Keith Crowley: Unseen
Tiger Strikes Asteroid
Through March 30
By Deborah Krieger
Keith Crowley’s Unseen is a strangely unsettling exhibition. Consisting of five paintings in Tiger Strikes Asteroid’s small gallery, Unseen compels us to look closer, yet pushes us away with a growing sense of voyeurism, as though we are seeing things we should not be privy to. Crowley adeptly makes us aware of our discomfort with the intimacy of what we are seeing, as well as how unwelcome we are in each painting’s world, turning the paintings back upon us and allowing them to pass judgment.
The works are painted in oil and characterized by a deliberately eerie and indistinct quality, generating a bizarre, layered dialogue where we are increasingly entranced and encouraged to make sense of these works, but are then made acutely aware of our status as interlopers. The paintings portray familiar looking settings, suffused with memory. Only one of the works explicitly depicts a human presence, while two more refer to humanity obliquely. Nocturne (Effulgent Pause), painted in 2013, depicts what appears to be a gas station at night, pregnant with secrecy and mystery. What is about to happen? What can we imagine in this setting? What does the scenario we imagine tell us about ourselves?
The scenes Crowley depicts are recognizable as potentially real places stocked with real figures, yet he leaves his images abstract enough that we must interpret them as best we can. Each work requires an outside eye and mind to ascribe sense, context, and meaning. We see different aspects of each work over multiple viewings, depending on our emotional and mental state, creating highly personalized viewing experiences. Abstract art particularly relies upon this form of interpretation and study, but Crowley’s representational works operate on this level especially well.
As I walked around the gallery, the nagging sense set in that, despite the fact that these works were on display for my consumption, I was an intruder in these snippets and scenes. In particular, Nocturne (Vacant Fete), a 2013 nighttime scene of row homes on a street, is made memorable by Crowley’s painterly imitation of the effect of a camera shake while the shutter is open, turning holiday lights into jittery squiggles and creating the sense that we are perched outside these homes with a camera, spying on the scenes taking place within, hoping we don’t get caught. Is this a more literal translation of how we engage with all works of art?
Bathers (Harlequins) (2012), the only work with people explicitly as its subject, separates the group of bathers from our searching eye with a sketchy haze of fog. Their poses are hard to discern. Who are they to one another? The more we look, the less we see, and the more we are made aware that our gaze is neither invited nor wanted—they do not beckon us, their backs are turned towards us. Nocturne (Effulgent Pause) is also suffused with this feeling—what is this clandestine meeting we are either waiting for or have just missed?
Stylistically speaking, the Nocturne works are the strongest and most evocative; Effulgent Pause, with its milky smoothness and quiet melancholy, is reminiscent of Edward Hopper. March (Field) (2013), which depicts a car driving towards the us through a gray blur of fog, and Nautilos (2013), a murky image of boats on a brownish-blue body of water, while less successful on the technical and emotional fronts, have a sinister air as we are forced to mine our brains for some kind of explanation as to where these vehicles are going.
The blurriness of the latter two paintings recalls Gerhard Richter’s similarly rendered hazy paintings from the 1960s and 1970s, creating a dialogue between the differing sources and interpretations. Richter painted his subjects out of focus by way of his “blur”, working mostly from found photographs, while Crowley bases his images on murky ideas of places, unevenly applying focus on various parts of the composition. In this way, Crowley manages to manipulate our gaze even further by choosing what we focus on and what we miss at first glance.
It is in the nature of representational paintings especially to position the audience, to some degree, as a voyeur. Keith Crowley’s Unseen addresses this dynamic head-on, challenging us to address our own need to look while tantalizing us with dreamlike, half-realized scenes that seem so familiar. He forces us to put a bit of ourselves into his images as we explore what each could mean by way of our own thoughts, feelings, and half-buried memories. It feels intimate and personal, almost off-putting, and altogether enthralling, as if Crowley is using these paintings to spy on our personal lives, turning object into subject and subject into object.
Deborah Krieger is a student at Swarthmore College studying art history, with interests in foreign languages, film and media studies, and making art. She writes her own arts blog, I On the Arts and is interested in going into curatorial work or into arts and culture criticism.