Marianne Boesky Gallery
For sheer weirdness, not much could beat Liz Craft’s show of figurative sculptures, made mostly of cast bronze. Craft is a brilliant artisan of the bizarre, someone whose idiosyncrasies seem tied to issues of California funk and the morbid consequences of bad dreams. As an artist, she invites—indeed she completes—fantasies that make sense via a seemingly drugged hallucination, in which the gothic implications of the forms spell out a kind of trouble that, for all its would-be naiveté, is about as sophisticated as art can get. Her little shop of horrors trades on commodities and witchcraft and can seem to be deliberately over the top, but the sculpture is too interesting and formally compelling for her audience to dismiss it as mere eccentricity. Somewhere in her fields of broken dreams Craft proposes an art of purpose, even resolve, in the face of junk and general uselessness.
So the question facing us, as we regard Craft’s willful monstrosities, is: “Just how far will vulgarity take us?” Birdman (2003) is a jagged example of the artist’s impertinence: a nearly five-foot-tall hand, with legs, flips the bird with brutality rather than insouciance. The extended middle finger relates an attitude whose provocative qualities are both humorous and strange: Why such an aggressive image, especially toward an audience more or less on the side of the artist? Some of the provocations appear studied, in large part because they are so repetitive. For example, the repulsiveness of a small bronze sculpture of shit (Poop with Flies, 2003) is dulled by the fact that we expect to be outraged on a regular basis by an artist whose willfulness precedes her like a bad reputation. While it is enjoyable, even funny, on some level to be confronted with the bold artifacts of an adolescent mind, we should remember that humor is a very personal affair: what one person deems hilarious may well be seen as offensive by another.
The problem, then, with Craft’s work lies in its blatancy of manner: it doesn’t lead its audience so much as stun it with questions of indiscretion. The sculptures turn on the banal, but with so much free energy that it proves hard to disregard them; moreover, their scrappy attack engages the audience in ways that less demanding, friendlier art cannot achieve. More than anything else, the work has to do with defiance, and Craft’s populist flair cannot be denied—again and again, she makes images that refuse to be ignored, commenting archly, if also somewhat conventionally, on the ridiculous aspects of American commercial visual culture. Her small ensemble The Pony (2003) is an absurd vision of the mythical unicorn, complete with a multi-colored horn on the end of which a butterfly sits. Weaving its tail is a skeleton with a top hat, surrounded by strange paraphernalia: an actor’s laughing mask, a purple ribbon, an hourglass, an outsize pair of dice, and a rose. The Pony is a memento mori piece, whose dance with death is intended to overwhelm the dream-like aspect. The broad humor suggests a metaphysical slapstick, a tableau whose macabre engagement with reality makes us laugh despite the seeming seriousness.
Craft continues her voodoo mythology with Venice Witch (2002), a hag with bulging eyes, puckered mouth, and claws for hands. Her hair and dress are made of amber beads, and she wears a pair of roller skates that are trailed by a chrome portable radio, which sits, like the skates, on a chrome zigzag shape. Two more chrome zigzags complete the piece. Eyes without a Face (2003), made of ceramic and tin, ceaselessly watched over the entire show. Some 16 inches wide, the eyes bore blankly down on the viewer with a Big Brother denial of dignity—they see everything but recognize nothing. Part of Craft’s humor depends on the fact that it is scary in an oddly distanced way. Her imagination is three parts California funk and one part horror tale. It is hard to take the situation seriously: her witch is genuinely frightful, but in the anything-goes atmosphere, the emphasis is on the comical as well.
Craft has made other icons of idiosyncrasy, including a small dragon sleeping on its side and a naked hippie playing the guitar and smoking a pipe from which smoke billows for several feet. The Shopping Cart (2003) is strangely, defiantly beautiful: a large cactus, partially contained within a shopping cart, leaps out at the viewer, with several spider webs adding drama and weirdness to an otherwise natural tableau. The artisanal skill animating these sculptures makes them remarkable and provides them with a real presence. It is a powerful New York debut for this wayward spirit, whose rebelliousness is oddly reassuring. Craft has found a language of her own to develop, and she doesn’t suffer from shyness or indecisiveness. Her various sculptural tics reward both the quick glance and the extended gaze. There was a lot to think about in this very good show.