California artist James Crandall captures the human form in the midst of everyday distraction
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
This story was featured in the January 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art January 2013 print edition, or download the Southwest Art January 2013 issue now…Or just subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss an issue!
The ancient Tuscan town of Lucca sits on the River Serchio in a fertile plain about 200 miles northwest of Rome. The walled city is the birthplace of the composer Giacomo Puccini, and it’s the town where, in 56 B.C., Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus reaffirmed their political alliance known as the First Triumvirate. It also serves as a major source of inspiration for California-based painter James Crandall. For more than a decade, Crandall has journeyed to Lucca regularly to reconnect with his Italian relatives and paint along the city’s narrow stone streets that brim with bicycles, bakeries, and butcher shops.
Although Crandall first visited Lucca with his parents when he was 6 years old, it was not until 2001 that he traveled there as an adult with his wife, artist Nancy Phillips. Crandall says that the ongoing love affair with the town of his ancestors began with a chance encounter. Once he visited, he was hooked, both as a family member and as an artist. It’s the nooks and crannies where tourists seldom venture that capture his imagination in the town where his maternal grandfather was born. He sets up an easel, sketches, or snaps photographs during his six-week forays, and by the time he heads home, he carries with him a treasure trove of reference material.
Crandall’s slice-of-life paintings depicting Lucca have proved popular in the United States. “People are particularly interested in the small scenes of everyday life, whether they are images of patrons at a salumeria (butcher shop), vendors in street markets, or altar boys at the Festa, an annual religious festival,” the artist says.
Gallery owner Lee Youngman—who represents Crandall—confirms that collectors from across the country who stop at her gallery in the California wine country are drawn to Crandall’s portraits of intimate and ordinary moments, such as a chef preparing a meal for his patrons in a steamy kitchen. “I think it’s the way James paints—the way he handles the actual paint,” Youngman says. “His scenes are loose and impressionistic. He almost paints in little blocks of color, which is so intriguing because when you step back from his work, everything comes together. And it’s the lighting that also makes them so beautiful.”
Crandall has been represented at Lee Youngman Galleries in Calistoga, CA, since 2011, when one of his paintings was selected for the Oil Painters of America Western Regional Exhibition held at the gallery. Youngman likes to refer to Crandall and his works as “a well-kept secret.” But that certainly won’t be the case for long. His atmospheric street and interior scenes are increasingly juried into an impressive array of national shows. During the past three years he has been included in both the Oil Painters of America National Juried Exhibition and the Salon International at Greenhouse Gallery in San Antonio, TX. In 2012 his works were also on view at the Scottsdale Salon of Fine Art at Legacy Gallery in Arizona and at the American Art Invitational at Saks Galleries in Denver, CO.
Born in Los Angeles in 1957, Crandall grew up in the city’s outlying suburbs and was lucky enough to come of age at a time when the Woodland Hills and Calabasas areas still featured picturesque ranches and lush orange groves. The son of a university art professor, Crandall says art was considered a serious and important pursuit in his household—one that required dedication and discipline. By the time he was 6 years old, he had already visited the major museums in Europe—the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Spain, and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. During his father’s sabbaticals from teaching, the family accompanied him on extended trips abroad. For a year when he was 16, Crandall and his mother and father crisscrossed Europe in a Volkswagen bus, camping along the way.
As an only child, Crandall recalls that he frequently entertained himself by sketching and drawing in notebooks—the beginning of a lifelong habit. Although art was never pressed upon him as a career, he is grateful to his father for support and encouragement. “My grandfather—my father’s father—didn’t trust that art was a way of making a living, so therefore my father made sure I understood it was an option,” he says.
Following high school, Crandall was accepted into the fine-arts program at the University of California, Los Angeles, but left after 18 months. The department, like many university art departments in the ’70s, focused on the abstract expressionism that was then in vogue, which was not necessarily the direction Crandall wanted to take with his career. Instead he enrolled at the Art Center College of Design in nearby Pasadena, where he studied with John Asaro, Harry Carmean, and Craig Nelson. Nelson eventually became Crandall’s mentor and entrée into the world of illustration.
For 25 years Crandall made a living creating storyboards and illustrations, mainly for the automotive industry. But in his free time he concentrated on his own work, which included painting and print-making. In 1992 he landed his first gallery representation with Tirage Fine Art in Pasadena and then began showing his work to the public on a regular basis.
A turning point in his career came in 2005, when he and his wife decided to leave Southern California and focus in earnest on their fine-art careers. They sought a rural environment where they would spend less time and money dealing with the stresses of big-city life and more time concentrating on what was important to them. Today they make their home in Cool, CA, a small town in gold-rush country about 40 miles northeast of Sacramento in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Legend has it that the town was named after its founder, Aaron Cool, an itinerant preacher. Gold was discovered nearby, and the town became a crossroads in Northern California’s mining district.
Crandall says the quality of life in the tiny town appeals to him because it is reminiscent of his childhood home. In the quiet of his studio, he focuses his undivided attention on creating paintings that capture scenes of both Italy and California. For subject matter nearby, he is fond of the California State Fair, farmers’ markets, and any public event where he can observe people. In both California and Italy he searches for the same key artistic elements—an interesting juxtaposition of shapes and light that illuminates people, places, and things in intriguing ways. And like the painters who influence him, such as the Italian realists Domenico Morelli and Telemaco Signorini, Crandall is interested solely in subject matter that reflects his times.
Crandall prefers to retain the sense of being a stranger in a foreign land, an observer both here and abroad. This point of view serves his artistic goals well, Crandall says. The reason: His art is about capturing people in unguarded moments when they may be distracted by anything from food to carnival rides. “People strike very natural poses when they are distracted, and the things they are distracted by are visually interesting,” Crandall says.
After spending years as an illustrator employing sharp edges and straight lines, Crandall says it’s a pleasure to turn his eye away from highly detailed renderings. He now seeks out compelling abstract compositions and emphasizes a more general sense of place and atmosphere—saying more with less. “I love making a painting that looks ‘real’ from 20 feet away—that has that kind of click that a human brain gets from a photograph,” he says. “But then at three feet away the painting is just a bunch of colored shapes made by a brush. It’s a kick for me when a viewer is fooled into thinking one of my pictures has a lot of detail, because they rarely do.”
Crandall’s paintings are not about conveying a particular message to the viewer, he says. His artistic mission is merely to call attention to the small, brief moments in life that normally pass unnoticed. “I try to leave some ambiguity, so that viewers will have room to bring some of their own meaning to the picture,” he explains. “I hope to evoke a sense of the common human experience.”
Lee Youngman Galleries, Calistoga, CA; Tirage Fine Art, Pasadena, CA; Jones & Terwilliger Galleries, Carmel and Palm Desert, CA; Jack Meier Gallery, Houston, TX; Galerie Kornye West, Fort Worth, TX; Elliott Fouts Gallery, Sacramento, CA; www.jamescrandall.com.
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