Collapse: Dewey Crumpler’s Alpha and Omega

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Collapse: Dewey Crumpler’s Alpha and Omega

By Thea Quiray Tagle April 24, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


Collapse is an ongoing series of paintings made by Dewey Crumpler, a Bay Area-based artist and painting professor at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), which has been brought to Seattle University’s Hedreen Gallery by guest curator Sampada Aranke.1 Together, the five untitled, large canvases in the series consider “the beauty and terror of financial systems and their ecological, social, and aesthetic impacts” by “rendering the container as the locus of awe, wonder, destruction, and fear.”2 Collapse is a truly awesome—meant both in the godly and colloquial senses of the word—body of work, and marks a new phase in the septuagenarian artist’s prolific career while serving as a reconfirmation of his deep commitments to art, visual sovereignty, and abstraction.

Dewey Crumpler. Untitled 1, 2017; acrylic and mixed media on canvas; 74 x 74 inches. Courtesy of Hedreen Gallery, Seattle, WA. Photo: Yosef Chaim Kalinko, Seattle University.

On the street-facing white wall of the gallery, a triptych introduces us to the immediate aftermath of collapse. The flanking panels overwhelm with excess: mountains of shoes and endless clusters of bananas spill from their containers and onto the beaches and shorelines of undisclosed Pacific Rim locations. Untitled 2 (2017), which features the shoes, is drenched in shades of red with silver foil shadows; it depicts a scarred and burned sky and sea, the 21st-century burning bush or an end-of-days punishment meted on false prophets and sinners. Untitled 3 (2017), which shows the bananas, is livelier. Among the unnatural additions to the seemingly barren landscape are scavengers of the crustacean and marine variety—sea turtles and crabs play about, one with a small Lego as its treasure. There is some hope in this painting, which is absent in the others; here, imported and discarded fruits have a better chance of being absorbed by the ecosystem. This load is far better than the usual Great Pacific Garbage Patch’s flotsam and jetsam of plastics and fishing ropes, which make their way to Hawaiian and British Columbian shores.3

The centerpiece on this wall is Untitled 4 (2017), which captures a freighter having nearly completed an untimely plunge into the ocean’s depths. From this impossible angle, the gray and red underbelly of the ship evokes an effaced Japanese flag: empire at its sunset. The disordering of perspective and stylization of the containers make Untitled 4 into a bridge between the relative realism of Untitled 2 and 3 and Untitled 1 and 5 (which are tucked into a darkly painted corner of the gallery that, rather than dimming the paintings, allows their gold and saturated colors to become transcendent). Untitled 1 and 5 are abstracted, a tidily considered juxtaposition within the strategy of such a survey. Together, Untitled 5 and Untitled 1 dazzle us in gold, red, and blue. Untitled 1, however, is the revelation; it is the alpha and omega of the series. In it, a bone floats above the scene, à la Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, though it’s unclear if we are witnessing the end or beginning of the world. The containers are locked together like Transformers, rising out of the primordial gold where sky and sea have become one.

Formally, Collapse brings together Crumpler’s dual interests in what curator Aranke calls the “crazy rendering skills” found in his drawing practice, with the “acute attention to abstraction…through non-linear perspective” seen throughout his paintings and mixed-media artworks.4 While Collapse is a striking departure from Crumpler’s previous work (as seen in his last solo show in 2008–2009 at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, Of Tulips and Shadows: The Visual Metaphors of Dewey Crumpler),5 I hesitate to claim that he has returned to realism in this latest stage of his career. Even though Seattle’s resident critic, Charles Mudede, believes that Collapse represents “the way things are actually now,”6 I would argue that what is more compelling is what these paintings refuse to show about the economic, ecological, and social conditions we find ourselves in today. Crumpler repurposes the visual signifiers of wealth and status in the financial and art worlds—the gold and silver foil, the visibility of the artist’s hand, the illusion of heft and importance through scale and size—and dazzles the viewer through phantasmagoria, or by making the horrors wrought upon humankind and the rest of the natural world seductive. He forces the viewer to look away from this spectacle in order to truly reckon with the human costs of catastrophe. As Crumpler said in another context: “the thing not seen is the thing.”7

As a primary example, in the piles of shoes in Untitled 2 we encounter a proxy for the thousands of lives lost through murderous sweatshop labor around the Pacific Rim, or the tsunami and the subsequent nuclear reactor meltdown in Fukushima, rather than seeing depictions of the corpses themselves. The painting gestures towards devastation elliptically through its massive accumulation of the detritus of what environmental literature scholar Rob Nixon calls “slow violence,” or "a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, and attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all,” with casualties both human and environmental.8 Collapse registers these decades-long holocausts with shoes and other material evidence, which are, significantly, empty of life. The work becomes a late-capitalist memorial that startlingly echoes the visual language of Christian Boltanski’s Monuments series, or the curatorial strategies of the United States Holocaust Museum. Collapse, while retaining elements of the real, thus remains relentlessly abstracted—a commitment that links Crumpler’s recent endeavors to his creative output of over half a century.

Dewey Crumpler. Untitled 2, 2017; acrylic and mixed media on canvas; 60 x 74 inches. Courtesy of Hedreen Gallery, Seattle, WA. Photo: Yosef Chaim Kalinko, Seattle University.

What is most compelling about Crumpler’s artistic praxis and pedagogy is what has hindered its inclusion into the canon of modern and contemporary Black art on a national and international scale. In part, it is a question of geography: many of Crumpler’s closest interlocutors move within Bay Area arts institutions and art worlds, and are significantly removed from New York and Los Angeles’ particular histories of Black assemblage artists and conceptual artists, who have been the subject of renewed interest in scholarly texts like Kellie Jones’s South of Pico (2017), or the Brooklyn Museum’s recently mounted exhibition, We Wanted A Revolution, co-curated by Rujeko Hockley and Catherine Morris. More so, it is a question of philosophical and pedagogical outlook. Eschewing the representational imperatives of the Black Panther Party, and the wider Black Arts Movement, Crumpler left behind a burgeoning start as a political muralist and went to study at SFAI and San Francisco State University in the 1970s, and then, a decade later, at Mills College at the urging of Jay DeFeo. He has been teaching at SFAI ever since, instructing generations of young painters like Kehinde Wiley, while also producing artworks across media and genre that he has refused to categorize as only or even Black art. Like his close compatriot, the late Filipino-American artist Carlos Villa, Crumpler has insisted through the decades that artists of color should not be burdened by the crisis of representation, and that there should be consideration of the ways that the categories of “Black art” and “political art” constrain and conceal as much as they offer possibility to whom they claim to represent.9 Let me be clear: Crumpler’s commitment to visual sovereignty is an expression of his deep commitment to full Black and Brown liberation, and it is a continued failure of our political imagination and artistic vocabulary if we understand this as an antagonism.

In his personal practice, it is evident that Crumpler is an artist’s artist; he knows how to look, how to listen, and how to devour the world of signs and symbols in order to remix, rework, and reanimate them into something wholly original. His influences in Collapse run the spectrum between high and low, and cut across all color lines—the venerational paintings of the Catholic church; pop culture icons, including Bart Simpson; and the monumental scale of works by Raymond Saunders (Crumpler’s close friend of fifty years) and Kehinde Wiley, which are obliquely and explicitly referenced across these five paintings. There are shades of Richard Diebenkorn’s Berkeley No. 57 (1955) in Untitled 5—splashes of mint-green and pastel-pink mixed with goldenrod, contained forms which could be either architectural or natural features of the landscape—serving as a reminder of the deep impact the Bay Area Abstract Expressionists had on the development of SFAI and its students and faculty, of which Crumpler has been both. Viewers expecting transparency may be frustrated by this eclecticism, though perhaps they will be too delighted by the images to realize what they do not know; deep attention will reward with new revelations at every return. Collapse is a master work, exemplifying the alpha and omega of Crumpler’s career. It is, as the kids say, everything.

Dewey Crumpler: Collapse is on view at Seattle University’s Hedreen Gallery through May 19, 2018.

Notes

  1. Disclosure: I taught at SFAI between 2012-2015 and was a colleague of both Crumpler and Aranke in this capacity.
  2. From exhibition text: https://www.seattleu.edu/artsci/arts/calendar-of-events/dewey-crumpler/.
  3. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch public health poster by students from Cedarville University has accessible information on the plastics found in the garbage patch: http://digitalcommons.cedarville.edu/public_health_posters/4/.
  4. From conversation with the curator on March 25, 2018.
  5. Mitch Temple, “Who is Dewey Crumpler?,” ArtSlant, February 23, 2009, https://www.artslant.com/ny/articles/show/4931-who-is-dewey-crumpler.
  6. Charles Mudede, “An Art Show That’s Like Those Special Sunglasses Revealing the World as it Really Is,” The Stranger, March 28, 2018, https://www.thestranger.com/visual-art/2018/03/28/25959433/an-art-show-thats-like-those-special-sunglasses-revealing-the-world-as-it-really-is.
  7. From Crumpler’s artist talk for Black Futures Month 2017 at SFAI: https://vimeo.com/204223177. At the end of this talk, Crumpler reveals the sketches that will become Collapse to Aranke and the public.
  8. Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 2.
  9. Carlos Villa’s last major project, Rehistoricizing the Time of Abstract Expressionism, features conversations between Villa and Crumpler on their shared influences and experiences as artists of color in this scene. http://rehistoricizing.org/.

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