James Croak

Overview

James Croak, one of America's most original artists, has produced an astonishing and idiosyncratic body of work during the past twenty years. Using a variety of innovative materials and techniques, including taxidermy, latex rubber, tar, and his trademark cast dirt, he has merged traditional allegiance to exacting craftsmanship with a late-twentieth-century sensibility, creating sculpture of presence and feeling. With more than 100 illustrations documenting the artist's development over the past two decades, the ...
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Overview

James Croak, one of America's most original artists, has produced an astonishing and idiosyncratic body of work during the past twenty years. Using a variety of innovative materials and techniques, including taxidermy, latex rubber, tar, and his trademark cast dirt, he has merged traditional allegiance to exacting craftsmanship with a late-twentieth-century sensibility, creating sculpture of presence and feeling. With more than 100 illustrations documenting the artist's development over the past two decades, the book follows his experiments with Minimalism - an approach that he revisited with his Window series - his examinations of American society in New Skins for the Coming Monstrosities, and the art of the figure that chiefly holds his attention today.
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Editorial Reviews

Cover Magazine
This is a beautifully designed book with great color reproductions that captures the nuances of James Croak's sculpture of dirt. The book follows his 20 year career with a look at a few of his large metal minimalist works of the early to mid 70's, his L.A. transition into figuration creating assemblages of mix-match taxidermy and found objects, to the most famous of his sculptures of the 80's, "Dirt Man" and Dirt Baby series. The book finishes with last year's dirt sculpture in a historical context while Barbara J. Bloemink's interview gives you insight into his life and the reasons for making the sculptures he does.
Jerry Cullum
Thomas McEvilley's James Croak revisits one of the wilder West Coast artists of the past two decades, somebody who, like the Sots artists revisits the past of the culture for the sake of critiquing it. In 1982, Croak's "New Myths and Heroic Metaphors" series featured a full-sized Pegasus, a stuffed horse with feathered wings bursting through the roof of a customized `63 Chevy. Croak went on to create shuffling men sculptured from compressed, cast dirt, as well as a series of latex "New Skins for the Coming Monstrosities" that evoked all our uncertainties about the body and the need for protection from outside and inside forces. Easily one of least classifiable artists of the moment, Croak is easier to love at some of his artist moments than others, but the sheer quantity of serious weirdness-or weird seriousness-latent in his work makes this one of the more strangely appealing books of the moment, even without McEvilley's characteristically instructive placement of the artist in the eddying sidestreams of postmodernist sensibility.
Art Papers Magazine
Tom Csaszar
McEvilley ultimately argues for Croak's ever-expanding discovery of ways to connect his sculpture to that of the past, from Yves Klein and Marcel Duchamp, to the Baroque energy of Bernini and the classical resolution of Greek kouroi, while at the same time firmly holding on to a relevant critique of present-day society at large. Drawing connections between the jagged trajectory of Croak's alternately operatic and frozen figures and the histories that they allude to, both social and art historical, is a difficult task managed well by McEvilley. His essay could serve as a model of how to place contemporary art within larger historical contexts without boxing it in to ill-fitting aesthetic considerations. Although McEvilley does occasionally sacrifice some of the probing spirit and dark humor of Croak's pieces, this seems to be unavoidable in order to make the valuable points that he does. McEvilley takes the different worlds of Croak's sculpture and resolves them into an evolving stream of ideas, always linked to external references which anchor them and argue for a status quo that is open to the evolving critique, and the change, of additional transformation.
Sculpture magazine
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780810963795
  • Publisher: Abrams, Harry N., Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/28/1999
  • Pages: 144
  • Product dimensions: 10.25 (w) x 12.25 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Read an Excerpt

An Excerpt from James Croak

Interview with the Artist

James Croak was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1951. At age eleven, he and his family moved to Louisiana where he became interested in the classical guitar, his first artistic endeavor. Croak proved to be a musical prodigy, studying with Andres Segovia at the age of fifteen. The following year he gave a series of concerts in Mexico City as part of the 1968 Olympic Summer Games. Croak then spent five years at the Ecumenical Institute in Chicago, concurrently studying sculpture at the University of Illinois, where he graduated in 1974.

Once in Chicago, like many of his peers, Croak initially worked with massive, abstract, metal sculpture. After receiving an artist-in-residence grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1976, Croak worked in Wichita, Kansas, speaking to the public about issues concerning contemporary art. During this period, he learned specialized techniques for fabricating with aluminum by visiting local airplane factories. From 1970 to 1978 Croak made over seventy aluminum works painted in bright, neon-type colors with titles such as Modern Emotion, 1978, a harbinger of the work to come.

In 1976 Croak moved into an old 14,000-square-foot fire station in downtown Los Angeles. There he quickly abandoned the Chicago-based abstract impulse and returned to figural assemblage work in mixed media, including taxidermed animals and found objects. Croak's California work received a great deal of critical attention, even celebrity. In 1984 he left the West Coast for Brooklyn, New York, where he created his first "dirt" sculpture made with a combination of dirt and binder, a technique he invented in 1985. Croak began exhibiting widely in group exhibitions in the United States and across Europe. Eventually the artist moved to Manhattan, where he currently resides, and he has continued working with unusual materials such as tar, resin, and dirt. Croak's unique visual language continues to gain critical attention, and his work was recently including in exhibitions in Spain, Italy, The Netherlands, and Germany. The following interview took place over six months in 1997-98.

Barbara Bloemink: Thomas McEvilley originally titled his essay for this book, "Generations of Monsters: The Sculpture of James Croak." Who and what are your personal monsters?

James Croak: I either don't have any or I have all of them: it si the world in general. I had a bad start. My mother died when I was only two, and I was passed around relatives for the next three years, typically living in one place during the week and another on the weekends. Hence my sense of the world is that it is a very unstable and scary place. I knew a mathematician who feared that all of his atomic particles would line up and he would fall through the floor.

Similarly, because of my past, I am always falling through the psyches of those in front of me, no matter how rational they wish to appear, and I perceive a seething unknown in them. Kazantzakis had a great line: "Life startles us at first, it seems somewhat beyond the law." I think the monsters are less in my life than when I was younger; ironically, because death seems more imminent. Perhaps this is the reason. In The Sybil, Par Lagerkvis describes the most severe punishment as having to live forever.

BB: Why was your first sculptural impulse abstract, since subsequently your work has been largely figural?

JC: I was living in Chicago and the academic program that I was in at the University of Illinois was anti-figurative. I don't mean "non," I mean "ANTI!" Painting was dead and embalmed and the only "authentic" course of action was abstract sculpture. The larger the better, the less reworked the better. Read: Judd, Serra, Rossati. I made work similar to this but simultaneously I had a baroque itch to scratch. I photographed graffiti from the walls of buildings in the area and projected the images onto large sheets of aluminum. Then I fabricated the metal into large-scale sculptures that were essentially three-dimensional graffiti. Frank Stella began making work nearly identical to this around 1974, five years after I initiated my series. Hence I rarely show or discuss my aluminum series; it appears derivative even thought I initiated it many years earlier. It's just as well because I think I am a figural sculptor and this first impulse was beat out of me in school. It was this gestural baroque aluminum work that led me back into figuration.

BB: That is a long route to get back to what you wanted to do to begin with. Do you see that this work influenced other artists? Do you see your ideas appearing in the work of others?

JC: Many times. A drawing of the Amarillo Ramp found in Robert Smithson's effects after he died was drawn on top of the first page of a lecture I gave while at the Ecumenical Institute titled "Resurgence," describing history as a spiral -- an idea outlined in the epic poem Saviors of God by Nikos Kazantzakis. This drawing-on-my-lecture turned up in Artforum in 1976 in "Site Works" by Lawerence Alloway about earthworks. I was twenty-one when I wrote that.

BB: Let's go back to your work in Los Angeles for a moment. Living in a terrible neighborhood, you radically changed your style and media from abstract aluminum sculpture to the series of taxidermed mythic beasts you titled "New Myths and Heroic Allegories." Why did this change come about?

JC: When I moved to Los Angeles in 1976 I rented an old fire station as both my home and studio that was in a rundown section of Los Angeles. It was right on Fifth Street, and living there was similar to being on the Bowery in New York City, but there it was called "being on the nickel." Someone was killing homeless people in the area and became known as the "skid row slasher." After killing people, he parked their bodies against the wall, propping them up as though they were sleeping. I personally found two of the bodies, one leaning up against the door of the firehouse and it shook me up. Ultimately they found the killer; in his apartment he had a collection of water glasses holding the blood of his victims. Around the same time, some slick-looking evangelists held a religious revival outside my door, complete with bleachers, blaring music, and the like. These events occurred during the general parade of broken souls moving about the streets. There was this bizarre emotional circus going on outside the walls of my studio, and I kept looking at the abstract art that I was making and became increasingly aware of a schism between the world outside and the world inside, my studio, that is. I was reminded of Francis Bacon's conclusion that the truly powerful emotions in life can be expressed only through figurative work.

BB: Your "New Myths" series garnered a great deal of media attention, including many who were shocked at the total reversal of style and medium. Since few of the works survive today, describe some of them in terms of the motifs used and the ideas/impetus behind them.

JC: The "New Myths" was the title Al Nodal gave the series for a show in Los Angeles. My working title was "Extant Cultures" and was to consist of pieces made in the genres of various culture and subcultures: Evangelical Christianity, biker tattoo art, Klingit tribe totem poles, low riders, etc. This was not meant to be imitative but rather I immersed myself within each genre, studied it, and then made a piece as a trained professional artist but within that genre. Obviously I was moving as far as possible away from notions of "International Style" and the like. For evangelical Christianity, I associated this scene going on outside my doors with a Las Vegas casino show -- their dress, manner and music, is very similar -- I made Vegas Jesus. I made a twelve-foot-high crucifix with a taxidermed sheep dressed in a tuxedo with an American flag and tons of colored feathers rimming the edge. The work must have hit them between the eyes because there was almost a riot at the opening at San Diego State University and much bashing in the press. A few years later I won the Award in the Visual Arts from SECCA in which one's work is sent to various museums on a tour. They declined to take the Vegas Jesus piece, claiming the participating museums were worried about the reaction it would cause. Humorously, three years later Andre Serrano won the same award and toured his Piss Christ, which they guessed safe enough.

BB: In Truth, Justice, Mercy you cast your own torso and head and attached them to the horse's body. In one hand you are strangling a snake, in the other you hold a pennant bearing the title of the work. The centaur is set against a desert scene that depicts a brutal image of survival: A coyote eats a bobcat, which is eating a snake, which is eating a lizard. What brought about this juxtaposition both of yourself with the notion of a centaur, this mythic animal, next to imagery charting the chain of life in nature?

JC: This was the biker, tattoo culture I mentioned. I remember thinking to myself that this piece was "after-the-bomb" art. It is quite easy living in Los Angeles on the rim of the Mojave desert to imagine that you are nearing the end of civilization. And recent events there have confirmed my conclusion. In the first instance, the piece is a desert image rendered in tattoo art...mad-cap violence culture. Bikers seem to favor the desert and it is common to see Harleys blasting through these small towns in this barren scenery. I befriended a tattoo artist and biker named Sullivan and learned much about this culture of heroic tattoos. Again an "extant culture." I did a self-portrait as a centaur, waving a banner reading "truth, justice, mercy," racing through a desert of immorality. I became a tattoo.

It was a lengthy project and I worked closely with two taxidermists to build the piece. You have not lived until you've skinned a horse. The Appaloosa we used dropped dead at Santa Anita raceway and one of taxidermists was in the stands. He knew that I was looking for an Appaloosa because the skin would match the coyote and lynx that we had already mounted. He climbed down and bought it for $40. They used a crane to get it into his pick-up truck; however, when he got back to the shop we had no way to lift it out. So we skinned it still in the truck on a public street in Los Angeles until 3:00 a.m. when the police came. We were covered with the mess and the cops thought they had discovered an animal sacrifice group...it took much explaining. It took months to build the piece and after we finished Sullivan painted the tattoos on it.

BB: In Greek mythology, Pegasus, the flying horse of the Muses, was ridden by the warrior Bellerophon to conquer the monstrous Chimera and the Amazons. Bellerophon was later punished by the gods for his excessive arrogance and pride. Later, for the Romans, Pegasus became a symbol of immortality: all interesting meanings vis-a-vis an artist. In your work, a full-sized winged Pegasus bursts through the bright blue roof of a 1963 Chevy Supersport creating a fascinating meditation on conspicuous consumption and irresistible force. Pegasus: Some Loves Hurt More Than Others, made in 1982, is probably your best-known sculpture in that it has been reproduced over 200 times in books, magazines, and articles. In retrospect it is the perfect visual metaphor for the notion of an artist as outlaw hero, breaking out of the confines of conventional conformity. What was the impulse behind making this work and why do you think it has been so popular over the years since it was made?

JC: In Greek mythology, after Pegasus threw Bellerophon to fall back to earth, he turned and said, "A bitter ending awaits those who seeks pleasure beyond what it right." I liked the myth's implicit morality, but wanted to translate it into a contemporary context, so my secular owners live tragic lives. There were lowriders all over Los Angeles -- an update of the sixties hot-rod beach culture of Jan & Dean, Big Daddy Roth, and the Beach Boys but decidedly more Roman Catholic, as pictures of Jesus and the Virgin adorn many of them. This stylization was added by the Latinos. The ongoing popularity of Pegasus is telling as it is still published often in Europe but not much more in America. Yet it was never shown in Europe. Recently a book in Norway used it to illustrate a poem by Dylan Thomas. Go figure. This says much about where one would look currently for heroic masculine imagery. When it is published in America it typically shows up in non-art related publications, which thrills me to no end -- I enjoy the crossover. I did not have to skin this horse. He was already mounted in this position and it was perfect for this piece. The taxidermist had preserved Trigger for Roy Rogers and he seemed to fancy dramatic positions.

BB: How consciously did you want your audiences to identify the mythology behind the works?

JC: Very much so with the Centaur and Pegasus. It added to the work. Remember, at the time when I started, giving any title to an art work was considered taboo. For me using a title is similar to using an additional color. I do this very much tongue-in-cheek and have not done it often. I was surprised when McEvilley told me that he associated my work with antiquity, probably because of the Kouros imagery more than the titles.

BB: Two of the taxidermed series were female characters: the Sphinx and the Lioness. Since you so rarely depict women in your work what meaning did these works have for you?

JC: I made the Sphinx in 1983. The image came to me not in a dream but just as I was falling asleep -- that is, when a lot of my imagery comes to me. That is how I think of it. When I am thinking, I lie on the couch and run images by like slides one after another. Typically I take it and model it mentally, viewing it and looking at it from different points of view. This one just popped in done. It was no mental work at all. The work has a resin trunk and head, Canadian snow geese feet and wings, glass eyes, and anaconda skin on the forearms. I was attracted to the legendary quote of the Sphinx: "To know, to dare, to will, to be silent." She is a beautiful and dangerous creature, a metaphor for women. The Lioness was a piece I found behind a taxidermy shop, mounted on top of plaster. I was told that it was a prop from the old Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies. The skin had holes all over it and was waterlogged. I found a model maker who made the grass, trees, and tableau figures of Africa that we used to fill the holes. The omission of women that are more human imagery was not intentional: twice in a row I spent a great deal of time and energy making a woman and it was not successful and ended up being edited. It's probably harder for me to do. Although the Dirt Baby (girl) piece is well liked. Also the three women piece I did in 1997 was successful.

BB> In 1984 you moved to Brooklyn, New York, from Los Angeles, and began working with dirt as your medium. How did this come about?

JC: I felt that I had outgrown Los Angeles, so I decided to leave. I wanted to continue making figurative sculpture and began considering different materials to work in. Bronze was too expensive and restrictive of spontaneity. It was an epiphany when I thought of dirt; it was neutral and loaded! It was everywhere but never used. The first batch I swept out of gutters in Brooklyn. Around 1985 I invented a means of mixing dirt and a resin binder I could cast. That year I cast the first dirt piece, Dirt Man With Fish, and I began the Dirt Baby pieces.

BB: After the colorful neon aluminum and taxidermed assemblage, didn't you miss color when began working with dirt and more neutral materials?

JC: No, there are many colors...many shades of brown.

BB: You used your face and hands as the model for the Dirt Man series. Why?

JC: Even when making a sculpture of someone else, I constantly reference my own body when working. I started making self-portraits simply because I was there and I didn't need to hire a live model. Ultimately my physical size and proportions work well for figurative sculpture. When I returned to figurative work, I looked for a material that had a firm footing. No pun intended, but dirt is solid. It is irrefutable. It is so common that it is incredibly neutral, which is what I wanted.

BB: For a short period you used another unusual material in making your work -- tar. Why?

JC: Well tar is another "worthless" material like dirt, and very common. In 1988 I made my first tar piece. It didn't work well and I threw it away. The Umbrella was a successful piece out of tar. Basically it is all cast from hot roofing tar. It makes the works indestructible; if the piece gets dirty, I just put it in the shower and hose it off. Umbrella/roof, water spilling off -- it is a strange psychological image. The Sequential Hats sequence was similar. I was thinking about Matisse's series of women and wanted to make a sequential image. It was fun to make. I took a pail of water, cast the tar into a hat shape, removed it from the mold, and began heating it. When it started to bend, I dropped it into the water. Whatever the shape of the hat when it hits the water and cools is the final shape. So each one is unique.

BB: You branched out from the Dirt Man to the Dirt Baby series, which is when we first met. How did they come about? And what happened to your earlier work?

JC: I was exhausted from making the first dirt man piece so I thought so I thought of making something on a smaller scale. And so arrived the first Dirt Baby around April of 1986. No one would show them; they were too disturbing. Finally, five years later I showed them at Alcolea, a Spanish gallery that had a small outpost in New York City. Although there were no reviews in American magazines, the work was a big hit and I sold eighteen pieces at a time when the market was crashing.

As far as the early work, I wanted my figurative work to be conceptual but stripped of all decoration. I went through a period in 1990 where I edited a great deal of early work and destroyed it. After discussions with other artists, I were stunned to discover that my work was being read wrong, almost as I was retarded and couldn't participate in the current conclusions derived from the French semiotic. Some people even thought of the earlier work as kitsch. Basically I edited and stripped everything down to a simpler, more basic kind of communication. More toward a modernist presence, but still keeping the conclusion of narrative figurative sculpture. I just let the viewer finish the piece. This is the difficult part of making art: one can never control what your work will remind the viewer of.

BB: Is this where the Dirt Window series derived from?

JC: Yes. The Window series is minimalist and came directly after this editing -- extremely austere, conceptual yet figurative. It is the first body of work that I began in the nineties. The window is a very traditional image in art history -- so much of our sense became a summary of twentieth-century art: abstraction, surrealism, earthwork, expressionism, Duchamp's first sight gags (portable windows), etc. I have made eighteen windows so far, I intend to make forty eventually.

BB: In the mid 1990s you began a completely new series of work. New Skins for the Coming Monstrosities, which both literally and conceptually were almost the opposite of your work in dirt and tar in that their concentration was on the surface, superficial rather than the core medium. Unlike both the taxidermed works and the dirt works, the skins have surface texture, but no musculature or sense of underlying body mass: They are hollow. The New Skins seem fragile and transient, and their subject matter overtly pessimistic. How do you explain this change?

JC: I wanted a pause from the dirt pieces so I made this high-anxiety series. Also my marriage was breaking up in a prolonged and painful fashion, and it fed the fires. Ending a long-term relationship feels like one's skin is being pulled off; for some it is a molting, for others like being flayed. Either way it is about skin. I tend to read The New York Times with scissors, cutting out articles that seem extraordinary. About this time it seemed that there were a lot of bizarre incidents all happening at once. For example, there was a story about a high school principal and a teacher in Ohio who hired the same hit man to kill each other, and one about a women in Chicago who "repeatedly" shocked her seven-month-old nephew throughout the night with a stun gun because he was crying. And many articles were about common viruses and bacteria that were mutating beyond our ability to control them. All of a sudden the volume on everything was being turned up and all these bizarre situations coming to the surface, all having the same root cause: overpopulation, anxiety, high mobility. It made me wonder, "How did so many people become undone?" So I made a series of skins intended as protection against the environmental insults of our time. Skin we would have if evolution had a chance to catch up with the times. The first work was Cradle Camouflage, made of latex, where the child could be hidden inside the mannequin of a dog. This was based on my theory that people are doing things to children that we would not do to pets: If we camouflage them as pets they can survive to create the next generation.

BB: Would you consider yourself a religious/spiritual person? Do you try to convey any sense of this in your work?

JC: I don't like the words spiritual or religious as they indicate a canon. I see deconstruction as a negative theology -- although Derrida argues against this -- and it is about as close as I get to a theology these days. I do want my work to have a strong, mysterious presence, similar to a cathedral, and this possibly is a spirituality. It also puts me at odds with anti-art. I think the secret is to have a strong presence without associated, and specious, claims. Anti-art had its place but as an ongoing activity it is a sentimentality: they are sentimental about being at odds with an establishment. As far as being religious, no, but something had to start all of this.

BB: When you say 'It is time to make a culture again' what do you mean? How would you define what you call 'anti-art', which, you have stated elsewhere, you believe makes up the bulk of contemporary sculpture?

JC: I want to make beauty. Some art works are considered special and beautiful and last from century to century, from culture to culture. A feature of the world that the environmental theories of consciousness cannot explain. Once, the activity of making modern art, pursuing an essence, called for a constant challenging of what was made before, but that sequence is over and ended recently. The unfortunate residue is kind of pointless, manic contrariness. I find no iconic value in the identity of the rebellious child; however, this rank identity is routinely the starting point of art made today. Which is one of the reasons that we are in the mess that we are currently in. it is sort of like a mom saying to a little kid, "get in the car," and the kid says "NO" and runs off to the picnic table. That is as far as the thinking goes. I have lost count of the number of times visual artists have been represented as complete pompous idiots by the media, especially in film. Unfortunately much of this is deserved. The art world is incredibly inbred, self-referencing, similar to academia.

There are other art schools scattered about the globe, but they are isolated from each other. I do believe we have touched bottom though and I see signs everywhere of the resurgence I wrote about twenty years ago. The new work of Eric Fischl is a good example, these lush powerful, uncanny sculptures similar to Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux and Rodin in style. Also Bill Viola's profound video art. Work that has life in it. The peaceful mystery of Lopez-Garcia is another. It is a time to make a culture; we must begin again to design metaphors that will allow us to grasp and redescribe our world. And not those metaphors that simply reject it, obviously the vast enterprise of anti-art.

BB: Your figures often convey a sense of isolation and solitary existence. Your own life experiences have often been fairly isolated -- from playing classical guitar to spending time in the religious order. Do you think there is a connection and if so, why?

JC: Actually I switched from classical guitar to flamenco recently precisely because the latter is more social and typically done with others. Although probably, in general, I prefer to work alone. I do believe, as many do, that we are in a state of estrangement that has increased over the past few centuries and my work reflects this. Even if this increase is ultimately untrue the fact that so many believe it to be true is evidence that most feel it must have not always been this way. The Falcon cannot hear the Falconer...

BB: During the making of the New Skins works you concurrently continued to make work in dirt, and that is your main medium today. I am interested that in your newer figurative dirt work you do not make lives casts such as George Segal, Duane Hansen, Antony Gormley, etc., but build your figures and forms up entirely by hand, modeling in clay from which you make a mold. Why? Isn't casting from life easier?

JC: Probably dating myself by doing so; twenty-five years ago this was a radical stance and now is basically the norm. Modernism as a style of art is fine. I have no problem with that; it is often attractive, especially in architecture. The problem stems from the claims of universality made by its adherents -- the use of advertising language such as "International Style" or "essence" and the like. These claims are easily dismantled with our present enlightenment but this is recent and some people do not yet understand this. The nature of people is to claim universality...that's a universal statement right there! Tom McEvilly's now famous essay, actually originally only a review, "Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief," was the plain language version of these issues that were stewing for many years. His piece was unanswerable, although MOMA tried, and tried,... If that style of working and its symbols and ideas that hold true from person to person, culture to culture. The test for structuralist statement is to ask, "Do you believe that would hold true for people you have never met, living in places you have never been?" If the answer is yes, even an unsaid yes, one has tried to make a structural statement. It is a basic human reflex to answer yes, we always answer yes. Where Tom and I had a meeting of minds is that deconstruction is now largely a mannerism. Time to move on. His essay in this book in ground breaking in this area.

What is going to come next is unclear. The modernists tried to control space and failed; now they are trying to control time by saying: We don't have to compare to the majesty of the past, that was then, this is now. Well, I think if you make a good sculpture, it should stand as a good sculpture next to work from any ear.

Personally I am falling backwards to a firm footing -- everything about dirt seems to be a pun -- dirt is solid, firm, common, and incredibly neutral. In my new work, in addition to my interest in Rodin and Michelangelo, I am also looking at the Spanish sculptor Lopez Garcia, who interests me tremendously. I knew nothing of his art until I was sent a book of his work by a collector from Barcelona. Lopez Garcia is one of the most sought-after artists in the world and he is largely unknown in the United States. He is a consummate realist who works with very mundane objects and is extremely adept at illuminating an object or situation or mood.

BB: You have made several drawings, using dirt/earth as your medium for drawing on paper. At what point were you making these?

JC: I like doing drawings but have not had much time to do them. Two years ago I wanted to continue Goya's Disasters of War with twentieth-century imagery. I made about fifteen drawings and edited it down to about four. They will resume at some point.

BB: Your most recent work, the full-sized nudes and the body fragments, are again modeled in clay and then cast in dirt. Taken as a whole, there is a sense of your work as having moved from the exuberant, outward, heroic gesture to the more intimate, solitary quiet. Let's discuss your recent work and why its mood is so different from the earlier work.

JC: The reversal of mood probably reflects a change of energy as one grows older and more has happened. More blows to the soul. Look at the sinister mood of Chuck Close's recent work compared to the early work from his youth. Same imagery, miles deeper, and darker. I think my work has become more intense as I have aged, although the earlier work seemed more dramatic. Also I live in New York City now where it is harder to have the space to make the larger heroic scale pieces that characterized the work made in Los Angeles. The dirt work was what I was working towards all the time. It posits solidly in a world that has none. I am currently making a series of hands and full-scale figures using the elaborate nineteenth-century modeling and casting techniques I first used on the Dirt Baby pieces. The Dirt Man series were made differently, and the process resulted in toning down the imagery. With this new work I am continuing my early fascination with made from dirt. I believe this area for my aesthetic is barely tapped. Especially I like the hands -- as McEvilly pointed out, the whole can look more like whole than the whole. It seems to be true.

BB: What makes a piece not work for you so that you edit or destroy it?

JC: I made a large sculpture of a women that did not work out. It was a mistake form the beginning, an accumulation of errors. First there was a poorly constructed armature and I used the wrong binder to put it together, the wrong dirt, just everything -- this sometimes happens, not often, but sometimes one ends up with an elephantine mess. The other big mistake I made was in applying the final layer of dirt with a very heavy glue right after it came out of the mold in order to give it texture, and in so doing, I wiped out all the subtleties of the surface. You might not have consciously noticed this if you saw the work, but your eyes would see it. The subtleties of the surface are what make a work seem alive. Otherwise it ends up looking like a dead object, a life cast. If it is a dead object it gets edited.

BB: Where do you see your work going in the future? What are your next challenges?

JC: Well mainly I want to come up with a sustaining theme of figurative art in this vein in which I am now working. As much dirt work as I have done, it has not really peaked yet. I want to make art that has an uncanny presence.

BB: What quote or title would you use to encapsulate your work, or entitle your autobiography?

JC: I am fond of an engraving by Goya typically translated as The Sleep of Reason Breeds Monsters. Actually an earlier and possibly more accurate translation is The Dream of Reason Breeds Monsters. I dream of reason and experience the monstrosities of the world because of it.

Excerpted permission of Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Copyright © 1998 James Croak.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements 7
Foreword 9
The Sculpture of James Croak 10
New Myths and Heroic Metaphors 33
Dirt Man Series 42
The Dirt Babies 49
New Skins for the Coming Monstrosities 58
The Windows 72
Surreal Objects 82
Disaster of War 90
Interview with the Artist 97
After Rodin 112
Hand Series 118
Man and Woman 125
Large Scale Sculpture Proposals 136
Biography 138
Afterword 143
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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 6, 2002

    My favorite art book

    The first time I saw the cover of this book, I fell in love with this artist's work. In "Pegasus with Chevy," I could feel his dynamic spirit. In the "Dirt Man" series, I saw his secure skill, while in his "Dirt Babies," I felt his unique talent. Especially, in "Hand Series," I felt his warm heart. James Croak uses a variety of materials such as latex rubber, tar and dirt. I think it is this challenging spirit that makes him a truly original artist. I enjoyed the book a lot. Moreover, this book is so beautiful that I display it to decorate my room.

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