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It is a remarkable thing to see a pencil line drawn by untrammeled desire. Its precise qualities are hard to describe, but just as Justice Stewart famously said about pornography: I know it when I see it. Each curve is a caress, each area of shading a hymn. William Crawford is an artist who is known for just one body of work: a stash of drawings, mainly in pencil on low-quality paper, showing magnificently proportioned men and women in ecstatic sexual positions. The drawings were either stolen or rescued, depending on your ethics, from an abandoned house in Oakland.
While not quite at the level of finesse achieved by Tom of Finland, with whom there are inevitable comparisons, these drawings far exceed the average smut. What makes them especially sophisticated is Crawford’s eye for narrative, and his almost Art Nouveau sense of graphic composition.
Everything known about Crawford, however, is a supposition. Since his pictures mainly show black figures, many assume he too was black. Some are drawn on the backs of 1997 prison roster sheets, which suggests that he was incarcerated. Some feature crack pipes or hypodermic needles which might indicate a fondness for narcotics. His fastidious and hyperbolic draftsmanship hints at a man with the luxury of time to kill.
But how much of our reading relies on the romanticization of Crawford’s biography? Would we be as interested if he was not a prisoner but a guard? What if he was a murderer or a rapist? What if he was not black, but white? When artists cannot speak for themselves, what we may be hearing is our own idealized conception of Otherness, ventriloquized through their art. Until William Crawford stops by to claim his drawings, we may never know the answer.
More Worried than a Worm in a Bird’s Nest runs from October 30–December 15, 2015 at FARAGO (224 W 8th Street, Los Angeles CA 90014)