Reeder
1 Interview with Kelly Carpe, Soapbox Cincinnati, 11/9/2010