I first heard of Molly Crabapple during the Occupy Wall Street protests. A co-worker of mine who knew her mentioned that there was a very talented artist doing incredible paintings and drawings about the Occupy movement and the financial crisis, and that I should look her up.
I meant to, but somehow it never happened. Soon thereafter – I may have the chronology mixed up, but this is how it is in my mind's eye – I saw that this Molly person had done a series of posters for Occupy that were based thematically on some of my articles. Both had "vampire squid" themes, and both were extremely cool. I first saw the black-and-white "Fight the Vampire Squid" poster, which features a menacing giant-headed squid with angered eyebrows and a top hat, at an Occupy Protest (where I unsuccessfully tried to wrest it away from someone at Zucotti Park). Then, later, I saw that Molly had done a more detailed poster called "Starve the Vampire Squid," a painstakingly rendered allegorical drawing that encouraged people to remove the life-giving "water" of money and deposits from the corrupt banking system and place them in a credit union.
I thought those were great until I finally made the effort to look Molly up online and saw that she has a prolific collection of paintings and drawings based on a variety of subjects that blew her set of Taibbi-themed posters away. Molly creates brilliantly colorful, sweepingly detailed paintings, many of them extremely large in scale – one of her early projects was making 90 feet of murals for the London nightclub "The Box." There's a trippy quality to almost all of her paintings, and because of that, her sometimes-violent scenes, and the moralistic warnings in the imagery (the evil, debt-issuing, top-hat-wearing banker-cats in her paintings will eventually be swallowed up by the revolution), she often gets Hieronymus Bosch comparisons.
But if you showed most Bosch paintings to a small child, he or she would run away crying. They're scary, and they're supposed to be. Molly's paintings, from a distance, are gorgeous and cheerful to look at; you often don't realize they're disturbing until you look closely. A child would look at one of her 6'x4' paintings and spend all day staring at what looks like a fun story about balloon-wielding cats and police-force dogs and masked rabbits and little birds working on laptops, in Arabic no less. You'd have to be a grownup to realize the subjects of her giant, impassioned panoramas are dissident bloggers in Tunisia and the rise of rightist movements in Greece and the Occupy protests. To a kid, they'd just look like God's very own circus posters, or a bunch of gorgeous, incomprehensible hieroglyphs whose only purpose was to be looked at.
I bring all of this up because Molly has a show coming up in New York called "Shell Game: A Love Letter to 2011." This is from her press release:
The exhibition will be on view from April 14 – April 23, 2013, at Smart Clothes Gallery, located at 154 Stanton Street, between Houston and Suffolk, New York, 10002.
Molly will also be hosting a public reception at the gallery this Sunday night, from 7-10 p.m.
The paintings in Shell game are about a lot of things, but the unifying theme involves the protest movements that swept the globe in 2011. Although the paintings are (literally) full of fire and violence and rage, the general tenor is hopeful – you're supposed to feel the liberating possibilities of what can and should be if people get together. She was obviously infected by the spirits of protests in all of these places, and allowed that feeling to carry into these weird, beautiful, carefully-researched pieces.
Shell Game is comprised of nine, 6′x4′ paintings and one 3'x3' painting about the revolutions and crises of 2011 (six of which have already been sold to collectors), including the mortgage bubble, the Greek anti-austerity protests, and Occupy Wall Street, filtered through the artist's distinct lens of surrealism, satire, symbolic animals and, for eight of nine paintings, informed by her travels to the settings, including Spain, Greece, and the United Kingdom, during which she interviewed activists and participated in demonstrations.
I should probably say that my favorite painting in the series is Great American Bubble Machine, which I think is based on a piece I wrote about Goldman Sachs, complete with squid-and-bubble imagery (and endless little cats inflating the economy with fireplace bellows). But if I'm being honest, I think I like Business of Illness (about the health care industry) and Syntagma Athena just as much (if not more). There's something beautifully demented about the blood-magenta hair of the evil health-care gorgon-queen in Business of Illness, who's floating above a ribbon of diabolical paper, overturning a cornucopia of expensive pills with one hand while shaking a bat-winged Rod of Asclepius with the other, while fat cats below grind a meek procession of mouse patients into a cauldron of gold coins. . . You could follow the strange images endlessly, and all of these paintings are like this – equally interesting when viewed from a great distance and through a microscope.
Anyway, I strongly urge you to check out the show if you're in New York. Molly and I may be working together in the future, so I have an obvious interest in her career. But even if I didn't, I'd be recommending Shell Game. The Occupy movement may be fading in the minds of some, but this show is a reminder that what happened in 2011 awakened people all around the globe to the possibilities of a different way of life. There was something beautiful about it, just for a moment, and these paintings capture that.