Denton Crawford's work finds a playground in the tension between the impossibility of utopia and our everlasting striving toward it. His current solo show, "You're Not Here," which closes tonight at Joy Gallery (498 West Main Street), includes older mixed media paintings and drawings, as well as new installations. The space has been transformed into a hypnotic enticement of vibrating pastels, subdued neons, a crush of lush foliage, and specters of a sacred maternal presence.
Crawford's ink and gouache drawings span the last two or three years, and include elements fed by album covers, films, and books. Silhouettes of the Virgin, drawn from a famous Renaissance painting, here stand in for any shrouded mystical figure: Mother Mary or Death alike. Hands steepled in prayer, the empty figures are furnished with roots, vines, foliage, and blossoms.
"I create personalized accounts of experience that explore the boundaries between logic and belief," Crawford says in the provided statement. "I like to think about how both familiar and unacquainted objects and imagery can resonate with the viewer in ways that cannot be fully understood or codified, crafting a disembodied sensation."
Crawford's pop-mysticism embodies the meeting place of influences as varied as resonant fiction or philosophy, a strict military and religious upbringing, or a ramble through nature. "The work is fed by conflicting ideologies, presenting unnatural events or ephemera that seem at once enticing and suspicious," he says. "The hope is to set the stage for moments of experience informed by the viewers' own relationship to the work."
Being a lover of a good sylvan sanctuary, "Our Church" in particular activates my swoon impulse. A tunnel of trees that are part apparition and part tangly bramble is framed by a large triangle, and at the end, a downward pointing triangle hints at a sheer drop. Crawford says the imagery is inspired by Patrick's Point in Northern California (close to where he used to live), by Pascal's triangle, and the varied symbolism of triangles in general. The work is about "not really holding a difference between a walk in the woods and some arcane philosophical idea," he says.
Another large painting, "Narcissus," is in part influenced by having read Leon Battista Alberti's "On Painting," and in particular, his quote "what is painting but embracing the surface of the pool?" "Camus talks about the inherent evil within nature, and relates it to beauty as well," Crawford says. An acid-colored cloudy sky roils over calm water, and a central circle holds twin gnashing maws, a savage presence peeking through a sort of portal.
Crawford made "Daydream" after reading "Lord of the Flies" for the first time. "It blew my mind," he says. "It was like, everything in this book, I've been making work about since grad school. It's really this instinct versus logic kind of thing, and I think about that a lot in my work."
The painting is another soothing scene with hints of mysticism, and he says he eventually intends for there to be a juxtaposing sculpture in front of it, based on the part of the book when Simon is on the verge of losing his mind, and the pig's head starts talking to him.
The newer work in the rear room is titled "My Disembodied Sermon," based on the theme of disembodiment which kept rearing its head in Crawford's work. "I think about art as preaching in a way, so I want to create that sort of experience for people when they come into a space," he says. "Like they're here to worship in a way."
The space contains a few small abstract paintings as well as installations that feel like sacred reliquaries. One wall is taken up by an altar-like set up, with a fabricated skull on a neon box with a pyramid inside. All of this is set on a pedestal, on a triangle of carpet, mirrored by a triangle painted on the wall.
Nearby, a glow-in-the-dark, plastic Virgin Mary trinket stands at the edge of a rough-formed foam cliff projected from a crucifix that is anchored to the wall. She's covered in more plastic, which cured in streams and drips, with an effect that looks a bit...perverse. But how the object has been altered is arguably no more offensive than the presence of this object to begin with. "How more sacrilegious can you be?" Crawford says. "It's like this token of spirituality."
Like many of his electric pastel paintings, the space is overrun with the subdued neons, influenced by the time he spent living in Florida. It reads "almost like candy," he says. "There's an element of superficiality to it that I really enjoy, operating from a place of sincerity that's pastiched, in a way."
A closing reception for Crawford's show at Joy Gallery will be held Friday, March 20, 6-9 p.m.
Crawford currently lives in Rochester, New York, where he teaches drawing and new media classes at Rochester Institute of Technology. Learn more at dentoncrawford.com.