Los Angeles

Cal Crawford


A haunting, dirgelike melody transformed Cal Crawford’s solo debut—a sprawling installation—into a nocturnal menace determined to fix viewers in a trance. The eerie piano line creeps through high octaves, over the slow funereal boom of percussion and a lumbering baritone incantation. Modeled on the heavy-handed orchestration of B-movie horror and psychological thrillers, the music’s melodrama inflicts a visceral discomfort.

The gallery’s windows were papered over and its lights turned off, leaving the space flickering dimly with light cast by strobelike videos. Five vinyl banners with Daniel Buren–esque black and white vertical stripes hang from above, and are pulled taut across the room. Positioned parallel to one another at gradually increasing heights, the first faces the viewer squarely at the shoulders, and the last hangs close to the ceiling. This black-and-white striped banner is Crawford’s central motif, a figure of rigid geometry, graphic control, modular repetition, retinal exhaustion, systematic flattening, and incarceration. The banner also appears in a video as a digital animation rotating, under the artist’s spell, in virtual space. (A digital projector and a standard-issue media cart, the installation’s other primary material objects, also appear in videos.) While the actual hanging striped banners recede from the viewer at uniform increments, crudely demarcating real space, the animated motif floats and whirls incessantly in illusory depth on both sides of a projection board. By setting an imposing, physical object in juxtaposition with its digital avatar, Crawford draws attention to the manipulative potential of graphic techniques, which can exert control over spectators through confrontation or deception.

The power of graphics is further explored through the punishing assault of the installation’s videos, which have the effect, at once disorienting and transfixing, of strobes: Vision trips while chasing flashing optical illusions; the heart rate elevates to keep up. In the rear of the gallery, a projector displayed a digitally rendered image of itself spinning over throbbing monochromatic fields of saturated colors. The third video, strobing simultaneously across two monitors, features a revolving image of the very type of media cart on which the screens were placed; in addition, an ominous and enigmatic message appears in block letters one word at a time, turning in synch with punctuations in the unsettling music: THREATS YOU CAN KEEP, it said.

This mantra and the show’s title, “POSSIBILITESOFFISTS,” are both rendered in capital letters, amplifying the
 antagonistic, confrontational stance palpable in Crawford’s sinister sound track,
 the banners’ disciplinary rigor, and his 
videos’ convulsions. Yet this aggressive
 posture, held indefinitely, starts to feel 
fraught with insecurity. The phrase
 THREATS YOU CAN KEEP, for example,
 bristles with ressentiment and anxiety as
 the words cycle through their loop—one
 imagines the artist murmuring them to himself, unconvinced that he can actually fulfill the unnamed threats. But these anxieties can also be productive: Though unrelenting and opaque, abrasive and paranoid, “POSSIBILITIESOFFISTS” indicated that the possibility of direct action, when endlessly deferred, can be art’s essential motivating force.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer