by Renny Pritikin
Sometime in the mid-1990s, Dewey Crumpler came across images of objects that he couldn’t get out of his mind. They were hoops of metal or possibly wood, vaguely egg-shaped (though at the time, he thought of tulip heads) and had wide, flat leather “wings” attached. They turned out to be slave collars. In Africa, people wore elaborate full-body costumes for ritual and celebratory dances, constructed with neck loops and shoulder pads, which suspended floor-length pieces of straw or cloth. In America, all that was discarded except the neck pieces, which made perfect control devices for slavers. Fascinated by these shapes, Crumpler began making paintings investigating how spatial boundaries affect a person’s sense of self. He does this by representing bodies as negative spaces enclosed within walls whose thickness (or thinness) signals the degree to which a person feels deprived or expansive, confined or freed from social or cultural constraints.
For Crumpler, subjugation and enslavement were essential historical facts, but they were less interesting to him than the transformation of joy and movement in Africa into misery in North America via what he considers a shared psychosis, a literal condition of insanity imposed on slaves and slavers alike. Since that time, three recurring visual themes have dominated his work: the negative space of the collars, elaborated into paintings awash with loops; empty hoodies suspended in space to produce similar negative spaces; and provocative depictions of floating, sinking or beached containers of the sort that might be stacked on the decks of freighters: a reference to cargo shipped across oceans—whether human beings in the past or sneakers today.
Crumpler packs the small space of Jenkins Johnson Gallery with paintings and collages arranged salon-style, some of which spill into the exterior hallway, almost three dozen pieces produced between 2008 and 2023. Except for six paintings elaborating on hoodies, the remainder, excluding three collages, show the artist improvising on the ring, portrayed as a lozenge-shaped object. While Crumpler’s inspiration starts with the legacy of slavery, his real interest lies in human nature. He examines the visual character of being held within a machine, a trap, or a highly regulated system. Whose bodies are invisible, and to whom? How is freedom restricted, and to what end? To look at these works is to contemplate class distinctions, the varieties of exclusion and structural coercion, and how difference becomes engrained in perception.
If one axis of Crumpler’s approach is structure and form — the loops and his elaborations on those forms — the other is color. The two operate like the hands of a pianist – the left hand keeping time, the right playing the melody. Crumpler juggles them deftly. He uses color to raise or lower the temperature in ways that range from lovely to jarring, employing, at certain junctures, a pop color scheme and, at others, a sideshow garishness. Mustard yellow, for example, runs throughout many of the ring paintings. In works like Layer Fourteen and Layer Eleven, where it appears with brick reds and blacks, the effect is elevating. But when I confront tongue-in-cheek neon pinks and coral blues in Pink and Blue Green Mist, I feel a dare emanating from the canvas, as if Crumpler were saying, “Yeah, you’ve come with me this far, but will you follow me here?”
The hoodie works are related but more complex. The empty spaces echo those of the ring paintings; only in these, the absent figures are ghostlike, dancing shrouds, singular and free, their haunted liberty an apt metaphor for aspects of the African-American experience.
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Dewey Crumpler: “In Space Time” @ Jenkins Johnson Gallery through April 19, 2023.
About the author: Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his most recent book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020. He is the United States correspondent for Umbigo magazine in Lisbon, Portugal.