CLOSING UP THE DISTANCE: The Magnificent Myopic Visions of Topher Crowder

Book Features
CLOSING UP THE DISTANCE: The Magnificent Myopic Visions of Topher Crowder
Sep 10, 2007, 02:35

photo by Norene Cashen © 2007


Topher Crowder isn't the first artist to create works that make mythic and microscopic worlds visible. But the 39-year-old Michigan native's grand, sprawling, black-and-white illustrations are singular eccentric visions that play as much with perspective as they do with his current favorite themes: mortality, medicine and technology.

His seven-foot-long wood panels have been shown in two exhibits, “Playing God” (C-Pop Gallery, Detroit) and “Enter Patient Zero” (Pawn Gallery, Dallas). They are primed white then covered with explosions of countless lines from a fine felt tip pen. Up close, they are long roads where a traveler can take in an incredible amount of engrossing and beautifully precise detail. But from a distance, they have a myopic effect, and every bone, cell, key, motor, fiber or face blurs to gray. Â

Because of the primitive, exaggerated faces that stare out from his illustrations, most gallery visitors who come to see Crowder's work are quick to compare him to Robert Crumb. Although, Crowder says he had much more exposure to Basil Wolverton's drawings from the early Marvel Comics years and the late comic illustrator's brief renaissance in the early 1970s.

The next thing observers point to is Crowder's “obsessive” use of detail. A cluster of near-identical bird heads crowd like a feather boa around the neck of a jester in “Polycarped,” a menacing mechanical-looking dreamscape that depicts Mathurin, patron saint of idiots and fools.

Mathurin looks like a post-apocalyptic mohawked biker stretching his arm through a matrix of bony tentacles toward the jester's head. Several mini panels of additional illustrations float near the bottom, as if there was another story within the story or another dream within the dream.


These images are built from small cellular patterns, long strands of branching arteries and veins, things one might see with x-ray imaging equipment or under a microscope. It's as if Crowder is adjusting size and perspective to make visible what is too small or normally hidden. He's blowing up the world and turning it inside out. But his ultimate goal is to bring these things into the aesthetic order of his own imagination.

From his home in a west side suburb of Detroit – which he shares with his wife, two well-behaved dogs, and a cage of cheerful pet birds – Crowder offers up some of his perspectives about art, drugs, sanity, and the good and evil sides of Western medicine.

“If you imagine something, put it on the paper,” he says. “There's no sketching it. You just do it. If you see something or if you think you see something, you just put it on the paper.

“The line won't lie, and you can't fool anybody with a black line. You have to use it. If you make a mistake you have to use it. The lines aren't perfect. The shading isn't perfect, but you have to use it. You use everything.”

Yes, Crowder creates these massive intricate works, which take about two or three months to complete, without pencils, without the ability to erase anything he puts down on the white board. It's astounding when you look at all the hyper-precise detail and shading that goes into them. It's even more astounding when you hear him talk about the obsessive-compulsive tendencies that drive his creativity.

“There is a repetitive nature that I kind of always gravitate toward,” he says. “Like an image, and I'll multiply it over and over again. I don't know why… It's painful because I want to move on. But I always pull back to repeating something.”

Crowder says he imagines that, for the viewer, looking at this aspect of his work is “like listening to a stutterer.” But he isn't being apologetic. In the past 15 years this man has paid the ultimate price to follow the intense force of his creative drive and to rediscover his art, not as a nice enhancement to his life, but the very sustainer of it.

“I went to CCS (Center for Creative Studies, Detroit) and I painted,” he recalls. “I had all my art supplies and stuff. Then in about ‘87 I quit, and I didn't do anything. I worked in a warehouse. You know, crazy stuff.

“I threw away all my paints and my pencils. I actually threw away everything. A lot of my sketch books I threw away and my old drawings. I didn't do anything.”

Looking back, he finds his long and sudden hiatus hard to explain, but for about 13 years Crowder didn't create any art at all. And he ended up in the psychiatric ward of a hospital then started taking Prozac to function.

“Not painting and not drawing I was very suicidal,” he says. “I was denying myself that. By not allowing myself to do it I was hurting myself. There's no release. You see things and you want to draw them. But you deny yourself.

“It seems sort of barbaric that I have to take a pill every day. I feel a little bit like a junky, because if I stop taking it, will everything just fall apart?”

"I'm Impotent"

After his mental breakdown, he felt an irresistible urge to create again. In 2000, he bought some black and white acrylic paint and painted a car on canvas. To his wife's surprise, he started bringing home used bowling balls to landscape the backyard. Today, there are about 250 of them all around the perimeter.Â

Two years ago he left his job as a computer technician for a Detroit-area medical center to finish his art degree and to devote himself to drawing and painting full-time. Perhaps it was his work and stay in a hospital environment that inspired him to draw a panel titled “Frontal,” which depicts an ice pick lobotomy or “I'm Impotent,” which is self-explanatory.

“The ice pick lobotomy turned out to be even more dangerous (than previous methods) because you can't see what you're doing,” he explains. “And the guy wasn't a real surgeon. He was a psychiatrist. That was a little dangerous.”

"I'm Impotent" (detail)

Patterns, schematics, lines, technology, repetition and mechanics make Crowder's style. His basement studio is filled with model aircraft and books. Three Chilton auto repair manuals seem to always make it upstairs to his reading room. He also enjoys World War II aircraft picture books, the ones with x-ray drawings.

He and his wife are enthusiastic art collectors. They own works by Charles Wish, Chris Dean, Frank Kozik and Bask. Their home is an orderly place where all the chaos seems to be contained on boards and canvases.

Speaking with Crowder, who is so honest and unassuming, makes it easier to understand why his radical and eccentric art feels so human and universal. After all, who isn't concerned about lost time, death and the inevitable decay of the human body? Just like his work, he approaches the darkest of subjects with an inquisitive innocence. Everything has that same duality to it, expansive with an almost near-sighted focus on the details.

“If people could be immortal, what would it be like?” he asks. “If they had bones made of coral that could constantly grow and vegetable-based skin that grows and stuff like that. Maybe that is my idea of taking back that time that I wasted.

“I don't want to be immortal. I just want to know what things are going to be like in even 10 years, 20 years. I see change.”

Rick Manore is the founder of C-Pop Gallery in Detroit, the first gallery to feature Crowder's work. Even though it's been a long road getting here, he feels things are just getting started for this young artist.

“You are drawn in by the obsessive line work,” Manore says. “But you're kept there by the story he is attempting to tell in this unconventional swirling meta-narrative that goes on for seven feet maybe all done in black pen.

“When you see a Topher Crowder exhibit, you are literally spending about 90 percent of your time three inches away from the piece. You are sucked into it. You just can't believe what you're seeing. You are transported somewhere else.”

Crowder's work will be on exhibit at the following upcoming group shows:

The Second Annual Erotic Art Show at Canvas Gallery, Dallas from September 15 to October 6, 2007.

Growing Up And Looking Back at Gallery RFD in Swainsboro, GA starting on September 12, 2007.

My Private Utopia at The Gallery Project in Ann Arbor, MI from September 12, 2007 to October 21, 2007.


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