Q+Art: Lydia Crouse’s Demon-Filled Paintings Rewrite the Absurdity of Human Existence
Some see a grim, apocalyptic vision writhing within Lydia Crouse’s colorful hellscapes. Welcoming both pain and pleasure, the Brooklyn-based artist speculates on the nature of human existence by subverting our expectations at every turn: Her demon-filled paintings invite both orgiastic ecstasy and exquisite pain in an absurdist rescripting of the human story. Filtered through ideological systems, cultural mythologies, and spiritual mysticism, Crouse’s work expresses a primordial desire for simultaneously opposing forces: Good versus evil, hell versus heaven, pleasure versus pain.
Common sense tells us that people seek pleasure and avoid pain. But the link between the two, Crouse suggests, is deeply rooted in our biology if not our spirituality. “[My] concerns as a Millenial human exist as an undercurrent for the imagery [I] render,” she writes in her artist statement. “Figures intertwining in space where chaos and pleasure compete intimately on canvas. Here it’s possible for the animal, cyborg, and demon to climax in collective revelation.” With that, Crouse seems to suggest the black and white narrative we’ve constructed for ourselves is out of date and badly in need of retooling.
Though she uses lots of bright colors, Crouse isn’t afraid to muddy the proverbial waters of her work. Dark, mucky pools of color bleed into saturated ceruleans and menstrual-blood reds, while patches of canvas peek through the paint. The artist’s color strategy mirrors her overarching philosophy by unifying seemingly discordant forces. Here, the dark side of human nature is an essential part of our being, every bit as integral to our make-up as the light.
By painting fictional scenes that seek to rewrite our learned behaviors and thought patterns, Crouse “set(s) the stage for spectators to consider not only the absurdity of our human endeavor, but perhaps also the possibility of love on the eve of the apocalypse.”
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Lydia Crouse discusses the simple joys of drawing on newsprint with crayon, sharing knowledge, skill, and space with other artists, and stopping to smell the roses during her hectic NYC days.
Which cultural concepts, themes, or philosophies inform your work?
Lydia Crouse: Speculation, narrative, humor, and fiction inform my work. However, when attempting to render scenes of fiction, I try to challenge those existential, spiritual, and sociopolitical systems that have had and continue to have a direct impact on my own perspective within the world.
What are you trying to express with your art?
LC: Within my work I try to express my very human anxieties, skepticism, and nature. However, by utilizing my own diaristic language to provoke narratives that express these topics, I also aim to convey a voice of affection, hope, and humor. I work to attempt to express a counternarrative in an approachable way—a playful rendering of the alternative that challenges our learned behaviors and perspectives.
What do you wish you learned in art school but weren’t taught?
LC: I wish I had learned how to make my own mediums, especially oil paints from pigment!
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?
LC: Some fun advice I received when I first started recognizing my desire to pursue a career in the arts was to practice drawing the figure with Crayola crayons on newsprint. There was something about drawing classical subject matter with inexpensive childhood tools that was so humbling at the beginning of my path as a visual artist. Navigating the highs and lows in the art world can be tricky to see, especially when the language I use to express myself is through large scale oil paintings on canvas—a medium traditionally valued by the ‘high art world.” But crayon on newsprint continues to be my favorite combination of mediums, and has the capability to express so much using less.
Then the worst advice? Hmm . . . I was once told that it’s unhealthy to fantasize. And I should practice resisting fantasy because it’s a habit that leads to disappointment. This was the worst advice I’ve ever received. I heard the logic, but naturally, I would rather fantasize. It is a privilege to navigate the universe in a way that I am continuously reading, scripting, and dreaming.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
LC: Sometimes life wins! But maintaining it is something I am still learning. I have to set boundaries and allow for flexibility each month between jobs, the personal intertwining with the professional, and making work in the studio.
What does generosity mean to you as an artist?
LC: Generosity as an artist to me means creating works that aim to be accessible to any viewer, sharing knowledge and skills, collaborating, and sharing space with other voices.
What does success mean to you as an artist?
LC: Success to me is being able to sustain my big painting practice while also having as many people see my work as possible!
What role does the artist have in society?
LC: I think the artist’s biggest role is to build a bridge. About two years ago I saw this journal entry at the MET by one of my favorite oldies, Eugene Delacroix, that kind of expresses this role: “When I have done a fine painting. I have not expressed any thoughts. That’s what they say. How simple minded they are! . . . a writer says almost everything in order to be understood; painting builds a kind of mysterious bridge between the soul of the characters and that of the spectator.” So, to me, the artist’s job is to build that bridge—from the artwork to the viewer. It’s a job that has the ability to render topics that may seem difficult, uncanny, or conflicting to read, easier to read.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
LC: When I first moved to New York, I was a cashier at a small grocery store in the city. It wasn't the world’s worst job, but even dressed in a bow tie and apron, I was the world's worst cashier.
If you had to pick one, would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist? Why?
LC: Neither are important to my practice as an artist, except for the fact that paint is expensive! However, historical significance outweighs money for me. I’d rather be known for contributing to change and movement through time than the monetary value of my work.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
LC: I’m working on a large oil painting! It’s a coming of age drama titled, “had i overlooked their nature? 8 creams six sugars, oh god. all my advice was bad.” I am also preparing to exhibit this painting in a very late graduate thesis exhibition. As with other classes of 2020-21, many of our exhibitions were put on hold. So please come check out the exhibition if you are in NYC, it will run from October 5-18 at the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery!
How does your geographical location affect your work and/or success?
LC: My location always affects my work, both on the extraordinary level and infra-ordinary level. I am based in New York City, and I try to really see the many environments I encounter on a daily basis, but some days are busier than others. Time is valuable in NYC, and living here is expensive. But I always challenge myself to slow down, look, listen, and push back against the “hustle” when possible. Stopping and smelling the roses definitely counts as a form of protest.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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