Vol. 3 | Interview: Jim Crawford with Rebecca Mazzei

Jim Crawford with Rebecca Mazzei

Untitiled, Staple Series, 1971

During the fall of 2016, Trinosophes presented a solo exhibition by former Detroit artist Jim Crawford (Indianapolis, Indiana) for the first time in more than a decade. Crawford’s name is remembered well by some, and not at all by others. Even as a young graduate of Wayne State University’s Master of Fine Arts program in 1969, Crawford was a respected figure of the Cass Corridor movement. He captured the attention of Detroit Institute of Arts’ influential contemporary curator, Sam Wagstaff, who introduced him to local collectors and helped to commission several works in public spaces and private residences.

Included in this exhibition were sculpture, assemblage, and mixed media collage from the past few years, as well as prints, photography, postcards, mail art, and sculpture from that exciting period of activity, circa 1968-1977 in Detroit. Additionally, an extensive selection of research materials from Crawford’s own archive were available for the public to peruse, including newspaper articles, notes, photos, and sketches.

Crawford’s raw intellectualism and fascination with the industrial landscape align him with artists from the pivotal Cass Corridor era. Crawford didn’t just make art about industrial life; he made art inside factories, standing alongside men and women on the shop floor as he printed on cardboard or constructed sculptures from neon and porcelain enamel. His early experimentation with such unconventional materials as neon and ice, as well as his radical performances and ephemeral site-specific installations, connect him to early Minimalism and related movements emerging from the avant-garde New York and Los Angeles scenes.

Early Work

The concepts that defined Crawford’s early bodies of work as a twenty-something absorb him still today. He uses shapes and forms as a language to express philosophical ideas and personal feelings about light, time, and perceptual experience.

A handful of events from Crawford’s past helped to solidify his local legacy. In 1968, Wagstaff commissioned a neon sculpture for a reception at his New York loft, positioning it alongside work by esteemed artists Tony Smith and Claes Oldenburg. The sculpture was destroyed during the event when dancer Judith Jamison – who later became artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – accidentally walked through and shattered the piece.

A short time later, Detroit Institute of Art’s Junior Council commissioned a dry ice sculpture inside Diego Rivera Court as well as a political performance outside the Woodward Avenue entrance, during which Crawford, clad in a space suit, smashed an ice sculpture while a recording of marching band tunes played in the background.

Local art enthusiasts may also recall Crawford’s long-running Pile Series, which began in 1967. Prints and postcards from this series were featured in the exhibition at Trinosophes, on loan from the private collection of Xavier Slade, proprietor of Xavier’s 20th Century Furniture on Michigan Avenue, which was once Crawford’s home and studio. The Pile Series was shown at Detroit’s independent art venue Willis Gallery in 1972. Pieces from it were included in the DIA’s seminal exhibition Kick Out the Jams: Detroit’s Cass Corridor 1963–1977 in 1980 and the following year at Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

From the original Willis Gallery press release, 1972:

Crawford interprets the environment around us in his work; he also is concerned with the nature of structure. Crawford wrote: “Clouds, for example, are floating piles of water particles. In my own way I’m dealing with this when I construct DRY ICE PILE – 500 lbs of CO2 for my show. Integrity is how and why and where these forms exist … It’s my intention to have you see this integrity, too.” To Crawford the pile, the heap and the stack have order, unity and style in form and site. He associates piles with energy and man’s desire to control nature.

Today, Crawford explains his continued interest in the pile as an aesthetic object: “Portions may have been added or subtracted, but it is not contrived sculpture.” For him, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. “Complexity is confusing. Essence is simple. This is true of the universe that could be called the wonder of it all,” Crawford says.

In 1975 Detroit Institute of Arts executive director Frederick J. Cummings wrote an extensive introduction to Crawford’s one-man photography show at the Detroit Public Library. That same year, Crawford constructed an impermanent artwork in downtown Detroit on the Kern block. He obstructed traffic with four large ice walls installed at the intersection’s walkways. Overnight vandals destroyed the piece.

Current Work

The exhibition at Trinosophes also showcased three major bodies of work from the last two years: the Cat Can Series of assemblages, 2016, which resulted from a chance meeting with a feral cat; a beautifully fragile suite of sculptures, the Eggshell Series, 2015-2016; and mixed media collage entitled Watch Series, c. 2002-2016, representing his preoccupation with destroying man’s conception of time.

“The subject of the Watch Series is metaphysical,” Crawford says. “It is about the shattering of time. I see time as a multi-dimensional reality. With the Watch Series, there is no attempt at perfectionism but rather a letting-go in the process of making the pieces. I am relaxed, reflective and responsive. They are improvised in the moment.”

The way that Crawford describes his contemporary work often belies its complex and enchanting qualities. His methodology remains the same as it was several decades ago. His creative process is meditative. About the Eggshell Series, he states:

These pieces represent a childhood memory. My grandmother used to read tea leaves, and that was the first time I realized that you could interpret meaning through imagination. The Eggshell Series is about visual acuity or heightened seeing: like looking right in front of you and seeing the future revealed. I have a ritual … I crack four eggs each morning, place the shells back in the carton, and paint them or stain them with a walnut dye extracted from a tree in my garden … it is a simple, constant action recorded as a mindful gesture.

Trinosophes //
Over four decades your art has made striking statements about the nature of being, becoming, existence, and reality. Can you describe your worldview? Is your art formulated as a question or an answer, or even as a clue?
Jim Crawford //

I do not believe art is a language, but rather that signs and symbols are a vocabulary for each artist. An individual chooses from these signs and symbols, as well as their individual beliefs and consciousness, how they choose to live their lives, by fashioning a unique messaging system like the old telephone operator or your smart phone.

My concern for understanding the perceptual experience is a lifelong exploration. No artist has not thought about the way we see, or about insight, sight within, and seeing. Observation is a very important skill in my life and in cultures around the world. There are so many ways to see.

Trinosophes //
Since the 1960s, you have employed a variety of materials, including neon, handmade paper, dry ice, corrugated cardboard, ice, Masonite, wood, Xerox ink, porcelain enamel, paper clips, staples, and recently, eggshells, and cat food cans. Most of these materials don’t hold up well over time, yet you are an avid archivist who documents each project well. What does your selection of materials say about your conception of time?
JC //

Time is relative and metaphysical. It’s about your place in time and space where you can let go and just be – be a part of nature. I have no profound definition, only little insights I have had along the way. The ideas in different bodies of work compliment the specific materials. Often, different materials were appropriate to specific bodies of work, but most of all, I loved working in Detroit’s small factories, creating the pieces and working with the tradesmen.

You would be surprised how well one can keep intact “delicate” items through appropriate storage and care in handling the material. About my interest in documentation of my work, I had a fascination that came out of doing work for the Archives of American Art (being aware of their mission and practices),1The Archives of American Art was created in Detroit in 1954 by the collector and gallerist Lawrence A. Fleischman and the then Director of the … and also working as Visual Arts Coordinator for the Michigan Council for the Arts and being on the research committee for the Dictionary of American Painters.

Untitiled, Cat Can Series, 2015-16
Untitiled, Eggshell Series, 2015-16
Trinosophes //

Your work has a tendency to be destroyed, either unintentionally or purposefully. I am thinking of the 1969 series of neon floor sculptures commissioned by Detroit Institute of Arts contemporary curator Sam Wagstaff for an event at his New York loft (accidentally smashed by dancer and choreographer Judith Jamison) or your performance outside the Woodward Avenue entrance of the DIA, during which you shattered ice to the accompaniment of the history of marching band music, while the patrons drove up and entered the museum (a statement about procession, war, and propaganda). Still other works have provoked destruction and irritation, like the 1968 performance in the Community Arts Auditorium at Wayne State University from when you were a graduate student, featuring only an airport strobe and the non-stop drone of an “a” note. Later, there were the 5 to 22-ft ice walls you built downtown in 1975 (Screens) that provoked a vandal to destroy them. You have also just recently produced the Eggshell Series, which seem nearly impossible to not destroy because of their extreme fragility. (When storing them at the gallery, I had to tape a sign to the box that read: “EGGSHELLS,

Literally.”) Is there an unconscious wish playing out here, or maybe a predilection toward creating something that has a ceremonially limited life-span?

JC //

There is often a strong reaction to some of my work. No, there is no conscious intent to destroy them. Actually, they are more about transformation. It’s like a butterfly in a state of change. The elements of transformation, gesture, and ritual combine in performance. The ritual is an act of changing form. A new form is born for those morning eggs, through gesture.

I have had an attitude which I have had for a long time:

Construction is destruction
Destruction is construction

I don’t know when that seed was first planted in my mind, but it’s been there since my childhood. I played in our garage with two rabbits. I built up these incredible structures for them to play in. In the process of building it and disassembling it, I got this feeling that destruction is construction.

Trinosophes //
There is a literal and metaphorical architecture in your work that builds up as the idea develops within each series you produce. The Pile Series, which began in 1967 and lasted into the 1990s, is probably the best example of this. It is both a representation of objects stacked by humans, and an accumulation of imagery that you compiled for more than three decades. The Cat Can Series, c. 2015 – 2016, features mass-produced metal cans stacked inside salvaged wooden boxes in slightly alternating architectures, with an overall similarity that makes slight variations appear even more evident. What does the pursuit of architecture say about the human instinct? Do you think it is about leaving a trace? Is architecture like some kind of signature on the landscape?
JC //
Yes. Humans are builders. It’s about making a mark on the landscape, a statement in the sand. Structure acquires its own sense in number, curve, and sequence. The work also shows permanence as a recorded gesture. The cat cans are utilized as building materials architecturally.
Trinosophes //
You once told me that you never make less than 25 pieces in one body of work. Your creative process is often ritualistic. There is a lot of action in it -- small actions -- but they seem like meditative, primordial actions: stacking, cracking, accumulating, wrapping, folding, binding, concealing, replacing … repeating these processes over and over again. Is art-making therapeutic for you?
JC //
I work in series. My creative process allows me to work using numbers and natural rhythms. The best pieces can be identified after the work is completed. Working this way allows me to get into a flow. The eggshell pieces are meditations – actions without intention. The creative process itself is a ritual. There is gesture and action. There is a rhythm to the process of small actions, as you said: stacking, cracking, accumulating, replacing, repeating, building, and evaluating. Artmaking leads to self-discovery, which makes life joyous.
Untitiled, Cat Can Series, 2015-16
Untitiled, Pile Series, 1972