CITY PAPER, 2005
Appetite for Destruction
Act now or the prophetic paintings of Rah Crawford
by Andrew Parks
The Andy Warhol, standing right next to Rah Crawford, casually screens Marilyn Monroe prints like a 'zine publisher Xeroxing pages at Kinko's. But before Crawford can say anything to his idol, Warhol turns around and asks: "Could you run the rest off while I do some errands?" Dumbstruck, Crawford's throat closes while his footsteps freeze as if he'd just stepped in liquid nitrogen. And then he wakes up.
"[The dream] has profound personal significance to me," says Philadelphia artist Crawford. In a literal sense, Crawford projected it onto his ink portrait of Warhol, Andy Is My Marilyn. In a career-savvy sense, he's paralleled Warhol's multimedia, counterculture-as-pop-culture plan by painting, printmaking, 'zine publishing (Fill), modeling and DJing (at La Terrasse starting in late September).
His latest venture, the second of a four-act exhibition called "Welcome to Earth," is as flashy and dramatic as art can get. At midnight on Sept. 23, the last day of his exhibition at Old City's Qbix Gallery, Crawford vows to destroy four of the paintings in the show if they are not purchased. A ballsy move, or a cheap excuse to sell paintings? The audience will have to decide for themselves, and that's the way Crawford likes it.
The artist works in a place where pop iconography, social commentaries and unprecedented philosophies meet. While Warhol took an assembly-line approach to his color-wheel portrayals of Marilyn and Jackie O., Crawford trademarked a term for his own engaging examinations of familiar figures (Che Guevara, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jay-Z) and everyday people. Neoteric Pop-Iconic Clairvoyance buries cryptic, resonant phrases within acrylic or oil paintings that fuse pop art, graffiti and the kind of ultramodern graphic design seen in doorstop-sized fashion magazines. For instance, all of these elements play out on the Jean-Michel panel: The spray-painted, orange "Blak Ink Dries Fast," a background that looks as if it were scribbled in the hallowed bathrooms of CBGB's, a foreground that outlines Basquiat in forest-green paint and traces his facial features like a sketchbook, and sickly yellow paint that consumes his face like a Chinese water torture tank. On a conscious level, it'd look damn good hanging in the lofts of street art collectors. Subconsciously, it's like looking at a Where's Waldo? book as illustrated by subway taggers. Are the penciled-in phrases "Art Is About Art" and "Insert Critics Here" simple commentaries on art criticism? Are they allusions to glorified anti-heroes like Basquiat, the names we check and art we rarely know anything about?
Crawford isn't telling. And not because "the art should speak for itself." He wants us to speak for the art. And here's where it gets interesting. A ballet presentation of Dracula inspired Crawford to group his paintings into four acts as part of a greater whole called "Welcome to Earth." The first was "Human," which opened at Qbix Gallery just days after the presidential election last year (selling out its 11 paintings before the night was over) and captured our flawed, confusing species with striking images like the one of a woman who's either moaning in ecstasy or screaming for help (G14).
Donn Thompson, sister of the Roots drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, attended the opening and, struck by the three-panel Wood Son, bought it for her brother. (He in turn was so captivated by the imagery — which resembles a crucified Crawford — that he invited Crawford onstage last New Year's Eve to improvise on a billboard-sized canvas while the Roots played for three hours.)
"Rah's work is compelling and layered; his subject matter weighty, his approach intentional yet not without brilliance and whimsy," says Donn. "They allow you to discover something fresh each time you blink."
Don't blink for too long during Act 2, though, because one of Crawford's works might be in pieces by the time you open your eyes. "Deus Ex Machina" begins harmlessly enough. Among the works on display: Mr Minstrel (which depicts a haunting blackface performer) and Humbled, another possible self-portrait (waking from the wired world of The Matrix). But then there's the "Destruction Ceremony" on Sept. 23. If four select pieces are not purchased by that date, Crawford will burn, smash or slash them before our eyes.
"I can see how someone would easily dismiss Act 2 as a gimmicky hoax," admits Crawford. "The true art is not on the walls, but in the public experiencing an art exhibition that not only mirrors the mortality of life but puts it in your face and asks, "Now what are you going to do?'"
Crawford isn't sure what he's going to do, either, if the show indeed comes down to him destroying his very essence. He isn't rethinking his decision, though he's anxious to move forward and prepare a solo fall showing in Amsterdam, and Act 3 for next year.
And what would Andy think?
"The burden and curse of visions, paired with an intense creative drive, is the cause of many sleepless nights for me," says Crawford. "I am concerned only with creating a full body of work that spans my lifetime: no flash in the pan, no 15 minutes of fame."
"Welcome to Earth Act 2: Deus Ex Machina," reception Fri., Sept. 2, 6-10 p.m., through Sept. 23, Qbix Gallery, 211 Arch St., 215-625-2521, www.rahcrawford.com.