Installation view, Alex Crocker, “Wyrd,” at Ana Cristea Gallery, New York. Courtesy Ana Cristea Gallery.
Making an impressive solo debut, the Amsterdam-based British painter Alex Crocker has filled Ana Cristea Gallery with enormous masklike faces. The show’s title, “Wyrd,” is not, as one might expect, an intentional misspelling but rather the Anglo Saxon term for “fate” or “personal destiny.” In this context, the anthropomorphic subjects of Crocker’s commanding, mixed-media paintings have a wildly spiritual feel, suggesting pagan rites of cultures past, even as their pastiche of references feels contemporary. Intensely gestural, his style brings to mind the Art Brut of Jean Dubuffet, the fractured visages of Picasso, and the urgency of urban street art.
While Crocker’s imagery is key, his materials and process are also crucial to his artistic mission. Using a variety of substances that align with his animistic subjects—rabbit skin, onion dye, beetroot juice, and jute, for instance—he builds up his motifs on both sides of unstretched, sometimes unprimed canvas on the floor of his studio. He then selects a side to function as the front. In works like Skye Saxon and The Seeds (2015), the forms Crocker has painted on the back of the canvas show through to the front, appearing faded, or even erased, evoking the hazy nature of memories. The image depicts a bird-like figure, possibly playing a lyre or another instrument, with an amusingly wily expression. The blue tones suggest the ocean, as do wavy lines and shell-like forms at the bottom of the composition. An angel floats above. Such imagery comes from a wide range of sources, including the Early Renaissance, and it’s hard not to think of nautical Venus depictions here, like Boticelli’s Birth of Venus (1480).
Crocker also references album cover designs from the 1970s and ’90s, though, as well as the belief systems and artifacts of 6th century pagan Britain. This merging of past and present is reflected in works like Double GodHead Style (2015), a powerful painting consisting of two large, adjacent totem-like heads. Rendered with bold, calligraphic lines, each face has a violent, tooth-filled mouth, an abstracted nose, and exaggerated eyes. Blotches and marks show through from the backside of the work, forming a decorative patterning and layers of images that sometimes manage to fit logically. There is a quickness to Crocker’s mark-making that imparts a sense of passion and energy, as though we are seeing these otherworldly faces pour directly out of the artist’s head. They call to mind many generations and cultures worth of inscrutable deities, all packed into one powerful image.
“Wyrd” is on view at Ana Cristea Gallery, New York, Oct. 15–Nov. 14, 2015.