James Croak: A Survey
December 12, 2020 through January 10, 2021
By PETER FRANK, December 2020
The work of James Croak is on exhibit for the first time in five years , surveyed in a (too-)small show at MM Fine Art in Southampton (New York). These rollicking, phantasmagorical, literally spectacular sculptures, going back almost three decades, brim with the imagistic and material bravado, as well as the grimly witty social assessment, we associate with an older generation of American assemblagists, artists such as Edward Kienholz and Betye Saar. But Croak’s work proffers a distinctly different sensibility as well, one in which fantastical juxtapositions comprise a response to the world that is equal parts reportage and metaphor, romantic (or even baroque) only in imagery, not in spirit. If Kienholz’s confabulations moralize and satirize like editorial-page cartoons, Croak’s reflect and prognosticate like editorials themselves.
No series has found Croak in a more analytical, and dour, frame of mind than his “New Skins for the Coming Atrocities,” a series conceived and fabricated some 25 years ago. These riffs on the human condition – or, more accurately, the condition of humans – muse on the vulnerability of us meat puppets; but they center their existential angst on our natural frailty only as much as on the increasing threat to our very survival posed by those agents of imbalance we have unleashed upon ourselves. We have betrayed our pact with nature, the “New Skins” remind us, and we have perverted our pact with one another, acts of bad faith that come back to bedevil us with ever-increasing fury.
The “New Skins” are bracketed by sculptures of figures fabricated from, among other substances, dirt. Called, logically enough, the “Dirt Men,” they point with a Biblical poetry at our fragile abjection and at our ultimate unity with nature. Theirs is a poignant pathos, reminding us that life can be nasty and brutish and will inevitably be short, but that at the same time we are nature (passim Jackson Pollock). Our society’s ills, the “Dirt Men” – and most of the “New Skins” – aver, mirror both the ills we visit upon ourselves and those we induce in the natural world.
The 1995 “New Skins” series anticipated such affronts as school shootings (the Lunchbox Vest prefigured Columbine by four years), terrorist attacks, pandemics, homelessness, military interventionism, state brutality (police and otherwise), and climate change (as well, more inferentially, as xenophobia, institutional racism, and the large-scale movement of endangered people). None of these dismal circumstances were unknown to the post-Cold War world, of course, but many of them have taken new, more virulent form in the new century, giving the urgency in Croak’s declarations the authority of justified projection. He felt what was coming.
At this juncture we have to recognize Croak’s vision as, literally, 2020 hindsight. The waning annus horribilis seems foretold in the “New Skins,” manifesting as the year the “Coming Atrocities” have come fully on shore. But the yellow-fever dream of America’s recent politics, and the place those politics assume in a larger resurgence of anti-democratic and, indeed, anti-humanist impulse around the world, make that much more sense in light not only of history, but of art like Croak’s. Artists prognosticate, often with astounding accuracy; if only they spelled out their prognostications in a language we all spoke. In this regard, relying on an aesthetic of restrained spectacle and human-centered imagery, Croak comes closer than most to getting his point(s) across.
Croak’s reliance on figurative tropes results from his immersion in philosophy, old and new, but also from his participation in an artistic discourse that favors humanist values but gives them body (as it were) in intuited metaphor, personalized language, and a bleak, even Kafkaesque assessment of humanity. In this Croak’s art evinces the grim heroics of Anselm Kiefer and the frozen-moment fiction of artists as diverse as William Kentridge, Ilya Kabakov, and Terry Allen. Unlike them, however, Croak does not provide a narrative structure within the artwork. Its “story” coalesces when the viewer, à la Duchamp, completes it – hopefully recognizing it as parable rather than story, but theater all the same.
James Croak, then, is a moralist. As Thomas McEvilley wrote, the overarching theme of the sculptor’s work is “the struggle of humanity to raise itself in the Great Chain of Being.” That struggle is tragic, bathetic, dreary, and hopeful by turn, certainly as Croak limns it. He is not convinced that our struggle will succeed, that we’ll necessarily maintain our footing on the Great Chain and evolve sufficiently before we burn away the troposphere that sustains us. Croak’s human-size, human-scale, human-shaped apparitions remind us that sustaining our civilization is a matter of sustaining nature, and that sustaining nature is our job, not nature’s – because whatever kind of nature we strive to sustain we do so in order to sustain our species. Nature will survive what we do to it; we won’t. Croak’s “New Skins” sculptures are monuments not to our mortality but to our wisdom – and as such they are equivocal presences, ominous but not despairing. In 1995 we felt threatened but not doomed. How do we feel now? the “New Skins” still ask. WM
PETER FRANK is an art critic, curator, and editor based in Los Angeles, where he serves as Associate Editor of Fabrik Magazine. He began his career in his native New York, where he wrote for The Village Voice and The SoHo Weekly News and organized exhibitions for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Alternative Museum. He is former Senior Curator at the Riverside (CA) Art Museum and former editor of Visions Art Quarterly and THEmagazine Los Angeles, and was art critic for LA Weekly and Angeleno Magazine. He has worked curatorially for Documenta, the Venice Biennale, and many other national and international venues. (Photo: Eric Minh Swenson)
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