A Review of William Crawford’s Drawings at Freddy Gallery by Cara Ober
A few years ago, I had a studio visit with a curator who told me I needed to make ‘Sexy Art.’ After she left, I rolled my eyes a few times and declared, ‘There’s no way I’m doing that. I am NOT making sexy art. That is dumb.’
After a few days, I couldn’t stop thinking about the conversation, rolling it around in my brain, and wondering – What IS sexy art? What makes art sexy? It’s a pretty strange concept, really, that an object can be sexually alluring. Then an idea formed: Fantasy is sexy. Forbidden fruit is sexy. Escape from reality = sexy. In response, I made a series of school girl portraits of my fantasy crushes with smutty lyrics from pop songs. For me, it was a naughty and oddly vulnerable thing to do. Fantasy is juvenile, but that’s part of the charm.
You would think that my own experience in exploring sex fantasies in art would make me sympathetic to the new exhibit of pornographic drawings by William Crawford at Freddy Gallery, but this exhibit leaves me cold. My indifference may be a knee-jerk feminine reaction to the clichéd images of buxom ladies in the thrall of getting it on with guys with giant dongs. What can I say? The women look bored to me. In general, I find faux breasts and giant phalluses in unrealistic proportions to be trite and comical, but decidedly not sexy. Maybe this is just a personal preference? Or, perhaps the diminutive size of the drawings and their pale pencil values render these graphic pornographic scenes oddly clinical, sophomoric, and limp.
Before you can even get to the drawings, you must ponder the question of whether William Crawford ever actually existed or if he is a fictional artist, created as a clever alter ego. So far, Freddy gallery has not released the names of their director or curator and signs their emails “your pal, Freddy,” so this is not an unreasonable assumption. In addition, there’s a larger, more widespread problem with contemporary art in general: a compelling press release or story, where the actual work pales in comparison.
According to Freddy, William Crawford’s drawings were discovered in an abandoned house in Oakland, California and can be traced back to the mid-1990s. At a glance, his work brings to mind characteristics of prison drawings, an impression that is confirmed by the fact that several were made on the backs of prison roster sheets dated 1997. These computer printouts were cut down the middle, so the exact state prison from which they come is unknown. But given their origin in the East Bay and the fact that several drawings include San Francisco landmarks, it’s fair to assume that Crawford made the work in a California state prison. Other than this information gleaned from the archive itself, we know little about Crawford’s life. Indeed, we only know his name because he signed just a few of the drawings, both as Bill and WM Crawford.
Does this seem oddly convenient? The drawings were discovered in an abandoned house and were made on prison roster sheets, but lack any specific identification. According to Freddy, there are around 950 “delicate pencil drawings on paper” attributed to William Crawford. They say that “the work conveys an intense sense of sexual longing of a man behind bars with an urge to tell dynamic stories” and compare him to John Currin, Eric Stanton, and Tom of Finland.
The small drawings, framed simply and arranged in small grids at Freddy Gallery depict similar looking figures, which could indicate that the artist is working in series to tell multi-faceted stories with a cast of characters, as the gallery suggests, or it could mean the artist didn’t have access to live models and relied on a rote method for drawing human figures. Or, it could mean that a contemporary artist wanted to create an interesting story through a fictional artist and attempted a naive drawing style on purpose.
One male figure, a 1970’s styled man with a mustache and short afro, is repeated in several drawings and is thought to be the artist. If he is, he depicts himself in numerous fantasy sexual positions with scantily clad women, engaging in drug use, rape, bondage, and orgies.
Subject matter aside, I found these drawings to be lacking, next to their dramatic backstory – lacking in specificity, skill, and in heart. There’s no awkwardness, no complexity, no emotion here. If these drawing could conjure up a scent, it would be a combo of Febreeze and cheap aftershave.
I guess this is my problem with much of pornography, so maybe this is not as much a criticism of Crawford’s abilities, but rather that people want to fantasize about stuff that’s so plastic it’s unreal. Or maybe my personal preferences are blinding me?
According to the Freddy gallery text, Crawford’s drawings have been exhibited at the New York and Los Angeles Art Book Fairs. A selection of drawings were also exhibited at ZieherSmith in New York as part of their fall group exhibition titled Hope Despite the Times. A solo exhibition of his work was presented at Galerie Susanne Zander in Cologne, Germany and also shown by Zander at Art Cologne and the Independent Art Fair in New York. His drawings are in several private collections. This suggests that the art world is taking this work seriously, that it is legitimate and even masterful. Why?
Some internet digging reveals Freddy’s exact press release/ gallery text (word for word) at Ampersand Gallery and Susanne Zander. It seems suspicious (and sloppy at best) that no one has bothered to find out more about the artist or add anything to the official text circulating on Crawford. After someone found these drawings and attempted to sell them, was the artist located, either dead or alive? He must have a prison record. Also, are his family members benefiting from the sale of these drawings? If this story is true, and he has never been located, it seems grossly exploitative that a black artist who spent years in prison is now having his artwork bought and sold by rich white people.
But that’s assuming the story is true. My guess is that it is a conceptual project, not unlike Joe Scanlan’s “Donelle Woolford” piece, in which the white male Princeton professor hires black female actors to play the part of a fictional black artist named Donelle Woolford. The inclusion of this project in the 2014 Whitney Biennial caused a furor when YAMS, an artist collective, withdrew in protest from the exhibition. This leads back to the problem with clever stories behind so-so art and the power of the press release. We could spend all day discussing the serious ethical problems with this project, and society at large, but never actually address the drawings themselves, which are weak.
This brings me to my next question, which is – Does the art itself matter or is it irrelevant? There are lots of contemporary artists who make work about issues where success is equated with conversation, hype, controversy, and sales. Does it matter if the drawings were made intentionally, or unintentionally, badly and they depict consensual and non-consensual heterosexual acts where men hold all the power? We get ambushed by the power of the William Crawford story before we can even look at the drawings or question their message.
Although the ubiquitous gallery text says “Crawford’s inventive eye for sexual positions, facial expressions and gestures of hand and body was vast and masterful,” I don’t see it. The only thing compelling to me about these drawings are the layers of erasure that form a palimpsest of arms and legs in a few, reminiscent of old holy books or Abstract Expressionism. Aside from this one subtle technical detail, these drawings are just bad. Period. Interesting? Tangentally. Visually Powerful? Not so much.
In addition to their style, the content of the drawings is potentially disturbing. In the green Untitled drawing, there’s a tidbit of text at the top that says, “He made me a deal. I didn’t want to refuse.” From the expression on her face, this woman is not enjoying her encounter from behind with a faceless muscular hunk. Maybe she’s just moaning? To me, she looks distressed. In another, a woman with a sleepy but dumb face spreads her legs, surrounded by three men while one holds what appears to be a knife to her back. Do these drawings promote rape culture? Does art have a responsibility to promote ethical treatment? What exactly are these drawings accomplishing? What was their original purpose and why are they on the walls of a tiny artist-run gallery in Baltimore?
Whether you believe they were made as decadent entertainment for an incarcerated man (are you allowed to take your prison drawings with you after you leave?) or it’s another elaborate art world hoax, William Crawford’s drawings at Freddy Gallery raise a number of controversial and uncomfortable issues about race, class, incarceration, sexuality, and the way these seemingly disparate subjects impact one another. Personally, I find these drawings to be lackluster and lewd in a dumb way, and I am not sure they’re even worth my attention, but here I am writing about them anyway.
My biggest problem with William Crawford’s drawings at Freddy is that I don’t learn anything from them. I don’t gain any insight about what it’s like to be incarcerated. There’s no nuance or exploration of sexuality, attraction, or taboos that we haven’t already gleaned from stereotypical pornography. There is zero vulnerability. If anything, these drawings reinforce lame stereotypes of heterosexual power, predation, and fantasy, which, strangely, are the same lame stereotypes pervading today’s art market.
* Author Cara Ober is Founding Editor at BmoreArt.
The William Crawford collection is represented by Ampersand Gallery & Fine Books, Portland, Oregon and Galerie Susanne Zander, Cologne, Germany.