Bilirubin. Cytomegalo. Dilutional Coagulopathy. Hemochromatosis. Blood, blood, blood, blood was the theme of Madeleine Crawford’s show Friday night at Non-Fiction Gallery. Hematologic, Crawford’s MFA thesis show, explored the abject and the macabre through non-representational paintings of blood splattered, poured and flung onto wood panels. Of course, it’s not real blood – it’s enamel and latex paint with sprinklings of pig bones. Crawford seamlessly blends the grotesque and the beautiful, following a rich artistic and philosophical tradition of honoring that combination of the attractive and the repulsive identified as the “base”.
Though Crawford’s paintings are not created using blood, her choice of medium is specifically designed to faithfully represent not only the look of blood but also the way blood interacts, both with itself and with the surface. Crawford uses layers of latex and enamel to create her works, simulating the organic using the synthetic. Her process includes allowing layers to be eaten away by solvent or brush cleaner as she works, thereby creating vein-like patterns and adding depth to the flat-planed wooden panel she paints on. Her incredibly lively drips and splashes invite parallel to Pollock; the deep webs of her splattered marks seem to crawl and pulsate over the wall. Her choice of tool isn’t limited to the end of her brush: Crawford says she uses her hands just as often, pouring and splashing the paint and using a squeegee to move it around – the same way slaughterhouses use squeegees to clean up blood off of the floor.
With her visceral process and rich color palette (shades of red, and just a few flecks of white and gold), the response the works evoke is definitely strong. You really can’t help but be attracted to the grimy sensuality Hematologic exudes, in fact some philosophers have argued that it’s basically engrained in our nature to want to look at gruesome images like these. From Plato to Derrida to Bataille – they’ve all discussed the idea that people need to look at gore, we feel an attraction to that which is “base” (Bataille explains the “base” as everything that is antithetical to the “ideal” – everything that is sub-human, vile, disgusting, whatever – rationalizing that we need base materials in order to appreciate the ideal, or “high”). In Plato’s Republic there’s a famous anecdote about a man named Leontius who comes across a pile of corpses while traveling. He longs to look at the dead bodies but is disgusted with himself, feels guilty and turns away. He struggles for a while but is finally overwhelmed by his desire to see and so finally rushes towards the corpses saying, “Look for yourself, you evil wretches, take your fill of the beautiful sight!” If you’ve ever watched a particularly gory horror movie you may know the feeling.
There’s certainly no guilt in viewing Crawford’s work, but there is still that raw desire to look closely at something you almost want to recoil from – if it were real blood, that is. That experience of curiosity, and maybe even a little adrenaline, makes this particular exhibition uniquely exciting. Crawford’s simulacra of blood and tissue is so expertly rendered and well-presented, it’s easy to forget it’s just paint. Of course, her technical execution is what allows her concept to succeed so completely; any little misstep would’ve shattered the illusion.
Unfortunately for those of us who have only just now become aware of her work, Crawford plans on moving back to Pennsylvania after she receives her MFA from SCAD. Hematologic will be up until March 11 at Non-Fiction Gallery. Don’t miss your chance to check it out.