The sweet and sour life of Molly Crabap­ple

The artist’s ‘story of a girl and her sketch­book’ is a beau­ti­ful, il­lus­trated mem­oir, as colour­ful as her life it­self, writes Robin Yassin-Kassab

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Molly Crabap­ple’s Draw­ing Blood – “the story of a girl and her sketch­book” – is at once mem­oir, re­portage, lit­er­ary de­scrip­tion, aes­thetic in­quiry, road novel and ro­mance.

Crabap­ple’s paint­ings, ly­ing some­where be­tween Toulouse-Lautrec and sur­re­al­ism, are in­creas­ingly cel­e­brated. The sur­prise here is that her best writ­ing is as provoca­tively beau­ti­ful as her vis­ual art.

Her prose is sweet and sour in equal mea­sure; the eye she watches with is both re­fined and raw. Very of­ten she watches her­self.

The com­fort­able clash in her per­son­al­ity of cynic and ide­al­ist, high­brow and low­brow, re­calls Saul Bel­low’s early char­ac­ters. Like Augie March, a young Molly shoplifts high-canon­i­cal texts and reads them on the el­e­vated trains which pass above slums.

A na­tive of New York, of a stim­u­lat­ing Puerto Ri­can (Marx­ist) and Jewish (artist) back­ground, Molly nev­er­the­less hated be­ing a child. School di­ag­nosed her with “op­po­si­tional de­fi­ant dis­or­der”; by 12 she’d be­come a goth-punk. At 17 she was trav­el­ling in Paris and Morocco, an Amer­i­can on tour – “noth­ing but an eye, soak­ing up the world” – but one see­ing a freshly un­ex­otic vision. “When you draw you are per­form­ing qui­etly,” she writes, “invit­ing strangers to en­gage you.” Strangers en­gage her, of course, wher­ever she is, whether she’s draw­ing or not, sim­ply be­cause she pos­sesses (or is pos­sessed by) an at­trac­tive fe­male body. This she finds to be both a power and a vul­ner­a­bil­ity. The fi­nan­cial power leads her to pose for photo shoots.

“When I thought of ev­ery propo­si­tion and threat that I got just walk­ing down the street in my girl body, I de­cided I might as well get paid for the trou­ble.” And so she be­came “ren­dered into im­age, un­touch­able yet trad­able”.

“Glamour” once meant “witch­craft”, Crabap­ple re­minds us. Her artist’s love of rev­e­la­tory il­lu­sion and her fas­ci­na­tion with per­form­ers’ per­son­al­i­ties in­volved her in New York’s bur­lesque re­vival. She dressed up and danced with the rest, but drew con­stantly, “not a per­former but a spy”.

Ad­ver­sar­ial, fiercely en­tre­pre­neur­ial, she es­tab­lished Dr Sketchy’s, a live-draw­ing work­shop where the models posed as they chose and were “en­cour­aged to talk back”. The idea quickly spread as far as Jo­han­nes­burg and Shang­hai.

Ex­otic dress and con­trived per­sonas per­mit poor girls en­try to cir­cles that would other­wise shun them. Still, they are seen by con­sumers of their beauty only as “wall­pa­per”. So now Crabap­ple’s art takes a de­cid­edly po­lit­i­cal tone. Toulouse-Lautrec was “a lac­er­at­ing class critic”, she re­minds us, and her pictures be­come as darkly sav­age as those of Ge­orge Grosz, the car­i­ca­tur­ist of Weimar Berlin. Crabap­ple draws hun­dreds of pigs, for ex­am­ple, as “an apt sym­bol for the coke-dumb bankers who com­posed half of the au­di­ence”.

She con­stantly rein­vents her­self. This in­di­cates the pro­found dis­sat­is­fac­tion which seems es­sen­tial to cer­tain artis­tic sen­si­bil­i­ties.

“Raw-nerved per­cep­tive­ness is unattain­able in ev­ery­day life,” she writes. And here per­haps, is why she runs from the or­di­nary to the mar­ginal, strange and rev­o­lu­tion­ary, es­cap­ing ver­sions of her self which have be­come stale. At the aged of 17, leav­ing for Paris, she gath­ered and burnt the pho­tos of her child­hood.

“Molly Crabap­ple” it­self is a pseu­do­nym – named af­ter a char­ac­ter in a never- writ­ten play. “Love makes you a char­ac­ter,” she writes in her best apho­ris­tic style, “Los­ing love kills that char­ac­ter.” So the book tells of the rein­car­na­tions within a sin­gle (and still short) life­time.

This ex­plains too, Crabap­ple’s love of dis­guise and fancy dress, and more sig­nif­i­cantly, of the de­cep­tive­ness of sur­faces, the in­evitable fail­ure of true rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

Her work ac­knowl­edges it in de­lib­er­ate ink spots, blotches of colour, fer­tile “mis­takes”.

She demon­strated against the 2003 Iraq in­va­sion, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing “protest’s lovely and treach­er­ous delu­sion: there are so many peo­ple – this has to work”.

In 2008 the mar­kets crashed. There­after she de­signed posters for the Oc­cupy move­ment and hung out in Zuc­cotti Park, draw­ing hip­pies, trades union­ists, an­ar­chist the­o­rists and the home­less.

The story’s artis­tic cli­max is Shell Game – a se­ries of largescale sur­re­al­ist po­lit­i­cal paint­ings syn­the­sis­ing Crabap­ple’s ex­pe­ri­ences of protest and per­for­mance. Com­ment­ing on the cash econ­omy, the paint­ings were dis­played above a claw-foot bath­tub filled with “hun­dreds of green bills graven with cats and ten­ta­cles”.

The nar­ra­tive, mean­while, con­tin­ues to ex­pand in scope – to bank­rupt Greece, tor­mented Syria and Guan­tanamo Bay, where the story starts and ends.

More than blood, Molly Crabap­ple draws con­nec­tions, be­tween class and sex, be­tween the var­ied in­ter­na­tional lurch­ings to­wards free­dom, and to the pos­si­bil­ity that “art and ac­tion could in­fuse one an­other”. And so she gives a sense of our young cen­tury’s po­ten­tial, more con­nected and more con­fused than ever be­fore.

Robin Yassin-Kassab is a nov­el­ist and critic and, most re­cently, the co-au­thor of Burn­ing Coun­try: Syr­i­ans in Rev­o­lu­tion and War.

An­thony Be­har / Sipa Press / AP Photo

An Oc­cupy demon­stra­tor in 2011, in Zuc­cotti Park, New York, where Crabap­ple was also an ac­tivist.

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