Today, as always, clowns and the spirit they represent are as vital to the maintenance of our humanity as the builders and the growers and the governors.
- Richard Nixon, President of the United States of America, in proclaiming the first week of August 1971, as National Clown Week.
A candy colored clown they call the sandman
Tiptoes to my room everynight
Just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper
Go to sleep, everything is alright
Roy Orbison, "In Dreams," 1963
Artists have continually looked back to the past for inspiration as a route to meaning in the work they create in the present. The questions become: who is looking? to where is one looking? and why is one looking in the first place? In her second solo show at Patrick Painter Inc, Liz Craft’s gaze lands squarely on the 1970s, American domestic setting. This was the time of knitted Afghan throws, hooked rya rugs, sewn Butterick tunics and knotted macramé necklaces.
This period follows closely on the heels of the sexy, psychedelic leftist eco-communal all-in, love-in of the hippie years. It is arguable that during the '70s everything that was radical in the ‘hippie’ movement was mainstreamed and packaged for everyday consumption. And being ‘in tune’ with the earth led to perhaps the most inane fad of all time, that of the Pet Rock. So what does looking back at this particular time in history offer an artist and how is that in turn presented to a viewer? And, what, if anything, can be critically made of the 70’s?
Craft, who was coincidentally born in 1970, presents us with a tableau: a gallery-cum-crypt with sofa as sarcophagus. For this exhibit, gone are the bones of the Grateful Dead-inspired skeletons and we are presented with the body of a young woman with orange hair, in a bright fuchsia dress supine on a light-pink sofa. While the intent may be to depict the girl as a daydreamer; with her alabaster skin, she simply comes across as dead. But, not necessarily in a bad way. The kitschy spectre of 70s idealism is haunting this afterlife.
Clowns guard the body, or perhaps are there to lead the body's spirit to the netherworld. Three 'paintings' of clown faces are hung sparsely in the gallery space – Candy Colored Clown (Soccer Scarf Beard), Candy Colored Clown (Harlequin with Tear) and Candy Colored Clown (Lemon Eye Zig Zag Teeth), all 2010. Domestic objects constructed in bronze and painted in pure white makeup their facial features (a lemon in a flowerpot for an eye, a spice rack for a mouth, a soup tureen for a nose).
There are two ceramic clowns in the space, as well as a mask mounted on one of the walls. From Greek pantomime, court jesters and circus clowns, according to Richard Nixon – and yes, sticking with the theme, I am quoting our own national buffoon– “the heart of a clown is sad and that the gladness he provokes is simply a façade for the pain he cannot reveal to the word.”
We are fast approaching the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day, an event organized by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisconsin) as an environmental teach-in on April 22, 1970. Perhaps, Craft’s exhibit is more a “return to a fantasy” than a “return of the real” since the activities she is returning to (specifically, the home-spun world of tween-age girls doing handicrafts in their rooms) are not known so much as a critical avant-garde (admittedly, baking "Shrinky-Dinks" in an oven was in no way like the aesthetic movement of minimalism, the socio-political movement of feminism or even the oppositional culture of the Punk movement). In Rug, 2010, a small bronze rabbit and owl (and not naturalistic ones, but the tchotchke-ceramic type) are shoving their way through tall, colorful wool fibers. They have their work cut out for them. Just maybe the pain the show’s clowns refer to is the frustrated false start that took place in the 70s and how forty mostly conservative years later, there are those who still don’t believe in man-made global warming (or, should I say climate change?). While I think Craft’s intent was more celebratory – a looking back with a sense of nostalgia – I am satisfied that the show comes across more as a requiem. It begs the questions: can we, should we, pick up where a generation of idealists left off? Are their cultural remnants merely kitsch? Or should we simply start all over again?
- Calvin Phelps
Liz Craft, Candy Colored Clown (Lemon Eye Zig Zag Teeth), 2010, Metal, bronze, and yarn, 59 x 48 x 13 inches. Installation view of "Death of a Clown." Lying Down Clown, Ceramic, 4 x 20 1/2 x 8 inches,