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Rubbing Against the Trees in the Lord’s Forest

R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis, October 24 – February 7, 2010
The Paintings of Charles Burchfield, October 4 – January 3, 2010
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

crumb_adam_eveIt shouldn’t really surprise anyone that the author of Zap and Mr. Natural, Robert Crumb, has undertaken the Greatest Illustration Project Ever Drawn–the Book of Genesis. Any narrative with all those “begats” would have to exert a certain charm for Crumb. The generally naughty R. shows himself to be extraordinarily obedient to this text, and demurs from any interpretive flourish in his cartoons–a wise decision, as the plain act of Crumb undertaking this work is its own statement which promises plenty of fun. His cast of characters includes a scowling, hirsute God, thunder-thighed Crumb-girls, and swarthy hangdog males, all tormented by the kind of terrible behavior that makes it obvious why God needed to give these people the The Ten Commandments.

R. Crumb’s drawings possess sweaty rigor and sturdy line. It makes the live ink on display in his Genesis cartoons glisten in a sensual and oily way. You can feel the fleshiness of his human figures; you can almost smell their dank perfumes. Slightly simian, utterly approachable, like soft homunculae you could take in your hand, the actors Crumb has drawn to populate the often horrifying saga of Genesis are as profane as Mr. Natural and Devil Girl. The irreverence is the point: there is no mystery to Crumb’s cartooning, only dogged workmanship, and a passion for drawing, indeed his project seems to reinforce a literal, mundane and pragmatic view of the “sacred” literature he is illustrating.

450-crumb-18-installationGenesis is probably more widely read by the general public than any of the other literature in my library, even though the ornate and downright strange prose can be daunting. Crumb’s graphic treatment brings you through the semantic jungles into the real juicy narratives whence all of our western values emerged: stories of Jacob, whose shrewd practices of animal husbandry and entrepreneurship out-maneuvered his crafty, deceitful father-in-law; or Joseph, the best of Jacob’s sons, who became the equivalent of Chief Executive Officer in Pharoah’s organization, and foresaw advantage in laying away grain for years of drought and famine. (Once the drought arrived, he finagled a way to swindle the starving farmers of Egypt into selling their land to Pharaoh in exchange for the grain he had been prescient enough to store.) Although there are stories here that are shocking in their seeming brutality (Noah’s Ark, Abraham and Isaac) Crumb’s sensual, expressive pictures, with their unsparingly frank visual style, seem to enhance the pathos in the narratives. Perhaps because Bible stories are a staple of kid’s literature, it seems natural to see the Word of God in cartoon form, and Crumb has performed a magnanimous coup with this new work, proving himself again as a consummate illustrator and, surprise, a Bible scholar. [Be sure to read the Commentary to the book, where Crumb writes about some fascinating research by a feminist Biblical historian that explains some curious anomalies in several of the stories.]

burchfieldrobins_800Charles Burchfield, like Crumb, was an artist who became a great commercial success, but he was never as sanguine and straightforward about it. As a designer and illustrator, Burchfield defined a certain look in the 20’s& 30’a both in his floral motif wallpapers (I grew up with floral wallpaper derived from his designs) and stolid magazine illustrations which were both comforting and promising. He was set to work during his military service designing camouflage patterns. In the late 20’s he quit his day job to become a very successful watercolorist who made images that captured the zeitgeist of depression era Americana.

The recently closed Hammer show was a comprehensive retrospective that covered his entire body of work, including occasionally unsettling quotations from the artist:

“What is man composed of anyway? I shudder when I think of the bestial impulses that so often flood my imagination. I am considered a decent citizen because I manage to keep these mental debaucheries from becoming antisocial actions; but as far as I, a lone individual, am concerned, I am that depraved being. And perhaps these orgies of imagination are all the worse because they are never relieved by actions. Yet may God confine them always to the mind (if they must exist anywhere and it seems they must.)” —Charles Burchfield. Gardenville, April 10, 1938

This quote appeared in a gallery full of somewhat creepy–though vigorously beautiful– paintings of snake like trees and burnt looking houses, ashen skies and the occasional insect-like floral motif. This soulful, strange and eccentric work gives pause to wonder what sort of “mental debaucheries” he was talking about, and one suspects they are something on an entirely different level than ravishing the odd wood nymph. The fascination with Burchfield’s work must be entirely connected with his psychological and spiritual journeying, for these paintings are more than pastorals, they are diagrams of nature overlayed upon a human personality and consciousness: an excruciatingly personal language and alphabet. Although his career trajectory coincided with the great cultural shifts of Modernism, Surrealism, and later, Expressionism; and despite his fame and populist themes, there is an outsider quality to much of his work.

imbecility_800morbid-brooding_800Counterposed to Burchfield the accomplished designer/painter and placid family man, there was Burchfield the brooding transcendentalist who rejected the religion in which he was raised, but passionately sought the sacred imprints of spirit in the forms of nature. Early in his life he had a special affinity for nature, carefully digging up favorite plants he found in the forest and transplanting them to his garden. Late in life, after twenty years of success, he rejected the work that had brought him renown and refocussed on a series of glyph-like drawings he had produced during what he called, his “golden year”, 1917. These curious drawings, made with graphite and china marker, are simple biomorphic forms with unsettling titles: Fear, Morbidness (Evil), Insanity, Hypnotic Intensity. They are collected in a folio; its cover an age-stained sheet of manila paper with the following title drawn in pencil in a very controlled, but rather puerile hand: “Conventions For Abstract Thoughts”. This was the first in what became dozens of these sketch journals. In his maturity Burchfield underwent an epiphany in revisiting the work of his youth, realizing that he had ignored its mysterious power and so reconnecting with what he saw as its seminal virtues. In the late work of Burchfield, motifs and obsessions coalesce; he builds out with paper from core imagery often created in his early career, and so the drawings grow in an almost vegetal way. Plunging himself into the sacred character of the landscape which he came (again) to see as an objective correlative to his inner life, Burchfield seizes upon the demonic within but never with the notion of exorcising, only guiding and bending it into form.

autumnal-fantasy1916-1944_800

Autumnal Fantasy 1916-1944

“All at once I felt that I was the most lonely person on earth, and it seemed to me that I could not endure the solitude; and yet it was so overpowering I could not leave it. I was, as it were, a prisoner who loved and hated his isolation.” —Charles Burchfield. Gardenville, November 6, 1947

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