Los Angeles - ArtSlant's Nancy Lupo visited with Rosson Crow at her downtown LA studio. Nancy and Rosson talked about Rosson's influences and working methods, cowboy culture, nostalgic places and her love of Fitzgerald.
Rosson Crow, "Live in the Black Pussy," 2007; Courtesy of Honor Fraser Gallery.
Nancy Lupo: What of the culture and the architecture from your native Dallas has stuck with you? Was there art in your house when you were growing up? What were the first works of art that interested you? What were you like as a teenager?
Rosson Crow: I think that growing up in Texas has given me a “go big or go home” attitude towards most things. It has also probably given me a low tolerance for bullshit. The Texas cowboy culture is very masculine, which I think has been very influential in how I approach art making. Architecture in Dallas is all strip malls. Everything is new; nothing has history. Its similar to Los Angeles in that way, everything seems like a set for a building instead of an actual building. I love this though.
As a teenager I was very much in my own world. I went to an enormous high school (graduating class of almost 2000 people!) and I was definitely an outsider. The school was very focused on football and God, two things I wasn’t so into. So I skipped a lot of school and when I was there, wore Halloween costumes & crazy wigs. I have always loved vintage clothes, dressing up & performing. I knew I was going to move to New York after I graduated so I just tried to make high school as fun as I could by doing my own thing.
NL: When did you begin painting?
RC: A bit in high school, but I didn’t really focus on it seriously until my senior year in undergrad.
NL: Throughout the course of your formal artistic training, which began at the School of Visual Arts and was then followed by the MFA program at Yale University, you consistently showed and sold your paintings. While there are some people who contend that this is a dangerous move for a young artist, you seem to be propelled by the energy of showing your work and engaging with a larger public. As someone who has benefited from both rigorous academic training as well the art marketplace, how do you weigh in on this debate?
RC: I suppose I can see both sides to the argument. Ultimately, I think the most important thing for an artist is to keep challenging yourself and your work and to not become complacent. This can be hard to do if people are offering you money and success for whatever your work might be at one particular moment, especially if you are a young artist. The art market is so crazy right now, so full of money, and so hungry for young talent. It’s a very strange time. But really, I try not to think about it. I just make the paintings.
NL: The title for your upcoming show at Honor Fraser, "Night at the Palomino," pays homage to the now defunct Palomino Club, which the Los Angeles Times once called "Country Music's most important West Coast club.” What do you find important about this location’s décor and mythology?
RC: I love the idea of lost spaces, and the mythology behind them. This particular club was where one of my favorite country singers, Dwight Yoakam, got his start. I love the idea of these country bars, or honky-tonks, because they represent this strange combination of rock n’ roll decadence with the masculinity of country music’s cowboy culture. Country music is interesting in the sense that the sentiments behind the music have evolved so little in almost 100 years. Most songs still focus on patriarchy, God, and the working class. To me, the honky-tonk is an extremely masculine space, which I enjoy taking on as a female painter.
NL: The painting, Black Pussy, which refers to the late Jason Rhodes’ sculpture and infamous soirées by the same name, is the most contemporary space that you have taken on as a reference thus far. How did you become interested in his work and do you see Black Pussy as a departure from your other paintings?
RC: I had always been interested in Jason’s work, and my friend was working on the Jason Rhodes Black Pussy book, so I had access to all the images. I had been thinking about painting another artist’s space, perhaps a museum show, or something along those lines, but I wasn’t sure what. When I saw Jason’s installation, I realized it would make an amazing painting. The Black Pussy contained many of the same references I am interested in: the myth of the West & cowboys, music & performance spaces, and neon. In addition, the Black Pussy is another lost space that itself became mythic after Jason’s untimely death.
NL: Some of the paintings that were exhibited in your 2004 exhibition, Estate Between, at CANADA gallery included figures. Why did you stop painting figures?
RC: When I first started painting spaces, I was interested in the history of them, as well as the people that might inhabit them. But I then realized that I was much more interested in the spaces themselves and what they represented instead of the figures. I felt the spaces could become more evocative when empty. As the work grew in scale, the viewer became the figure in the space.
NL: Elements of the Ambassador Hotel appear in several of your new works. What sort of research and source material did you look at in order to recreate the interior of this space? Did you ever visit the hotel before it was demolished in 2006? Is it important to you to visit the locations that you paint or are you more concerned with the idea of memory or a fantasy of what they may have been like?
RC: The Ambassador Hotel represents the decadence of the 1920’s perfectly. I did not get a chance to see it before it was demolished, so most of my source come from old postcards and vintage photographs. Most of the spaces I paint I have not been to in person. The fantasy or the myth of the space is incredibly important to the work, as I think it gives the paintings their atmosphere. After all, decadence is all about fantasy and desire.
NL: You have cited the decadence of the 1920’s jazz age as a source of inspiration for your work. Your canvases oftentimes look like the haunting aftermath of a night at the Gatsby Mansion. How do you understand this kind of decadence and do you see it as having parallels in contemporary culture? What do you imagine the decline of contemporary decadence will look like? How might it happen?
RC: The Roaring Twenties were really a golden age in American history. It seemed to be a time where decadence was at an all time high before the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. It seems to me that America is now on the cusp of a civilization in decline, but still experiencing a period of decadence. The art market alone is a great example of this decadence. I’m not sure what the decline of contemporary decadence will look like, but I bet it will be horrifyingly beautiful.
NL: For some time your paintings have been concerned with the ideas of façade and artifice that have come to define Los Angeles for many people. Since living here, have you found these stereotypes to be accurate or is there something else at work here?
RC: I think the stereotypes are pretty accurate. But I love all the L.A. stereotypes! I think artifice and facade are amazingly interesting... artifice is all about crafting desire and creating the fantasy.
NL: Do you think of painting as a performative act? Have you otherwise thought about performing or acting?
RC: I definitely see painting as a performance, at least in my own work. I’m thinking about building a stage in my studio.... I love acting. I studied acting a bit when I was living in New York. I almost went to grad school for acting! But decided to forge ahead with painting instead...
NL: On his deathbed, F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "A writer like me must have an utter confidence, an utter faith in his star. It's an almost mystical feeling, a feeling of nothing can-happen-to-me, nothing-can-harm-me, and nothing-can-touch-me. Thomas Wolfe has it. Ernest Hemingway has it. I once had it. But through a series of blows, many of them my own fault, something happened to that sense of immunity and I lost my grip." Do you find this sense of blind and perhaps aggrandized confidence of which Fitzgerald is speaking necessary to succeed in other types of creative activity? Does this apply to painting? Is it sustainable?
RC: Oh I love this quote! Fitzgerald has been a huge inspiration to me, as Tender is the Night is one of my favorite books. This quote is amazingly dead on. I think one of the most important things an artist can have is confidence and utter belief in their “star”. I’m not sure how sustainable it really is, but if I find out, I’ll let you know.
ArtSlant would like to thank Rosson Crow for her assistance in making this interview possible.
-- Nancy Lupo