A painting can be understood as a location, one with any number of possible purposes that function in symbiosis. The painting-place is literal: the canvas as a tangible surface dedicated to a visual record of the artist’s contemplation of the subject matter presented. The painting-place is simultaneously the artist’s imagination; a psychological state of mind that is not a physical space. In this exhibition, Barbara Crawford presents works that occupy various points along this continuum. Her series of architectural interiors, titled Sanctuary, question the physical world as a safe place. By placing animals, creatures that we associate with the “outside” and the natural world, inside a man-made structure, Crawford creates a tableau that is both elegant and uneasy. She extends this mood in her non-representational series, Abstracts. The marks on these canvases appear like an exhalation of colorful energy, the byproduct of reflective wanderings.
Crawford spends a great deal of time painting at her home in Italy. It is here that she was once told: “the veil between heaven and earth is thinner in Assisi.” As she demonstrates in this exhibition, Sanctuary, Crawford’s painting-place is here, also.
—Clover Archer Lyle, August 2013
Cloud Messenger, The Skyscapes of Barbara Crawford
It is, ultimately, the shifting light that draws us into Barbara Crawford’s work, and here, in paintings that seem to expand outward, that light invites us to remember and reflect. The shifting contours of the clouds, many without any reference to the land beneath them, lift us upward by somehow reminding us of the times when we too, bodies grounded, looked up and saw, with startling clarity, the promise of the sky. Goethe, we should not be surprised to learn, was at the center of the early attempts to explain and name this promise of the sky. He wrote homages to clouds and cloud-namers and insinuated himself into one of the great scientific debates of his time: what constitutes a cloud? He corresponded with an amateur meteorologist, Luke Howard, whose passion for clouds sparked Goethe’s own imagination, and he finally wished “to have probed the knowable and quietly to revere what is unknowable.” Clouds represented both: they filled the void even while they drifted, ethereal, toward the heavens. So, Goethe spun his verse in attempts to capture the texture of the clouds he loved, but ultimately, as Richard Hamblyn points out, he cedes the power of naming to the only Englishman he would ever address as “Master”: Luke Howard, the namer of clouds.
Crawford is heir to the namer of clouds. Unlike Goethe and Howard, however, her project is less about encircling and capturing the essence of the cloud as it is exploring the contours of the void. Our eyes are drawn often to the edges of the clouds, where light dances and illuminates and suggests that despite the substance and fullness of the figures, there is space to fill. They suggest their own mutability and their own transience even as they appear to hang, at times, heavy and low. If our eyes meet the dark center of the clouds, as in so many of the sepia skyscapes, they move immediately to the edges to find the limits of that darkness, to find the promise of the space around it. Indeed, even in the work where paint falls down from the clouds like thick lines of rain, the very fact of the rolling paint suggests a lack of final authority by the dark lines (and perhaps of artist as well). Too much white surrounds those lines, too much light.
So, we are caught in a quandary once described by Oliver Goldsmith, another poet obsessed with phenomena of the sky. Goldsmith remarks that clouds serve to “mortify the philosopher’s pride” because they “show him hidden qualities in the air and water, that he finds difficult to explain.” Crawford’s work, though, avoids this dilemma because it avoids attempts to explain. Instead, her work is poetics, an exploration of those hidden qualities of the sky that force us to look up, remember, and revere.
American poet Walt Whitman loved animals. His lines from “Song of Myself” are more than memorable:
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
So they show their relations to me and I accept them,
They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in their possession.
If, as Whitman says, animals offer us tokens of ourselves, it is natural that the human/animal relationship is one that goes back to the beginning, although we’ve learned to live our lives largely apart. Or have we? As I sit in my room, I see my cat curled up in the corner; I see my bird books on the shelves; I see images of lambs associated with Christ in a small sculpture. Would not my life be strangely different without these presences? Would not I lose something of myself? Thus it is that we should find ourselves with animals in our own human-created spaces.
Barbara Crawford’s paintings are based on the idea of “sanctuary” or “refuge”: we see images of wild animals placed within spaces we associate with the products of our human culture. Reflecting on these images we may first think of the compelling necessity to create refuges, wildlife reserves, and bird sanctuaries for the protection of species of mammals, birds, and reptiles, whose existence is threatened by a human world run amok. And indeed I know the artist to be an avid supporter of such causes. Such efforts are essential if we are serious about the future of natural, living creatures: the Nature Conservancy, for example, is responsible for preserving a habitat in Eastern Virginia essential for the continued existence of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Otherwise--likely extinction due to the loss of habitat as a result of human encroachment.
So a refuge is a human attempt to save wild things from humans.
But I am tempted to read these images another way. A “sanctuary” is specifically a sacred place, a temple, “a consecrated place,” to quote one definition. They serve the function of a meeting point with the divine, while sheltering the devotee from the world’s corruption. If we understand Whitman, animals need no sanctuary in this sense, since they are “self-contain’d”; they are one with the divine already and reveal a peace and an immunity from human corruption that we can only admire. Whitman’s irreverence is breathtaking; but I take in the passage not a rejection of religion per se, but a lament of the human anxieties that accompany it. In other words, our distance from the divine creates an absence that can only be filled by a lot of restless activity. We visit sanctuaries, churches and temples to quiet these anxieties.
May we then read the images in Crawford’s paintings, along with Whitman’s verses, as suggesting the refuge we have in wild things? There is no doubt a worshipful attitude in them. To me, the animals represented in these paintings appear to be both unconscious and yet contemplative (to risk a bit of anthropomorphism)—or perhaps better, inviting contemplation: we are invited “to stand and look at them long and long.”
Southern Virginia University