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Rosson Crow | Artnet

Courtesy the Deitch Projects. 

Rosson Crow’s paintings are large, physical, active and relentlessly entertaining. "Bowery Boys," her current show at Deitch Projects on Wooster Street in SoHo, is full of references to 1980s New York as a male stomping ground, via a series of swashbuckling, graffiti-inspired works that revisit the madly dilapidated subway platforms and seedy night clubs of the era.

A typical Crow painting quotes a male artist’s work or style (Bruce Nauman, Keith Haring, Dash Snow) and imposes it over a physical space, ranging from a hunting lodge to a Vegas casino, from an oil patch to the gardens of Versailles, all done in blazing colors and dramatic painterly gesture. Her work makes the case for the ongoing pleasure in the physicality and history of paint itself.

Born in Dallas, Crow divides her time between New York and Los Angeles. Still in her 20s, Crow has shown at White Cube in London, Honor Fraser in Los Angeles and Canada in New York. We spoke recently at Deitch Projects.

David Coggins: This show is called "Bowery Boys" -- do you select the theme of a show ahead of time or come to it while you’re working?

Rosson Crow: It happens along the way -- I knew I wanted this show to be about New York history. It’s vast and a lot to take on. One of the first books I read during my research was Luc Sante’s Low Life. I loved that book so much and I decided to focus on downtown culture. It’s like downtown history but also renegade New York underground bad boy culture -- all these things tied into it. "Bowery Boys" was the name of the biggest gang in the late 1800s. It could also be applied to bad boy artists now.

DC: So this body of work began with literature and history -- not necessarily something visual.

RC: My paintings have always come out of my love of history. I love researching the history of a city and finding out what goes on. I love going to weird places -- I find that really exciting.

DC: Does that mean you have a very clear idea about how the sources are going to relate to the work?

RC: It changes along the way. One painting gives birth to another one -- it evolves. I always have an idea of what the painting’s going to look like and then it totally changes. But that’s exciting for me because I like to let the paint have its alchemy and do weird things and let parts be fucked up. It’s kind of like letting the painting teach me things. I read an interview with Neo Rauch where he said that painting is exciting because it can teach you how to make things.

DC: Your references are quite specific -- to a certain artist and a certain space.

RC: I do a lot of research and planning. Like the one of the Boom Boom Room [in the new Standard Hotel in New York], which is the most contemporary space. With the Bruce Nauman now it’s the Bang Bang Room. I knew I wanted to do a painting of the Boom Boom Room but I was also doing a lot of research into ‘80s sex clubs and found Plato’s Retreat fascinating. We don’t really have any pictures of it because no cameras were allowed. So I was imagining a weird gay sex club from the ‘80’s and I thought I could put in these Bruce Nauman sex neon signs, "Fun from Rear." Then I do sketches and planning and then I have the color scheme in my mind and then I go for it and attack the painting.

DC: You create these three-dimensional spaces and then you lay something on top of it so there’s a friction between surface and depth. Presumably you create the space first.

RC: Kind of. It’s drawn out at the same time. I draw them out on the canvas with pencil and then do a wash with acrylic with really watered down paint and huge brushes just to get color on the whole thing. In a way, that’s the most important step because that decides how the atmosphere of the painting is going to look, the lighting, the color, the mood. The mood is so important to these spaces. That can just take an hour or two -- really messy and not worrying about anything. And then I do oil paint on top of that, refining it and making it more vibrant.

DC: Your work has a strong sense of light -- where does that come from?

RC: It’s from what I want the mood of the space to be like. I do use a lot of photos as reference -- sometimes photos that I’ve taken, which are totally amateurish. A lot of them are totally made up or don’t exist anymore so I use historical photos.

DC: You grew up in Texas -- were you drawn to ‘80s New York culture?

RC: I grew up in Dallas. When I graduated high school at 17 I got the fuck out and moved to New York. All my friends were like, "We’re moving to Austin." I was like "Fuck Austin, I’m going to New York." Looking back I’m surprised my parents let me move here because they were super-protective, and still are.

DC: Have you always been so theatrical?

RC: Oh yes. I’ve always liked vintage clothes and dressing up. In high school I would wear Halloween costumes all the time. I had a collection of 35 wigs, so I could have different hair all the time. Needless to say, I didn’t fit in at this super-conservative Christian high school that I went to. I moved here to go to SVA and it was hard -- it was cold, I didn’t have any friends, and I was living in this shitty apartment.

DC: The scale of your work is quite large -- were you making big work even as a student?

RC: I’ve always made big work -- not this big -- but always big. It’s gotten bigger as I’ve gotten bigger studios. At SVA you don’t even get a studio until senior year. And then when you do it’s really small or you share it with somebody. At the time the paintings seemed big and ambitious but looking back they’d be small.

DC: There’s an interest in graffiti in your work -- did you ever do that or are you just interested in it as another type of mark?   

RC: I’m not a graffiti artist. It’s just such a part of your visual experience living in New York. I think it fit in the show -- my next subject might be completely different, like India in the 1900s.

DC: Does your work feel feminine to you?

RC: In the sense that I’m the one making it, yes, but it’s kind of masculine in its energy and aggressiveness. But does that really mean anything? It’s weird, I get told that the art’s too big. Honestly, one of the things that I get asked a lot is, "How do I reach the top of the canvases?" Really, it’s called a ladder. It’s like "how does such a small girl like you make such big paintings?"

DC: We’re often curious about what a woman’s art tells us about her. Sometimes we fall into old habits and just assume a male artist wants to be aggressive and take over the world. But your work is extremely physical.

RC: I like a challenge. If somebody says "you can’t make work like that," then I want to it. It they say "you can’t make it that pink,"then I’ll make it even bigger and pinker. Taking on masculine spaces is another challenge. I’ve always done whatever I wanted. Sometimes people just take it too seriously. It’s just painting. It’s just art. It should be fun -- but a lot of people would disagree with that.

DC: There’s such a fascination with spaces in your work -- have you ever worked on set design or in the theater?

RC: I always wanted to be an actress [laughing]. I still have that desire as a side project. I’ve always been very performative. When I was first at SVA, I thought maybe I’ll focus on sculpture. I was making these weird theatrical sets, but they were just bad sculptures. I’ve never officially designed sets. When I came back to New York to make this show I thought that I’d really like to get involved with the opera. I love opera. My mother was an interior designer, which is where it all came from, in a way.

DC: Which artists affected you as you were developing your style?

RC: I just love fearless people, who don’t give a fuck and just go out there and do it. My favorite painters have all been dead for a long time: Goya, Gericault, David. Those are big balls-out paintings that are like: "I’m here, this is what I’m doing."

DC: Something with a sense of history and ambition and scale.

RC: Right, but I’m also inspired by somebody like Lady Gaga. She’s out there. I think she’s gotten crazier, which I like. At first she tried to be a pop star. I like her whole personality and style, more than the music.

DC: Now that it’s time for a new series of paintings -- you mentioned research -- what does that actually entail?

RC: I love going to libraries -- I’m obsessed with books. I go to used bookstores and spend hours looking through old books and magazines. When I lived in L.A. I used to go to the picture file in the downtown library. They have these old files arranged by subject matter full of magazine photos and articles. They’re so random: you can find a whole folder of crazy spiders, for instance. But I look mostly at interiors, from palaces to New York tenements. Nothing is newer than 1960. And nobody uses it -- it’s not on the internet, it’s not digital, nobody even knows about it. I spend a lot of time and money photocopying them. I think that I can be interested in anything at some point in my life.

DC: Does one body of work react against the next?

RC: I usually have to step back. I get post-show depression, then I make a few in-between paintings before I decide on a new direction.

DC: This will be your last show at this gallery, which is closing. What do you think about Jeffrey Deitch going to L.A.?

RC: I think it will be pretty great. It’s sad for me but it’s okay. I don’t think he owes anyone anything: it’s his life, it’s his business, it’s his gallery. If he wants to take this other step he should. And I think he’ll be great at it. And it will be controversial. But, in a weird way, L.A.’s probably the perfect place for him. 

"Rosson Crow: Bowery Boys," Mar. 4-27, 2010, at Deitch Projects, 18 Wooster Street, New York, N.Y. 10013


DAVID COGGINS is a New York writer and critic.

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