Daniel Crews-Chubb’s paintings comprise enthralling convolutions of historic imagery, digital culture, and art historical modes of representation. Ancient iconography mingles with mid-century expressionism and contemporary smartphone self-portraiture in the British painter’s show titled “Chariots, Beasts and Belfies” at Roberts Projects. Like weathered walls bearing heavy layers of graffiti, grime and whitewash, these paintings manifest labyrinthine webs of fascinating and problematic societal carryovers from a spectrum of previous eras and cultures.
As his show’s title implies, Crews-Chubb’s depictions center on an elemental trio of beasts, women and chariots. Paintings’ titles indicate that Crews-Chubb has created some sort of personal mythology around recurring characters named Zumbi and Belfie.
For those uninitiated in social media slang, a “Belfie” is a self-portrait of one’s buttocks. Crews-Chubb’s Belfie usually embodies the frenetically scrawled form of a contorted nude woman with a mask-like face and exaggerated rump, breasts and genitalia.
Such anatomical overstatement aligns with a vast array of depictions of women throughout art history and popular culture; but Crews-Chubb’s specific manner of painting is clearly indebted to Expressionism, Neo-Expressionism, Art Brut and CoBra. De Kooning is the most obvious influence of Crews-Chubb’s Belfies; Dubuffet and Baselitz are unmistakable references.
By emulating these painters, Crews-Chubb assumes their questionable baggage. De Kooning compared his own “Women” series to the Venus of Willendorf, a Paleolithic sculpture believed to have functioned as a fertility fetish or a woman’s self-portrait. However, such scholars as Carol Duncan have pointed out that de Kooning’s glaringly monstrous females appear more as “girlie-Gorgons” incarnating womankind as “simultaneously frightening and ludicrous.”
Like de Kooning, Crews-Chubb combines ancient iconography with suggestive contemporary feminine imagery. Superficially, his depictions appear as derisive burlesques of the belfie phenomenon in a de Kooning’s vein. In fact, Crews-Chubb’s loaded, anachronistic imagery serves as a provocative hook belying more nuanced content.
Rather than merely pastiching previous styles, he situates them in an age-old historic context, with deliquescence quasi-parodistically emphasized through grungy tactility and blatantly obsolete motifs such as chariots. For their copious textural accretions, Crews-Chubb’s paintings with patched canvas scraps bulging from underneath, evoke the tactility of dilapidated walls from cave paintings to grimy lararium frescoes to inscribed modern masonry. Ambiguous flowing imagery is embedded among crustaceous paint and wadded fabric.
The two largest and most absorbing pictures are from his “Chariot” series, debuted in this show. In Beasts with Headdresses (all works 2018), woman and beast merge as a sphinx. Conversely, in Chariot (red orange green), a chariot symbolizes power and agency, with its female driver in control. A daring self-assertion underlies the belfie’s seductive overtone. Featured in two paintings, Zumbi appears to be named after a 17th century Afro-Brazilian rebel warrior revered as a symbol of resistance to oppression. By alternately imitating and undermining controversial conventions, Crews-Chubb reflects the perpetual interplay of ambivalent and contradictory attitudes in which cultures are rooted.
The past is never changeable; but current artistic interpretation always is. In a society stirring to feminism, Crews-Chubb’s paintings read as open-ended narratives about transmuting historical precedents. History can impair or empower, depending on how one engages it. This painter harnesses classical icons to striking effect.