Photos by MacKenzie Burger

Article by Daniel McGee

Glazed frogs, clay jackets, and paper alphabets strewn across the floor; with their own particular lexicons of images and techniques, all artists are collectors, but few amass quite like Randal Crawford.

In “24Visual7Residual” at Studio 23, the Delta College professor uses wood, textile, paper, metal, and clay to turn the stuff of daily routine into powerful symbols. A simple instance of this can be found in “Toast” and “Morning Toast,” wherein rows of rainbow-glazed clay bread lend an almost magical quality to the breakfast staple of the titles. Crawford explains in his artist statement that through art, such personal miscellany is “obscured from [its] literal meanings” and charged with mystery and depth.

The artist continues to defamiliarize personal possessions on an adjoining wall of display shelves, where he juxtaposes colorful clay replicas of found objects ranging from natural detritus to junk food--Oreos rest alongside bird skulls, sneakers sit beneath piggybanks, and grenades hide among seashells. Like the jumbled aisles of an apothecary shop or the ever-busy floors of an artist’s studio, the shelves provide a space where danger and decay mix freely with delicateness and decadence--memories, fears, and desires beg to be taken down, examined, and continually rearranged.

Visually and conceptually, many of the pieces speak of sadness and strife in the artist’s life: “Invisible” seems to generate barren negative space between its two lonely wire figures, and some of the bleaker titles in the show read “Severed Spines” and “Agree to Disagree.” The show, though, is not without lightness and humor. Warm, eye-catching hues abound, and the text appearing in his works include risible monosyllables such as “MOO,” “TREE,” and “HUH?” Even at his most serious and somber, this artist maintains a sense of play.

Crawford’s strength lies in suggesting meaning without limiting it. Drawing inspiration from the visual histories embedded in Kente cloth’s vibrant patterns and, it seems, the kinetic exuberance of abstract expressionism, his collaboration with Ben Clore on a graceful construction of dyed cotton and wood implies narrative through basic visual elements of line, shape, color, and texture. His series of “Totems”--each comprised of three to seven ceramic fragments placed in columns--also tell, or begin to tell, stories. In these works, seemingly disjointed totem-segments such as a suitcase handle, manhole cover, and brick spark the imagination and invite us to fill the gaps left in-between.

Throughout the show, and particularly in his many re-creations of old clothing, Crawford wrestles with the paradoxical issue of memorialization, which always alters and transforms the subjects it purports to accurately preserve. A set of ceramic cowboy hats (“DP Transitions”) and a clay leather jacket hanging heavily from the wall (“High School Days”) reflect specific moments and memories, yet to one degree or another, they are all masked by the media.

In delectably minute detail, he also simulates rumpled shirts, complete with plaid patterns, buttons, and stubbornly upturned tags. Nevertheless, the apparel wears its artifice on the sleeve; bold designs and broad, uneven strokes of glaze illuminate these objects while subsuming their utilitarian identity, rendering them lovely, ostensibly non-functional abstractions. In short, the clothing adorning the gallery’s pedestals and walls show conflicting impulses to recapture a trace of the past and to expose the impossibility of any such recapturing.

One of the most disconcerting and beautiful works in the show is a group of urethane torsos called “Snapping Out.” They are cracked, sparsely coated with coarse black hair, densely scribbled in black lines, covered in pink fleshy material, or lined with subdermal string resembling veins. All of them sport nipple-like protrusions. And they all seem watchful, as if possessing some essence of the model who cast them. Like any good artist, Crawford has given us much to see through glimpses--in this case, glimpses of the body at its most vulnerable, abject, and even sensual.

Mixed media pieces on a large platform also deserve close study. Here clay-dipped scrap paper and leaves, meticulously laid in lines or tossed wildly about, draw attention to the madness and methods necessary in every creative venture. “Typography Slumber” in fact looks like a piece forever in the making. In this installation, neon inspection cards dangle from nails. Wholly intact, torn, or toting letter-punched holes, as well as stamped “In-Process” or “Approved,” the cards seem to be in all steps of the creative process. The piece asks us to contemplate the very phenomenon of artistic production and underscores the importance of forging new meaning for its own sake.

We all have baggage and we all hoard something from the past. Few of us, however, manage to invest our pain with newfound wonder and put it on display. Crawford does just that. It’s a good time to visit the art gallery.

© Daniel McGee, 2013