ArtScene Review:Mario Cutajar on Hugo Crosthwaite

Luis De Jesus Los Angeles
Nov 17, 2015 2:59AM

Hugo Crosthwaite’s latter-day baroque realism is important for reasons that extend beyond the opportunities it affords the artist to display his considerable skills as a draughtsman. They are reasons that have to do with the vicissitudes of representation in an age assumed to have a surfeit of it.

Thanks to the omnipresence of “reality” TV programming, today there would seem to be no such thing as TMI when it comes to the minutiae of celebrity lives in their various phases of ascent and dispersal.   less

Paralleling the transformation of the American economy into a self-cannibalizing apparatus for producing financial bubbles, the contemporary culture industry flourishes on the basis of inflating meager personalities into gargantuan and momentarily attention-grabbing iridescent figures that delight as much by their abrupt appearance and seemingly miraculous buoyancy as by their often catastrophic return to nothingness. (Jeff Koons’ metallic balloon dogs, one of which sold for close to $60 million a few years back, can thus be recognized as perfect markers of the cultural moment they inhabit.)

This media-manufactured froth, while claiming to deliver reality in its most scandalous immediacy, functions instead as an insulator against the harsher realities that govern the lives of those whom neoliberal economics have effectively reduced to the status of vermin. Reality TV is the ultimate confirmation of Baudrillard’s now-hoary thesis that the globalization of capital-ism has reduced reality to its mere (dis)simulation.

It is in this context that the persistence of representation in a medium as poignantly anachronistic as drawing achieves its paradoxical significance. Drawing keeps it real, it counters simulation, by owning up to, and actually delighting in, its own contrivance. It rescues us from the Matrix-like phantasmagoria of simulation by reacquainting us with the conventionality of representation and, in Crosthwaite’s case, with the dignity that representation can confer on subjects that neoliberal economic practice is interested in only as exploitable low-wage labor.

The title of his current show, “Tijuana Radiant Shine,” will seem opaque until it is understood as referencing a short poem/song by Edgar Allen Poe originally titled “A Catholic Hymn” (subsequently, “A Hymn”) that is a short prayer beseeching the Virgin to grant a “Future radiant shine” to succeed a time of darkness. On display are 14 largish drawings executed in graphite and acrylic on panel. The artist eschews color in favor of gray tone, which insinuates associations with both photography and urban grime.

The theme of Tijuana, Crosthwaite’s hometown and a gateway city on the Mexican-American border (whose fence is the city’s northernmost physical limit), has driven his graphic output over the years. He has remarked that like his own drawings, whose beguilingly photographic level of detail testifies to both an immigrant’s fierce attachment to place of origin and an extraordinary visual memory, Tijuana is an entirely improvised, “organic” city. As Peter Frank has observed, Crosthwaite’s realism is of the magic realist kind, something that becomes particularly evident from the way that in his drawings, characters and scenery from a variety of sources and semiotic regimes cohabit together. It is a realism fully committed to the idea that reality is fundamentally a symbolic construct structured by a jumble of internalized discourses. Thus, while Tijuana is the ostensible subject, its exacerbated cultural hybridity serves the artist as a privileged metaphor for the never-finished construction of subjectivity itself.

Juxtaposition was used by the Surrealists to summon what they called the marvelous. In the ‘80s, it was employed by a generation of post-Pop cynics to suggest the ruination of signification in general. Crosthwaite employs it to a different end or ends. Through the layering of different graphic conventions (cartoons, graffiti, commercial signage, diagrams, Mayan glyphs, photo-based illustration) his juxtapositions establish the deliberateness of the framing and choice of subject matter. In other words, it makes transparent the montage that reality TV naturalizes in order to achieve a simulation of reality.

But just as importantly, Crosthwaite’s use of the physical abutment of his drawings speaks to the cultural dislocation that is at the heart of immigrant experience. The artist’s own private Tijuana embodies the suspension between cultures that troubles every immigrant. There is a certain squalidness that goes with this condition. The space of the in-between, as Julia Kristeva observed, is the space of abjection. But, as she also noted, it is in response to abjection and as a means of allaying its terrors that the most visceral poetry and art originates.

Crosthwaite’s achievement here is to have found in drawing (and in the sublimation of defilement that drawing allows) a means to honor cultural hybridity and those who might be dismissed as merely its victims. Getting past Tijuana’s renown for its featurelessness, poverty, crime, pollution and a host of related ills, he discovers in its chaos an unlimited license for graphic appropriation and improvisation ...and an anchor for a conflicted cultural identity.


Luis De Jesus Los Angeles