Sarah Cromarty, “Gotcha” (2018)

Sarah Cromarty’s clunkily constructed paintings bring to mind John Waters’s succinct analysis of Cy Twombly: “His work kept assholes away.” Incorporating glitter, plastic beads, and stacked cardboard mounted on plywood, her crude, elemental pieces will put off anyone who believes art should look expensive and refined.   

Wizards, Healers, Portals and Prophets: A tribute to Sarah Cromarty celebrates Cromarty’s work from 2007, the year after she completed her BFA at Art Center College of Design, to 2018, the year she unexpectedly died at the age of 37. On view at Culver City’s Klowden Mann gallery, the exhibit opens a gateway into an idiosyncratic and fecund world. The 16 featured works embody her commitment to unconventional media and techniques, including the use of layered and cut cardboard, overpainted digital prints, and the one substance present in the materials list for every piece: magic.

Sarah Cromarty, “Travel Eye” (2013)

Nearly all the works on view depict lush rainforests, waterfalls, or tropical beaches — landscapes Cromarty composed from photographs she cut up, reassembled, and painted afresh. All this is secured to sheets of cardboard shaped and layered to varying depths, creating a three-dimensionality that evokes dioramas, pop-up books, bas-relief sculpture, and psychedelia. Cromarty’s pictorial structure reverses perspectival illusion — instead of the image receding into the picture plane, the topographically stacked cardboard causes the image to rush forward. The rawness of her construction may reflect the rough tumult of her personal history, challenges stacked upon challenges from an early age, which she overcame to attain an MFA from the University of California Los Angeles in 2012.

Cromarty went on to become, in the words of her close friend Katie Herzog, “entrenched and enmeshed” in the Los Angeles art community. Herzog explained in an email, “She was there for a range of cultural and geographical shifts… galleries moving between Chinatown, Culver City, Hollywood, Downtown. Her post [with her fiancé, writer and improv actor Tommy Mabson] in Echo Park was not only a place to live but an aesthetic stake… She brought a realness to the LA art community: a no-bullshit authenticity and focus that defined her and her work.”

The artist Jim Shaw, who employed Cromarty in his studio for five years in the early aughts, recalled in speaking with me that she had “no filter, would talk about anything. She was a force of nature with real presence, I always said she could be a reality TV star.”

Sarah Cromarty, “Untitled” (2011)

An untitled masterpiece from 2011 pictures a man being carried piggyback by a woman. Both are half-naked, sporting fantastically long hair and beards despite their youthful faces and bodies. They appear joyfully at play. I cannot see them as anything other than Adam and Eve, apparently after the Fall but unchastened, celebrating their new carnal awareness. Cromarty overthrows the long history of the miserable couple cast out of Eden, a punitive vision sanctioned and promoted by the Catholic Church. The nearly nine-foot painting rests upon two cinder blocks, emphasizing the earthbound status of this happy Arcadian couple. Equally important, the bodies are spliced together from discrete pieces: a hand, a breast, an upper leg, a foot. They are not joined seamlessly; each part is separated from the next by gaps that appear as cracks. Like all of us, these people are broken, imperfectly reconstituted by Cromarty’s will.

Sarah Cromarty, “The Beholders” (2013)

In Cromarty’s visual lexicon, nature is home to the supernatural. “The Beholders” (2015) is a vision of floating hands encircling a mysterious ring or portal deep in the jungle. In “The Guide” (2018), radiant light emanates from a break in the dense foliage, beckoning the pilgrim deeper. “Travel Eye” (2013) is a dream catcher made from leaf forms, establishing the natural world as a source of protection. I suspect Cromarty viewed the untrammeled earth in a manner similar to Van Gogh who, like Cromarty, suffered from bipolar disorder. Van Gogh’s flame-like cypresses suggest the two artists share a druidic intuition. “Gotcha” shows a pair of hands raised amidst palm trees, the fingers of the left spread up and apart like branches, with all ten fingernails painted a yellow-green attuned to the foliage, emphasizing the visual pun on the word palm. The fingers of the right hand are folded down to clasp the left in a gesture of self-possession: Cromarty at one with nature, catching herself lovingly.

Van Gogh’s paintings and letters make clear that he found healing and clarity in the landscape. The celestial orbs of his “Starry Night” (1889) find an analog in the circular holes cut out of a plywood sky in Cromarty’s untitled work from 2008-2009, in which the openings are fashioned into mystical forms that safeguard the turquoise sea and beach below.

To live with a severe mental illness is to face an inordinate amount of pain. Psychotropic medications are blunt instruments because brain science is still young, and for many, current treatments cause as many problems as they ameliorate. Shaw recalls once seeing Cromarty walloped by antidepressants into a zombie-like daze. Cromarty’s work suggests she sought, and found, a measure of healing in art.

Wizards, Healers, Portals and Prophets: A tribute to Sarah Cromarty continues at Klowden Mann (6023 Washington Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232) through December 22, 2018.

Daniel Gerwin is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles.