Over a year ago, Vanity Fair published a report from the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa. Its Syrian correspondent, in fear for his life, remained anonymous. He sent photos of his city via cellphone.
From these, the New York City native who goes by Molly Crabapple sketched intricate drawings, in her typical style of gracefully delineated shapes and wavering people. Out of digital images, Crabapple evoked illustrations hearkening back to a Victorian era when artists filled the news with detailed, lively depictions. Yet, Crabapple also infuses her increasingly activist art with innovation.
In Drawing Blood, she narrates, in “sentences at taut as garrotes”, her first three decades. For an artist who is not yet 30, a memoir may appear presumptuous. However, she infuses much of her coming-of-age story with fresh insights into the century, so far, from the perspective of a scrappy woman who confronts disorienting scenarios with mixed detachment and sensitivity. “It’s a strange blend of disassociation, to stare into another’s eyes only to make those eyes into shapes on paper.”
From an early age, she sketched to escape and to enlighten herself. Born to a Puerto Rican Marxist professor and a Jewish illustrator for children’s books and products, she inherited her father’s combativeness and her mother’s talent. The child of their early divorce, Crabapple found solace in a few friends.
Of one, a Russian immigrant teenager, she recalls their brief bond. “We clung to each other, as bookish young people often do, while waiting out the years until our real life could begin.” Schooled more by her self-taught reading in anarchism and the fin-de-siècle and her listening to Kurt Cobain, punk, and Trent Reznor, she soon fled abroad. She followed the route of many bohemian wanderers.
At the end of the 20th century, she faced many restless travelers like herself, seeking meaning in a globalizing realm. In Marrakesh, “the henna looked like Cheetos dust on white girls, but on brown ones it resembled rose petals.” Her own appearance, in what she defines as a tiny figure resembling Wednesday Addams, attracted men. Fending them off on the road drove her inward, to examine her fluid sexual and cultural identities. Restive with art school, she sought to make her craft matter.
Post-9/11, she got caught up in anti-war protests. “A painting didn’t have to hang in a gallery, dead as a pinned butterfly. It could exist in spaces where people cared, as a mural, a stage set, a protest placard.” This sparked her transformation into a noted chronicler of first the visual and later the verbal impacts of our unjust world. She disciplined herself to render these scenes by a crow’s quill pen, flicking it “till the ink sped like motion and blood”. Drawing Blood features her work; women as coiffured as those at the court of Versailles, wide eyes like half-moons, louche men slouch slyly.
Tired of conventional training, she drops out of art school. She enters the sex-worker industry, as a artist’s model and a burlesque performer. She endeavors, as her stint with Suicide Girls goads her, “to burn off her childhood”, although that dubious enterprise “dispensed pallets of ego-crack. We were Pavlov’s bitches.” Molly Crabapple adopts her persona. With it, she pursues Internet promotion and procures a precarious living as a minor celebrity in the NYC demi-monde. Her lover, Fred, supports her. She indulges in freedom to roam among the company of many other women, as varied partners.
All the same, the middle section of her saga begins to sags. Her fame exudes a telling tinge of disappointment. Her loft and income are not enough. After the 2008 crash, the commissions she craves fade. She contemplates the fate of those like herself who cheered the excess on in Manhattan: “we sparklers illuminating the face of the destroyer”. Chastened but not cured, she keeps feeding that beast, as her profits rebound and her reputation becomes internationally coveted. Witnessing London’s anti-austerity activists at the end of 2010, she finally vows to pivot away from her status.
Therefore, “instead of taking refuge in a curlicued past”, she puts her rococo pen to use. Frustrated by “painting pigs in Nero’s nightclub”, Crabapple leaves her insular, smug denizens in clubland behind. The radical upheaval of what she enters as the Occupy Movement intrigues her, but typically, she resists easy enchantment. Her characteristic caution, honed during her travels alone in far places, keeps her grounded. She watches how for some, a night in jail or spent in Zuccotti Park leads to book deals. Having scored her own soon after, she resolves that she will listen to those who truly suffer.
At Guantanamo Bay, she undergoes a revelation as she records the fate of a prisoner. She alternates her creation of nine immense canvases satirizing or commemorating the battle over Capital, “Shell Game”, with reporting for Vice, The Paris Review, and The Guardian. She squirms over her come-hither portrayal in a New York Times profile, and she cross-examines her own complicity in how she markets herself, determined to survive on her own terms in a cruel, competitive art world.
I found the earlier and later chapters of her account the most rewarding. A comfortable career tames her too much. When Molly Crabapple stares down danger and corruption, whether left to her own savvy in a remote setting, or as she investigates the long reach of terror and greed, she succeeds. As she sums up, she is driven “to do violence to her own clichés”. She learns “to find joy where once I could only see ash”. Drawing Blood illuminates the flames and the fire which warms her now.
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