From sketching within an underground New York nightclub, to the Occupy movement and her latest portraiture amended by her subjects, Molly Crabapple’s art has focused on power. By Omar Musa.

Molly Crabapple on ‘Drawing Blood’

Scenes from the Syrian War
Scenes from the Syrian War
Credit: Molly Crabapple

Artist Molly Crabapple describes her pen as a “lock pick” – an artistic skeleton key that allows her to transcend language barriers and her own awkwardness to access places and people she might otherwise never see, from debauched, high-end New York nightclubs to Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay. In her various lives, the self-described “monomaniac” has been a nude model, which she defines as “sex work”; a Suicide Girl; an artist whose work on the Occupy movement is hung in the permanent collection of MoMA; a Vice journalist; and, now, the writer of a painfully self-aware memoir called Drawing Blood.

Shortly after we met at a literature festival in India, we decided to go on a “drawing mission” together in Mumbai. Sitting on the seawall overlooking the water, I saw the lock pick at work. With watercolour pencils, skinny black pens, Prismacolor markers and white crayon, Crabapple settled into drawing with a neat balance of intensity and calm. Unperturbed by a growing, jostling crowd of schoolkids and passers-by, she built up a panorama on brown paper, with assured strokes of black ink and washes of colour. In the foreground, a brash girl who said that one day she too would be an artist; behind her, the two palm trees rising forlornly from the pavement. Behind them was a concrete arch – with Hindi lettering meticulously transcribed by sight – and then in the background the skyline of a massive, magical, messed-up city. It took her about an hour all up, and the living connection between her, the work and the crowd was striking and immediate. “They can see what you’re doing and how you’re doing it,” she says.

Working fast and amid chaos is something she is used to. In her 20s, after a few lucky breaks and a fair share of hustle, she became the “Toulouse-Lautrec” of a nightclub called The Box – “New York at its most fucked and glamorous” – sketching the bacchanalia of a place where you could buy gold-plated dildos in the bathroom. On stage, acrobats flipped over chainsaws and drag queens shot fireworks out of their arses. In the crowd, Beyoncés and Scarletts partied and Goldman Sachs bros snorted lines. Crabapple documented the insanity using fly-by sketches, then rendered them properly in the light of morning. This was New York before the shiny bubble burst; New York before the Occupy movement that would so inspire her.

Crabapple is a frenzy of dark-eyed talent and intelligent, nervous energy, and to be in her presence can be dizzying. She speaks passionately about artists and political leaders, in an articulate torrent, but when her point is made, she halts abruptly. She is particularly eloquent on the subject of “erasure”, and people standing defiant and human and dignified in the face of it, whether it be Chelsea Manning facing years in solitary confinement, or prisoners in Guantanamo Bay she has profiled, such as Nabil Hadjarab. Many of the people she profiled, she says, wrote poetry and autobiographical books. “You need to show someone you were there,” she says, “especially when people are trying to erase you by putting you in solitary. It’s this defiant thing – ‘I exist. I created.’ ”

When I video-call her, she is sweaty and streaked with paint from a 10-hour shift standing on a rickety scaffold, finishing a mural of cats on a building in Turkey for Save the Children. It is her 10th time in Turkey, a place she first visited when she finished high school in search of romantic adventure and abandon, but which has now taken on a more serious edge. “A few years ago I started doing murals at schools for Syrian refugee kids,” she says, “with a Syrian diaspora organisation called the Karam Foundation.” She is committed, trying to study bits and pieces of the Turkish language. “The good thing about Turkish,” she says, “is that I think 16 per cent of the vocabulary is Arabic, so you can get a headstart if you know it.”

She claims monomania but that’s an obsession with one particular thing. Crabapple seems to have manias that run concurrently, the constant being art-making, with the learning of Arabic running alongside it. While she says her spoken Arabic is “bullshit, stilted and ungrammatical”, she has taught herself to read it, because once she realised she wanted to do work in the Middle East, she thought it “totally unacceptable” to rely solely on a translator. She derives obvious pride and pleasure from reading “a book a month in Arabic” and from the worlds that have opened up to her, particularly through Arabic poetry. At first she took night classes but gave them up because they were too expensive. Then a friend gave her a book of essays by a famous Syrian poet, Nizar Qabbani. “I started looking at it and I could recognise four out of every five words. So I had to look up 20 words a page,” she says. She would make herself translate with a dictionary, very painfully and very slowly, a page a day, until she finally finished the book. “By the end, I learnt so much,” she says. “I learnt about mythology, I learnt about science. I learnt about anti-colonialist Algerian fighters. I learnt about other famous poets that aren’t translated. I felt like my whole fucking world had expanded from this one book.

“You know how any person who is speaking to an audience, they take it as a given that that audience will have a certain educational background? In America we take it as a given that people will know that George Washington was the first president. So Qabbani, speaking to educated audiences across the Arab world, what he takes for granted that they know is completely different, and I was constantly at Wikipedia looking at it and I felt like I got a bad-ass education from this.”

Slow, sweaty, painful process seems to be part of everything of which she is most proud. In Drawing Blood, Crabapple describes her first art project, Week in Hell, in 2010. Born of a discontent with the art world and the sense that she was being artistically complacent, the idea behind Week in Hell was to lock herself in a hotel room, cover it with paper, and draw until she broke. As she says in the book: “I wanted to do violence to my clichés.” She describes herself as being so present – to me, read: trance-like – in her work that when she comes to she is surprised by the paint on her lips, the scraped elbows, the bruises on her knees. Making your viewer uncomfortable in some way is only worth it if you yourself have been made uncomfortable, preferably in a worldly way. “The stuff that genuinely pushes and challenges you and fucks with things that you clung onto too much, or that takes you into places you were scared to go, is a much more authentic way of getting that discomfort.”

She contrasts this with an experience she once had being hired by a conceptual artist to sneak up to people in a gallery and whisper “This is the life” into their ears, which she deemed less like art and more like a social experiment in which the answers were already obvious – people were creeped out and felt that their space was invaded. “This is what happens when your art is only about making other people uncomfortable,” she says, laughing.

The creation of work for her first major art show Shell Game, a “love letter to 2011” – a year of revolution, financial fraud, dissident hackers and Occupy – was a feat of mental and physical endurance and blurred the lines between beauty and the grotesque. Each massive painting had an iconic woman centre stage as at a show at The Box. Sometimes the woman was noble, sometimes villainous, depending on whether she stood for protest or crisis, and there were hordes of symbolic animals at her feet: dogs were police, cats were rich people, various ethnicities were assigned different animals. She researched each topic – the Tunisian Revolution, the London student riots – as meticulously as a journalist, reading and interviewing people who were there, then painting boards with baroque opulence and attention to detail: politics through a burlesque lens. She describes working 14 hours a day, high on whisky and coffee, using “zinc white to catch the shine on each cat’s eyeball”. The result, she writes, resembles religious iconography, but to my eye it looks more like Bosch meets Disney. In a review, writer Lori Zimmer described the show as capturing a “perverted duality” between playfulness and the deadly serious, “a perfect mesh of high and low”.

While her obsessive, time-consuming work might seem lonely, Crabapple constantly alludes to friends, collaborators and allies: journalist Laurie Penny, porn star Stoya, and her beloved partner Fred Harper, also an artist. Her upcoming exhibition, at Postmasters Gallery in Tribeca, New York City, is a set of paintings about levelling the playing field for artist and muse. To create the paintings, Crabapple collected “significant, personal papers” from friends: one gave her an eviction notice, another a university dissertation he never completed. Another person gave her the Bible that had been gifted by a fundamentalist mother for confirmation. Then, on these papers, she drew hundreds of sketches of each friend over time, “some in cafes in Lebanon, some between flights in India”, and then pasted them on six-foot-by-four-foot boards. On each board, she painted one overriding portrait of the subject, mostly nudes. Finally, she had each subject paint responses to her work, on the works themselves. “I let my friend do whatever they want to it. They can annotate it in any way they want. If they wanted to, they could fucking destroy it,” she says. “It’s up to them.” She describes the rationale for the exhibition as a hatred of the “passive muse – a blank woman that an artist could project anything on. I wanted the muse to speak back directly.”

For Crabapple, the exhibition, called Annotated Muses, is partly a response to the loneliness of a transient life and writing a book, but also the formative experience of working as a nude model when she was 18, and the exploitation inherent in a one-way, masculine gaze. “It’s changing, but traditionally, women haven’t been given the space to look back in a desirous or a consuming way. In some ways, I envy those super-macho god-monsters of modernism, like Picasso or Diego Rivera, but historically women haven’t been able to occupy that role. I was riffing so much on Picasso.

“I looked to Picasso so much for colour palettes. I wanted them big – the machismo of working on this giant scale – but what I did that was mine was I made it the collaboration that was always implicit and covered. I made it explicit.”

Brimming with fury and friendship and eccentricity, Crabapple’s painting and writing is bloody, messy and determined: art as life and life as art. Since growing up in the suburbs of Long Island, she has opened up the world to herself in all its beautiful horror and fucked-up majesty, starting with a simple, cheap lock pick. She is in no doubt as to the power of art in expanding horizons but also negotiating difficult terrain. As she writes, “art alone cannot change the world”, but it is “hope against cynicism, creation against entropy”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 3, 2016 as "True blood".

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Omar Musa is a rapper and the author of Here Come the Dogs.

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