By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST May, 2023
Ford Crull born in Boston in 1954, launched his art career in Los Angeles and arrived in New York’s East Village in 1985. The artworld in the East Village – which hardcore anti-gentrifiers still call the Lower East Side, the LES – was in unruly bloom. “It was so rough over there!” Crull says. “Half of it was like Berlin in ’45, just burned-out rubble. We used to have shows in some of these shell buildings, where we would run power from the street and have a show for just one night”.
New York was then famous world-wide for a strong and variegated nightclub culture and Crull had his work shown in several of the clubs. A large painting he had up at Kamikaze, one of them, got the attention of Colin de Land, one of the sharpest dealers there, who gave him two shows at the gallery Vox Populi. “Next thing you know I was selling every single thing I made,” Crull says, adding wryly, “At extremely cheap prices!”
As you can see at the Georges Berges gallery, Crull’s canvases can be pure abstractions but will usually bud with images, some taken from popular culture, such as hearts, crosses, quatrefoil blooms, but also with letters from the alphabet, words, phrases and numerals, often as a threesome, and that these are both an element in the picture building and seem full of urgent, covert story.
Which indeed they are. Some of Ford’s input has come from immersing himself in past manners of pictorial story-telling, such as the connective pictorgrams known as liturgies which were created by the church during the later Byzantine Empire. “They would tell stories like I’m an ironworker. I live in this village and my ancestors come from here,” Crull says. “And they convey it in their letter forms and images. I’m very interested in those”.
Much of Crull’s pictorial armory though has come from a remarkably healthy process, namely the putting of an unusual, potentially negative condition to positive use in art-making. The condition in Crull’s case is synaesthesia. Synaesthetes, as those who live with the condition are known, and readers who have dabbled in pyschedelics may relate to this, are likely to experience the information delivered by one sense in terms of another. Which is to say that they might hear a color or see sounds.
When did Ford Crull first learn that he was a synaesthete?
“I think I knew it intuitively always,” he says. “Because it’s related to Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder, which I had as a kid, And in OCD also numbers and letters and combinations of them have certain characteristics. It was in the 80s that I read about it and understood that that was the condition I had in terms of how I saw letters and numbers and combinations of them.”
Crull has managed to treat this condition not as an affliction but as a useful add-on to picture-making. “I see words and numbers and colors,” he says. “And gender and personalities and whatever. But then sometimes the relationship works for me as a form with another letter or a number or a symbol and I find the combinations tell a symbolic story for me. They combine to form a complex idea that exists independently of what they specifically mean as a letter or a name or a word. To me they kind of flow in this poetic way. It’s almost like I have a personal language”
All artists, indeed just about everybody, will use color to express emotion, even if only an emotion of well-being, but synaesthetes are hyper-sensitive to color. “I use a color to convey a certain emotion,” Crull says. “If you’ve got a lot of yellow, it’s light. It’s easier to deal with. In my old studio I used to watch the sunset and you would see this beautiful twilight. And the woods around were dark.”
He blurs some of his images, such as a quatrefoil, which can be so painted that one individual might see it as a flower, another as a cross, “I intentionally keep those ambiguous because I like the feeling that the viewer has to find their own meaning in the symbols,” he says.
The wordage takes on a peculiarly resonant presence in some of the artworks at Georges Berges. I observed that on one strong canvas he uses the expression NOT NOW and on another the fragments of phrasing JUST IN CASE … SURE … NOT REALLY and NOT NOW.
Are they intended to have meaning?
“I’m interested in the fact that you can’t pin anything down, that things are in a constant state of flux,” Crull says. “In terms of NOT NOW it’s saying you can’t pin things down in terms of specific time or place or incident. It crosses all time-frames. Some of them are whimsical just on purpose.
“And there are things that pop into my head. They just appear, it's interesting, I don’t think about putting them in there. But just when I think of putting a little phrase in, it pops into my head. Now I don’t know if that has anything to do with synaesthesia or if it’s just the way my brain works but I’ll see how JUST IN CASE is a circular way around a shape. And that could mean that the shape could be considered as something solid but the words around it make it ambiguous”. And, yes, ambiguity rules. WM
Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.
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