Sarah Cromarty: Tyger Tyger
26 January -- 2 March 2013
Anna Meliksetian & MJ Briggs
by Shana Nys Dambrot
Some artists incorporate all manner of ingredients into complex works, happy to flout conventions of say, painting, by throwing everything within reach into the mix -- and then just call it “mixed media” and leave it at that. Not Sarah Cromarty, she’ll break it down for you. Any given individual work for wall or floor will contain most or all of the following: wood, acrylic, oil, digital prints (of her own photography), glue, cardboard, glitter (lots of glitter), glass beads, sequins, chandelier crystals, wire, sewing pins, string, chains, yarn, and sand (lots of sand). The exhibition checklist reads like a Home Depot order combined with an elementary school art-supply closet -- and to a certain extent, the work does too. But the maximalist abandon with which Cromarty festoons her works carries with it at least as much meaning as does her imagery. The accompanying statements and to some degree the titles of the works overtly articulate a narrative of ritual magic that is not only supported and augmented by the pagan aesthetic, but is distinctly and directly expressed through the compendium of altar-like accumulation.
The exhibition included two large-scale and three or four smaller works for the wall. Calling them paintings is the most useful shorthand, though it falls woefully short as a descriptive. Cromarty is absolutely playing with the boundaries of what might be called paintings at all; but to achieve that discourse, she must both engage with as well as subvert its conventions. She uses a labor-intensive technique to build out and carve into stacked industrial cardboard, so that the frontal image looks assembled from pieces and a side-view reads like steep ravines through canyon country. The main surface is then further treated with a shower of paint and other elements from the above list, and the demands of engineering an image in this way also frequently result in distortions of the images themselves. Those are the digital prints, themselves her original photographs created to be sacrificed for this purpose. She makes her friends wear costumes or nothing, wigs, and beards, and pose for her and she poses herself, casting them as guardian spirits, household saints, shamans, priestesses, primitives -- she calls them “wizards.”
The exhibition also featured a room-dominating sculptural installation that mimicked a plywood-stand theatrical set, but was punctured by “portals” large and small, and with such attention devoted to the verso, where a pile of sandy dirt and glittering debris was built up, that rewards the intrepid viewer for their curiosity. As a stand-alone work it may well confound, but this installation was quite successful in acting as an experiential source of insight into the kind of world inhabited by the figures and objects on the walls -- making those seem refined by comparison. The several smaller wall works were mainly more abstract, unless you count the items involved as visual content with narrative potential in themselves (feathers, chains). These are the most talismanic in appearance, reading as ritualistic objects. They are fascinating, but the formal tension between them and historical painting is not as pronounced -- and that tension is the most powerful aspect of the series, so that the portrait-based works remain the most masterful and unforgettable parts of the exhibition. They look so inescapably made. This is not the same as being about process. It is about reclaiming the state of being made by hand as a vessel of human spirit and energy with the power to transform.
As the exhibition’s title refers to William Blake’s beloved 1794 poem, “The Tyger,” perhaps it’s fitting to consider some of those immortal lines, composed by a man who himself spent a lifetime in contemplation of the transformative power of art, and in search of proof that there are angels among us on Earth.
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Flaunt, Art and Cake, Artillery, and Palm Springs Life.
She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She is a member of ArtTable and the LA Press Club, and sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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