An Interview with Jim Crawford
Trinosophes: Art is a language. As such, could it be formulated as a question or an answer, or even as a clue? Over four decades your art has made striking statements about the nature of being, becoming, existence and reality. Can you describe your world-view?
Jim Crawford: I do not believe art is a language, but rather that signs and symbols are a vocabulary for each artist. An individual chooses from these signs and symbols, as well as their individual beliefs and consciousness, how they choose to live their lives, by fashioning a unique messaging system like the old telephone operator or the computer in your smart phone.
My concern for understanding the perceptual experience, the way that visual acuity works, is a life-long exploration. No artist has not thought about the way we see, or about insight, sight within, and seeing. Observation is a very important skill in my life and in cultures around the world. There are so many ways to see.
Trinosophes: Since the 1960s, you have employed a variety of materials, including neon, handmade paper, dry ice, corrugated cardboard, ice, Masonite, wood, Xerox ink, porcelain enamel, paper clips, staples, and recently, eggshells and cat food cans. Most of these materials don't hold up well over time, yet you are an avid archivist who documents each project well. What does your selection of materials say about your conception of time?
Crawford: Time is relative and metaphysical. It’s about your place in time and space where you can let go and just be – be a part of nature. I have no profound definition, only little insights I have had along the way. The ideas in different bodies of work compliment the specific materials. Often, different materials were appropriate to specific bodies of work, but most of all, I loved and enjoyed working in Detroit’s small factories, creating the pieces and working with the tradesmen.
You would be surprised how well one can keep intact “delicate” items through appropriate storage and care in handling the material. About my interest in documentation of my work, I had a fascination that came out of doing work for the Archives of American Art (being aware of their mission and practices), and also working on the publication of Early Artists of Michigan, and being on the research committee for the Dictionary of American Painters.
Trinosophes: Your work has a tendency to be destroyed, either unintentionally or purposefully. I am thinking of the 1969 series of neon floor sculptures commissioned by Detroit Institute of Arts contemporary curator Sam Wagstaff for an event at his New York loft (accidentally smashed by dancer and choreographer Judith Jamison) or your performance outside the Woodward Avenue entrance of the DIA, during which you shattered ice to the accompaniment of the history of marching band music, while the patrons drove up and entered the museum (a statement about procession, war, and propaganda).
Still other works have provoked destruction and irritation, like the 1968 performance in the Community Arts Auditorium at Wayne State University from when you were a graduate student, featuring only an airport strobe and the non-stop drone of an “a” note. Later, there were the 5 to 22-ft ice walls you built downtown in 1975 (“Screens”) that provoked a vandal to destroy them. You have also just recently produced the Eggshell Series, which seem nearly impossible to not destroy because of their extreme fragility (When storing them at the gallery, I had to tape a sign to the box that read: “EGGSHELLS, literally”). Is there an unconscious wish playing out here, or maybe a predilection toward creating something that has a ceremonially limited life-span?
Crawford: There is often a strong reaction to some of my work. No, there is no conscious intent to destroy them. Actually, they are more about transformation. It’s like a butterfly in a state of change. The elements of transformation, gesture, and ritual combine in performance. The ritual is an act of changing form. A new form is born for those morning eggs, through gesture.
I have had an attitude which I have had for a long time:
Construction is destruction
Destruction is construction
I don’t know when that seed was first planted in my mind, but it’s been there since my childhood. I played in our garage with two rabbits. I built up these incredible structures for them to play in. In the process of building it and disassembling it, I got this feeling that destruction is construction.
Trinosophes: There is a literal and metaphorical architecture in your work that builds up as the idea develops within each series you produce. The Pile Series, which began in 1967 and lasted into the 1990s, is probably the best example of this. It is both a representation of objects stacked by humans, and an accumulation of imagery that you compiled for more than three decades. The Cat Can Series (c. 2015-16) features mass-produced metal cans stacked inside salvaged wooden boxes in slightly alternating architectures, with an overall similarity that makes slight variations appear even more evident. What does the pursuit of architecture say about the human instinct? Do you think it is about leaving a trace? Is architecture like some kind of signature on the landscape?
Crawford: Yes. Humans are builders. It’s about making a mark on the landscape, a statement in the sand. Structure acquires its own sense in number, curve and sequence. The work also shows permanence as a recorded gesture. The cat cans are utilized as building materials architecturally.
Trinosophes: You once told me that you never make less than 25 pieces in one body of work. Your creative process is often ritualistic. There is a lot of action in it — small actions — but they seem like meditative, primordial actions: stacking, cracking, accumulating, wrapping, folding, binding, concealing, replacing…repeating these processes over and over again. Is art-making therapeutic for you?
Crawford: I work in series. My creative process allows me to work using numbers and natural rhythms. The best pieces can be identified after the work is completed. Working this way allows me to get into a flow. The eggshell pieces are meditations – actions without intention. The creative process itself is a ritual. There is gesture and action. There is a rhythm to the process of small actions, as you said: stacking, cracking, accumulating, replacing, repeating, building, and evaluating. Art-making leads to self-discovery which makes life joyous.