Dirty Work


Dying is an art, like everything else.

— Sylvia Plath, poet

Face it: You’re going to die. No matter how much money you have or don’t have, how healthy your body or how sick, Death squats on the horizon, filing his teeth, waiting for the moment you stumble into his gaping maw. No amount of pleas, negotiations or threats will change the outcome. That said, let’s talk about your journey. You can sit on your ass waiting for destiny to grab you from behind, walk the straight-and-narrow wearing blinders like a horse spooked by its own shadow, or wander off-trail, take a look at the world at large and form a general idea of your place in the scheme of things before the scheme swallows you whole. A good way to do that is to see the dirt sculptures of New York artist James Croak.

Although the Byron C. Cohen Gallery has nine of Croak’s artworks on site, including an extraordinary dirt drawing, it is the four life-sized sculptures on display that are most compelling and most relevant to the way we live — and die — now. “Wing,” “Dirt Baby,” “Dirt Man With Carp” and “Disintegrating Man” form a lyrical narrative made all the more poignant by Croak’s choice of medium. After all, we are more dirt than bronze, more dust than marble. The fragility of our bodies, our emotions and our lives is given authenticity when we’re confronted by metaphors for the cosmic detritus from which we arose and to which we’ll one day return.

Installed in a circle that puts the viewer in the center, these works represent the four stages of existence — birth, life, death, afterlife — in a Sisyphean cycle.

“It was Sisyphus I had in mind when I decided to work in dirt,” says Croak. (Sisyphus was eternally doomed to roll a heavy stone to the top of a hill, only to have it roll back down.) “[Sculpting dirt] takes all of the effort — the clays, the molds, the castings, tons of tools — as if working in a more traditional material, but instead I am working in dirt.” Thus, in the process of creating artwork that reflects the human condition, even the artist lives that condition.

Croak studied theology and philosophy while earning a fine arts degree in sculpture. He reminds us that Sisyphus’ “moment of consciousness was when he started back down the mountain for the rock. This is what life is about. Life is pointless, but when we realize that, we are full of meaning.” For Croak, meaning is best translated through figurative art (as opposed to abstract art, which he refers to as “shower curtains with better colors”), and metaphor dances between the ephemeral and ethereal.

First, there’s birth. “Dirt Baby” is cast in a fine dirt (with a resin binder) lacking the impurities that would otherwise make impossible such minute anatomical details as toenails. Hung on the gallery wall at eye level, this sculpture holds a position both egalitarian and horrifying. (Think of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,/When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall.) No, this is not a happy baby. He’s naked, penis and testicles exposed. His umbilical cord is still attached and long, as if he has been torn from his mother’s womb. His knees are drawn up, his arms raised, his mouth open in an anguished scream. And his eyes, even bereft of reflected light, appear far too knowing: They glare an indictment at the chilly cityscape beyond the gallery windows, as if this babe’s been here before and wholly resents being back.

Then there’s life. “Dirt Man With Carp” resembles a weary Ward Cleaver, a workhorse already succumbing — and mutely resigned — to the world’s heavy demands. Although the man’s face is modeled after Croak’s own, his clothes are anonymous: an urban uniform of hat, topcoat, necktie and trousers. Here the dirt is clotted with small pebbles and other debris, implying the transformation from a baby’s smooth, moist skin to the desiccation and wrinkles of age. The surface seems to drip, likewise succumbing to gravity’s inexorable pull. Indeed, the man now requires a wooden cane to support him in his journey. In his other hand he carries a large transparent carp, an enigmatic emblem of what Croak refers to as “the general strangeness of the world that ridicules any attempt to apprehend it with a philosophy.” Whether a viewer imbues the fish with references to Jesus or nature, sustenance or burden, it is hard to miss the poetic contrast of water to earth, transparency to opacity — how the things we carry through the world, both material and spiritual, often are the opposite of who we are. Only when we give them up, or have them taken away, are we freed to rest.

Thus, death. “Disintegrating Man” is, as the title indicates, a man in decay. He still bears Croak’s facial features, is still clothed in the corporate drone’s uniform, but now he sits on the ground, leaning against a wall. No longer the sojourner, he is barefoot. Disintegration begins where most weight was borne: His left leg below the knee is gone, crumbled to a pile of dirt on the floor. Regardless of whether we’ve witnessed real decay, we understand its finality. Over time, all life turns to dust, eventually blown or swept away by wind or rain or consumed by the earth itself.

And then what? Afterlife? Or the prelife of incarnation? Perhaps. “Wing” has a nearly 2-foot span and is so intricately detailed that it’s hard to believe Croak did not cast it from life. Composed of unblemished dirt and hung next to “Dirt Baby,” “Wing” serves as the link in the cycle, a symbol of the individual’s ascent after death. Or is it descent before rebirth — a disembodied wing the primordial artifact of the spirit’s fall? A wing of dirt is simultaneously too heavy and too fragile to carry us far, a reminder that whatever is born aloft eventually must return to earth.

And so the journey begins again.

Many layers exist in Croak’s dirt works. He continues to use traditional sculpting methods of modeling from clay and building support armatures for the casting process, but it is his choice of material (he also has used tar, latex rubber and taxidermy) that shifts expectations of art — and life — making possible a host of interpretations. Dirt alone conjures references to filth, earth, fertility, crudeness. “As an artist,” says Croak, “I can delineate the arena of thought, the area of the metaphor, but then it must be finished by the viewer.” Yet he adds, “A good metaphor can be grasped by nearly everyone, and a properly designed metaphor will.”

Sifting through strata of meaning provoked by Croak’s dirt sculptures is ultimately the task of the individual, but it is a pleasant task. Besides providing a quiet moment away from the mental noise and grind of the workplace, wandering off-trail and into the heart of Croak’s work allows meditation upon the nature of the personal journey and helps sort out what is meaningful and what is waste — before we too are reduced to dust.

Categories: A&E, Art