The New York Center for Photography & The Moving Image, New York City
By Joel Simpson
Walter Crump is an explorer of decay—of the urban landscape and of what could stand for the mental landscape. The urban landscape is straightforward enough: Crump takes old-world cityscapes and overlays them with textures of cracking paint, of verdigris, of pock-marked cement. These are a bit reminiscent of those plastic texture screens from the chemical darkroom, used to impart an antique or textile virtual finish to a print. You laid it over the paper and printed through it. It rendered the image a little more abstract, but created the impression that the photograph was of an pen-and-ink drawing or a tapestry.
Overlays in Photoshop are quite popular. You can download rusty metal, various masonry surfaces, an unending assortment of grunge, which will give that portrait of a biker or adolescent vamp the perfect edginess. Crump bucks the commonplace, however, in his matching of texture to subject, and in his most successful images, the perfect melding of the two, so the city and the crumbling wall are one, a literal visual metaphor, as in Crumbling City #2 (2008). Here we look on a view probably of a Middle Eastern city such as Amman or Beirut, dominated by low-cost high-rise apartments in permanent need of repair. In the otherwise blank sky we very clearly see a wall whose decaying paint is falling off, whereas the texture is less explicit in the rest of the image. But that is all that is necessary to set the emotional valence of what we’re looking at. The wall overlay transforms an ordinary scene into something graphically fascinating to the eye, as the chaos of the wall decay melds with the geometric regularity of the apartment houses, and making their otherwise unremarkable diversity of design quite engaging.
In Mosque (2008) the technique is slightly different, but equally intriguing. Here Crump leaves the white sky blank, so that the overlay, the vertigris of oxydizing copper, covers only the architecture of the huge mosque. The view is from under an arch to the main body of the mosque with its symmetrical domes, so once again Crump is playing with the randomness of the decay patterns against the regularity of the constructions. The meld is nearly perfect. The uncanny green of the oxidized copper becomes a very clear symptom of decay of this venerable religious institution.
Crump’s more recent work takes us into the realm of unremarkable objects, a contemporary sub-category of photographic still-lifes, distinguished from the traditional still life by the fact that it is entirely the artist’s treatment of the image that renders it interesting. The object serves as little more than the bearer of visual qualities—geometry, texture, reflectivity—and only secondarily, if at all, in regards to its appeal, usefulness, history or attractiveness. So we’re not talking about fruits or flowers here, but rather the discarded, the out-dated, or the constructed. Other photographers working in this genre include Béatrice Helg, who photographs rectangular metal sheets surrounded by rusting metal walls; and Jean-Michel Fauquet, who constructs objects of cardboard designed to be enigmatic if not meaningless, then treats them with melancholic deadpan humor in dark monochromes.
Crump takes a different tack within this genre, one that derives logically from his urban decay overlays, but that achieves a heightened visual appeal in seeming direct proportion to the banality of the subjects. He has replaced his busy cityscapes and buildings with smooth stones, non-descript paper forms, and most provocatively, old chemical bottles with metal tubes extending from their screw-caps. The texture layers, however, have become the main attractions, as the objects serve to lend them overall form and to lead the viewer’s eye in the composition, so that they’re more than merely textures. In the most successful ones, Two Bottles I and Two Bottles II, the surface appears more immediately real than the bottles. It distorts their forms—in some places like rippling water, while in others it completely takes over the image, so that we’re looking more at a metal surface than at a bottle. In fact, the light reflecting off the bottle has heightened the apparent shine of the metal, so that its thousands of corroded notches and nicks become the the most engaging subject.
In both bodies of work, the most successful images are those where the most melding of surface and background subject is the most seamless.
What is the thematic appeal of Crump’s focus on decay and banality? These images, glorifying tactility, randomness and authenticity, offer relief from the totalizing commercial world that presents itself as technological, shiney-new, and polished, while at the same time acknowledge and aestheticize the reality of decay. But his best works are also visually sublime, going beyond the category of highbrow avatar of grunge These images transfix us as we oscillate between fascination with the chiaroscuro of the detailed chaotic surface and contemplation of the distorted object. These images reverse the thematic flow of conventional abstract art. Rather than inviting us to infer energy patterns and echoes of the figurative world from explicit abstraction, their elements are firmly rooted in the figurative world, but Crump’s ingeniously incongruous syntheses of concrete surfaces with concrete objects yields an intense beauty that is purely abstract, and this is no mean accomplishment.