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Commentary: Of art, photos and all that jazz

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 5, 2012 - Every morning as I open the front door of my apartment I look southward. Looming in the middle distance and, by the way, bringing me enormous visual pleasure, is a huge grain elevator, one of those rhythmically shapely Rubensesque tours-de-force in concrete construction, so magnificent that someone or another once called them Cathedrals of the Prairie.

This facility, at the corner of Sarah Street and Duncan Avenue, certainly merits the metaphorical ecclesiastical distinction. Buildings such as this one, and other identifiably American utilitarian structures, find themselves described with a distinctly American poetic language, one bursting with native pride, a pride in our ingenuity and resourcefulness and our national industrial strengths.

The grain elevator was invented by Joseph Dart and Robert Dunbar in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1842, and it revolutionized the handling of grain and its storage. Art and prairie aesthetics were probably about the last things on the practical minds of Dart and Dunbar, but in any event, their revolutionary invention operated magnificently on the planes of commerce and ingenuity and as objects of supremely beautiful, if accidental, art.

As Walt Whitman said of the Eads Bridge, I can never get enough of my midtown urban grain elevator. It delights me in all seasons, at all times of the day and the night. Because of all this, it was with great pleasure I heard the Sheldon Art Galleries were to present an exhibition of the work of the Canadian-American painter Ralston Crawford. I've been a fan of his work for a long, long time.

Crawford and artists such as Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, Edward Hopper, Gerald Murphy, Georgia O'Keeffe and Stuart Davis were crammed together in an uncomfortable pigeon hole called "Precisionism." There are stylistic similarities, but because all the artists, as artists tend to be, were determined individualists, there is no strict regulation to this work.

All of them shared, however, not only an appreciation of American industry but also a desire to represent, either literally or in abstraction, the fascinating muscularity and complexity of American industrial design. Crawford's painting sits comfortably on the abstractionist side of this aesthetic aisle, marked by assiduous attention to detail and, yes, to precise execution.

Although Crawford is well represented by works on paper and paintings in this exhibition, the title of the show directs one's attention from precise and manageable images of architecture and equipment and the play of light and shadow upon buildings and streets and elevated train trestles to the entirely less predictable and quite more wayward ways of that big idea we call Jazz.

Crawford's painting and works on paper are essentially analytical, and it's no surprise that comparisons are drawn between this work and that of Braque and Picasso from the first decade of the 20th century. The work is cool and the viewer senses as well as sees a certain reserve.

This distance -- or in some cases neutrality -- falls by the wayside in his photographs. Ralston Crawford with a camera was a different kind of an artist. Rather than looking at his subjects with a distant and analytical eye, he shifted his vision and became a very involved and subjective artist when he commenced examining human faces and the shapes and movements of the human form.

My first brush with Crawford's portraiture was with a very revealing and quite striking photograph of a friend's mother, her head thrown back in a gesture of pure joy. I assumed it was anomalous -- a gesture of affection for his then sister-in-law. But in this exhibition at the Sheldon, organized so beautifully by Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, Crawford's photographs of objects and architecture and cityscapes, much like the work of Eugene Atget in Paris and Walker Evans all over the place, exist not as formal objects or as simple shelters but as vessels of human feeling, as structures rubbed down by the time's passage, and presenting a vernacular nobility. His evident and affectionate involvement with the men and women he photographed becomes more apparent as you pass through the show, as image after image begin to tell a remarkable story.

In the late 1940s, Crawford began to spend long periods of time in New Orleans. Intuitively, he brought forth his ideas and inspiration in the faces and bodies of the men and women who bring jazz to life so vividly and authentically. The city of New Orleans provided him a wonderland of Jazz.

If you've ever been to New Orleans you may have sensed, as I did my first time there as an adult, that it is a foreign city, and not just because it looks like a foreign city, which it does, but because it feels like one. All sorts of influences flow through its streets and alleyways -- French, Native American, Irish, African American, Caribbean, Creole, Latino, Croatian, Hungarian, Cuban, Asian and Anglo.

When Crawford began to spend significant amounts of time there in 1949, New Orleans -- this 20th century Babylon -- was still a Jim Crow town. To realize his desire to photograph Jazz, he had to get a permit providing him legal passage over thresholds where the best images are to be found.

The New Orleans Jazz artists' faces, and the street scenes associated with their lives that Crawford caressed with his camera, give indelible testament to this polyglot medium. These are not pretty pictures of happy African Americans at their leisure. Although there are aspects of happiness visible, as well as ecstasy, visible too are the etchings of years and weariness, relieved by art but not remedied altogether by its performances and pleasures.

It was in the clubs and the streets that Crawford's art achieved its greatest dynamism. This is not to disparage the paintings and drawings in any way. However, as one makes his or her progress from the paintings and drawings, there is a genuine sense of aesthetic attention. Or, more to the point, the sensation that different person produced the work.

Pitting photographs against paintings is invidious; both are affecting and both represent the importance of craft and vision working together as close associates. But there are a several reasons I find the photographs so exciting. I have been fascinated by New Orleans' exoticism since my first visit there as a young child. Another is the pleasure of being introduced to new from an artist I've admired for years. The other reason is more fugitive. How does one express gratitude for being presented a fresh sense of what really matters in life?

Although there are political and social statements about poverty and injustice in Ralston Crawford's New Orleans pictures, what they reveal as well is our capacity to transcend race and class. In them we are presented powerful evidence of our capacity for unfettered, sometimes ecstatic joy as well as for intense introspection. All we have to do is to plow down our defenses and take the time to look and listen attentively everything there is that goes into this phenomenon called Jazz.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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