Young Buck Mirrored (left side), 2005
84x60", oil on linen
Ann Craven studio, New York
The following essay was written for my friend Ann Craven. I tend to write how I talk. I do this because I am afraid that if I write any other way it would be fake. I hope that my sense of humor comes across in this little statement. I really do care about Ann
—Josh Smith, January 2008
Ann Craven’s paintings are all different. When you get to look at one you feel lucky. If you put one of her paintings on the wall it just looks good. Whether you want something tough or something sweet, one of Ann’s paintings fills the void. When you see Ann Craven's art somewhere, it really works to separate itself from everything around it. It exists in its own time. The paintings themselves are beautiful objects. Each one looks as if it has always existed . . . like caring hands have moved it from wall to wall over a period of time. This gives the work a warm weight. It is hard for me to say whether I like this type of work, but I then start to realize that Ann’s work is never “this type of work.” It is always its own thing. Ann’s art opens my eyes to other things in the world, which I might otherwise not have thought anything of. Her art is straightforward. She is always trying to portray it as having some sort of conceptual meaning, and it does . . . but not in the way she thinks. The conceptual aspect of Ann’s painting lies in the straightforward and driving process and style in which she works. She’s a very hard-working person. Often she sets out to do impossible things. But no matter what she does, its absolute quality prevails.
Ann’s work is capable of entering our consciousness at many different points. It can, at the same time, be both a cold symbol of modern times and the straightforward presentation of its subject. In one context, Ann’s work can be seen as colorful decoration; in another, the same painting becomes a biting comment on the state of things. Critics of Ann Craven’s work say it lacks the “cool factor.” All that means is that Ann gets to continue producing her work unfettered. She has managed to push hard through the challenges of being a great artist.
The birds look good. They serve as a perfect vehicle for color and expression. They are sometimes perceived as silly. A big painting of a bird is silly, but once you get over that initial stage of perception, things begin to change within the paintings. The scale and the alloverness of them stand out for me; also, the straightforward and casual assuredness with which the paintings are executed. A lot of the birds are somewhat sinister and dark. The moons are dark, but they are not so sinister. Ann painted these numerous times, in numbers ranging from one into the hundreds. I sometimes think she overdid it a little with the moons. But to really appreciate them one needs to see just one or two on a wall . . . or four or five. These paintings are just black squares—I think 12 or 14 inches square. Near the middle of each painting there is a white circle or a dash with some haze. It is a quick impression of the moon. To make these paintings, Ann actually goes out and paints the moon at night. This may sound romantic or glamorous, but it’s actually not. She always seems really nervous and agitated when she paints the moon. She is afraid the moon is going to go away before she can get it. Of course it’s going away; but it comes back. She also paints them large now—I think 4 feet square. The large moons come off differently—they are less immediate, but softer as well. Some of this softness appears to come from the larger brushstrokes. Ann’s way of scaling up her moon paintings is just to use a bigger brush on a bigger canvas.
Ann produces great paintings, one after another. She can make a painting from nothing. She does not take breaks to reflect on things. Ann manages to walk a line between writing a tell-all book and remaining completely detached. One common thread, which runs through Ann’s subjects, is a lack of specificity. Her subjects are all rather generic. Leaden metaphorical meanings and definitive portraits tend to be avoided. Ann Craven mostly limits herself to animals, moons, trees, stripes, and so forth. Currently, moons and birds are probably the most prevalent.
The problem with most representational art is that it is so sure of itself. What gives a subject so much importance that it warrants an artistic rendering? Often representational painters completely misunderstand the whole idea of art. They think art is about doing things competently with just a touch of panache. That is indeed one kind of art, but not a very interesting kind. Great representational art looks right
its subject. The subject serves as a vehicle for an expression or idea, not a crutch or publicity gimmick. Ann Craven’s work does not go around to openings with a limp and a cigarette between its lips. Playing games is not an option in her paintings. These paintings just come in and get the job done.
Because Ann Craven sets the bar very high for herself, she usually waits until close to the last minute to start working on something. She is always thinking of the context of her work. Perhaps she need not think so much about this, because often context is hard to control.
Ann seems in a way, unsatisfied with everything she does. That’s why she keeps working away constantly. The birds and the moons are both simple ideas. Is not the challenge to make something as simple and successful as possible? When it comes to painting, it is best to sneak all of the meaning in through the back door. Ann does not burden the viewer with issues or problems. The issues and problems are there, only they are disguised as the moon, a deer, a bird.
Ann takes tried and true ideas and portrays them honestly, as if she herself invented them. When she paints a bird, she does so as if she were the first person to ever paint a bird. She dashes forward with a firm innocence. Her skill as an artist is greatly enhanced by that innocence. She takes everything so seriously—that bothers me, and sometimes I hate her.
Josh Smith is an artist, who currently exhibits at Luhring Augustine Gallery. He lives and works in New York City
This essay will appear in these publications:
Published by: Knoedler & Company
March 13 – April 26, 2008
Ann Craven (Title in Progress)
Le Frac Champagne Ardenne
Published by JRP/RINGIER
Published with Le Frac Champagne Ardenne catalogue
Installation view, Deer and Beer, June 2006, Gasser & Grunert, Inc. New York