William Glen Crooks | Troubling Beauty

Western Sky [2000], oil, 48 x 60., painting, southwest art.
Western Sky [2000], oil, 48 x 60.

By Thomas Larson

Many people see William Glen Crooks’ crystalline landscapes of Southern California and neighborhood portraits of San Diego as nostalgic. The artist himself, however, disagrees. He sees his spare paintings, which feature the region’s glaring and diffused light, not as nostalgic but tragic. Crooks tries to paint what is essential for him about human life: the lingering of “loss and regret.” Whether collectors are aware of these emotions or not, they seem to be as touched by them as the artist is. His spring show at SOMA Gallery in La Jolla, CA, featured some 25 paintings and nearly sold out.

Over lunch at a Thai restaurant in La Jolla, the 48-year-old San Diego native talks about the narrative underpinning of his work. “In representational art there’s a narrative that runs under everything,” he says. “The stories of loss and regret are much more interesting for the defeated than for the victorious.” This vanquished quality, real or potential, is present in his paintings of ominousrailroad crossings, nearly abandoned farms, and inner-city buildings one step ahead of the wrecking ball. His lean paintings both reveal and suggest loss.

Porch [1999], oil, 60 x 48., painting, southwest art.
Porch [1999], oil, 60 x 48.

Take Western Sky, for example. Ominously dominant, the sky seems to squelch or flatten the meager scene beneath it a ’56 Chevy, a nondescript white car, a small tin-roofed adobe, a dusty yard without people. The cars seem like tools of escape or omens of some cruel fate. That apocalyptic cloudy mist, with its orange glow and ethereal formation, seriously troubles the blue-black sky.

Crooks says Western Sky is open to interpretation. “I didn’t make up that image so I can’t say really what it’s supposed to be,” he says. It’s a scene he saw on the Viejas Indian Reservation in San Diego County “before the big [casino] money came in. You can’t tell if that cloud is good or bad. There may be an unspoken threat or an unspoken good in it. But I’m not sure.”

In addition to the “nostalgic” label, Crooks says he’s occasionally nagged by some viewers who wonder why he doesn’t in-clude people in his paintings. Though he has drawn and painted figures in the past, these days he is emphasizing city and small-town scenes or landscapes, in which “you can’t paint figures this small,” he says, pinching a small space between two fingers. “It looks really stupid. So I’ve replaced people with cars and trucks. For me the little white car on the left of the house [in Western Sky] has the loss of male virility about it. On the other hand, the ’56 Chevy will never lose its virility. So for me those are human characteristics, represented by the cars.

Los Tres Amigos [2000], oil, 36 x 60., painting, southwest art.
Los Tres Amigos [2000], oil, 36 x 60.

“I want [the painting] to be about the reality of the thing I saw,” Crooks says. “I don’t want it to be about me. I want me out of it. The more I take me out of it, the more me shows up.” According to Crooks, when we view ourselves, we see who we think we should be. Thus, he says, the less we worry about the way we should be—based on societal expectations—the more likely it is that our true self will come out. “It’s your version of reality, the thing way back down there that runs your bones and your art, not that thin civilized layer.”

At the age of 4 Crooks began to draw, and by 13 he had progressed to comics. Then, after disastrous unhappiness in high school where he had no instruction in art, he says he was saved by two teachers—one of whom, a psychology instructor, let him paint in class. He went to college for just two years, studying with respected San Diego State University teacher William Bowne. Crooks says he had the misfortune to grow up in the age of modernism and the post-1960s radical art movements. “Every-where I went to ask for help on representational painting I was given modernism,” he says, “and I felt humiliated for it. So I made an assignment for myself. I bought notepads filled with a hundred pages of newsprint, and I made myself fill one up with gestural drawings every day. I’d get on the bus and just draw. I did thousands and thousands of drawings because I was trying to teach myself.”

William Glen Crooks. photo, southwest art.
William Glen Crooks.

Then one day Crooks “blundered,” as he puts it, into landscape painting. The experience changed him. “I had this thing lodged in my head that the figure was harder than the landscape,” he says. “But now I think they’re both pretty hard. Painting a landscape without a figure means it has to have another kind of rhythm to it, a whole structure, and there’s a meaning to it that is more divine—or sacred. Landscape has a biblical quality, but the human being has this undercurrent of tragedy, no matter what you do. You can have an undercurrent of tragedy in a landscape, too, but it’s a different kind. It’s a big, natural, sweeping thing; it has a whole sense of immortality about it.”

Edward Hopper’s influence on Crooks is clear in Date Night, which features a clapboard house in one of San Diego’s Mexican neighborhoods. The blinds of the upstairs windows are closed; downstairs a taco shop called Rita’s bustles. Soft light glows from hanging bulbs within the restaurant. There’s a frank contrast between vacancy and activity, a haunting paradox nicely layered.

Bridge on Buckman Springs Road [2000], oil, 60 x 72., painting, southwest art.
Bridge on Buckman Springs Road [2000], oil, 60 x 72.

House By Railroad, which Crooks intends as an homage to Hopper’s 1925 painting of the same name, also brings quietude and activity together. The painting has a cross-traffic theme, organized from a busier right to a darker left. Train tracks are not visible; instead, their presence is suggested by the large crossing sign, the red signal lights and upright bars, a guardrail to protect the structure, a stop sign, and a slightly turned parked car. The house, its front yard cluttered with toys, is hidden by the rust-colored leaves of two maples. The scene is both active and passive—or, better put, the scene’s activity arises from the stationary state of the railroad bars whose sign and metal plates have picked up the late afternoon glare, that pre-sunset hour when the light declares a loud end to the day. This is a neighborhood in repose, yet danger is present—especially for the most unwitting, the children.

Some of Crooks’ finest pieces are still lifes of porches, chairs, eaves, and alcoves. Indicative are the three aluminum lawn chairs sitting in a row on a sunlit driveway in Los Tres Amigos. Much in this painting is conspicuously suburban—the rectangular 1950s designs on the garage door, the sleek lines of the van that seems to take over the driveway, the fuzzy texture of the plastic fabric, its over-under weave and its tawdry newness in primary and secondary colors. And yet how alive those chairs are—left there, we wonder, to what end.

Porch has an orange tonal warmth that embodies Southern California’s coastal light, minus the dry, obsessive heat of the desert. The painting includes an open window with a drawn, pleated curtain; two wooden shutters with diamond cutout designs (the only decorative touch in the image); and the alcove of the house. Those diamond patterns work like eyes that may “see,” which the window, with its curtain, does not. Above the alcove is Crooks’ “loss”—the unremoved strand of Christmas lights.

The painting is rich in shadows and light—shadows from the eave, from the tree branches on the gutter, from what may be an off-scene lamppost, and from the chair itself, caught on the corner of the alcove and on the side of the house. A brilliant touch, the glare settles on one of the shutters and glances fiercely off the edge of the chair.

The effects of light have been a commanding presence in much of Crooks’ work over the last several years. “The trouble for me,” he says, “is that every single second is a different set of light circumstances. All of that plein-air light coming in changes just like that,” he says, snapping his fingers, “like a motion picture. You get one frame per instant and then you’re on to the next thing, and in a very short time it’ll change enormously. The basic property of light is that it’s always moving less so on cloudy days, but on sunny days that’s a strong characteristic. That’s a San Diego thing, the lack of cloudy days. We have this incredibly voluptuous set of modulations of light a constant arabesque.”

Crooks believes glare “is what light really is. It’s like a cool or benevolent destiny, waiting around a corner. I don’t know why it reminds me of that. There’s something in that glare that seems threatening.” A few painters have told him to get rid of it, to which Crooks replies, “No, it’s the bad guy.” Indeed, glare is light intensified toward the uncomfortable. From its troubling beauty Crooks does not shy away.

Photos courtesy the artist and SOMA Gallery, La Jolla, CA; David Klein Gallery, Birmingham, MI; Mendenhall Gallery, Pasadena, CA; and Munson Gallery, Santa Fe, NM.

Featured in July 2000