The Art of Molly Crabapple (Review)

I find myself inspired and rejuvenated since the arrival in my mailbox yesterday of the two volumes that comprise The Art of Molly Crabapple. Or, to say it plainer and broader, I am simply inspired and rejuvenated by the art of Molly Crabapple.

Artists are the bellwethers of their times (thank you, I made that up) and the slippery Crabapple embodies the ambivalence of ours. “Artist and Entrepreneur”. Those are two things I call myself, and I grapple with the contradictions regularly. Molly never asks the questions flat out so much as lives them (and draws them). On the one hand, decadence, hedonism, publicity and the drive to make a buck. On the other hand, revolution, and common cause with the left wing. But these internal clashes have driven artists for centuries. It is the essence of Romanticism. Still, she is somehow also of our particular moment.

Part One of The Art of Molly Crabapple, “Week in Hell” is just what I’m talking about. Last year she locked herself in a hotel room for a week with the goal of filling the walls with art. The stunt has echoes of David Blaine, John Lennon, and to a lesser extent Michaelangelo. Unlike many a Medieval artist, she is “suffering” (just a little) for art, but not at all for God. The “Hell” she refers to is ironic, like Matt Groenig’s “Life in Hell”, or at worst Dorothy Parker’s “fresh hell” — an irritation, one spawned in her own mind. A vow of poverty is not on her personal agenda; a Kickstarter campaign (which earned five times the cost of the project) bankrolled her sumptuous layout, during which 17 pots of coffee and 22 bottles of liquor were consumed. Dontcha worry, the five foot tall Crabapple may resemble Dorothy Parker AND can even put it away like Dorothy Parker, but she was helped in emptying those bottles by a steady stream of VIP visitors, many of whom were her models (porn stars, burlesque dancers, dominatrices). If her behavior is masochistic, then it’s the pleasurable kind, and let us say she will not walk out of this experiment poorer or more obscure. This makes her then also much like Warhol, who borrowed from spiritual art by tweaking the religious ikons of his Eastern European ancestors to portray the idols of capitalism, and got fistsful of money and attention for those efforts.

If Crabapple’s art has a spiritual forbear one would have to name Heironymous Bosch. All of that caffeine and alcohol clearly fuel mad, mad visions in Crabapple’s fevered skull, rendered in endless, obsessive detail. Like imps in Bosch’s Hell, tiny figurines called Girl-Things (all of which resemble Molly but without a face) populate the hallucinatory landscape. In one, inspired she says by the Arab Spring, the head of the “Pug Dog of Dictatorship” tumbles to earth out a giant tree full of onion domes and minarets. In another, Girl-Things race to the top of a a giant rabbit head, where they are char-broiled on a barbecue. It’s called “War Bunny”. At any rate, during her week of voluntary confinement she spewed out 270 feet of amazing drawings, a prodigious feat when you look at the detail, and all free hand in magic marker, with no do overs.

Part two of the series “Devil in the Details” contains recent portraits of her “night life muses”, many of them the same folks we have met in the first book. Generally there is so much going on in any one picture that one is by turns turned on, amused, and disgusted, the high and the hangover taking place at the same time. She says she learned to draw by “copying Hogarth and Alice in Wonderland”. ye Gods! How did I not notice that she resembles Tenielle’s Alice? By design, of course. There’s nothing she does that hasn’t been first conceptualized. There’s Alfred Jarry in there, too. And am I crazy? Something about her pen-and-ink style reminds me of Mad Magazine’s Sergio Aragones!

So this is how it is with her, so many echoes and influences in her work, mashed-up and presented in a completely new manner. There seem to be as many ripples and memories in her act of self-creation as there are details in her work.

Lately the political seems to be dominating. Three days after emerging from her hotel, Occupy Wall Street happened, and she produced posters for them (many of them are in the book). On the anniversary a few days ago, she got arrested and spent a day in jail. Before that she was in Athens for a few weeks, birthplace of Democracy, Western Art, and Bacchanalia. Her debauch there is a matter of public record, but I have no doubt she wanted to see what was up with the protests too…and just maybe take in some ruins. Like Byron before her. Revolutionary and hedonist both.

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