Drawing Blood by T.S. McNeil

orange abstract painting

Artists can occupy an odd place in culture, both venerated and dismissed, often in equal measure, as both those chronicling and commenting on a moment in time, as well as dreamers away with the fairies. In terms of the likes of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec it was both at the same time. An artist with no equal, either in terms of style or sheer personality, if there is a creator in the modern milieu that rivals Toulouse-Lautrec in terms of sheer bohemian bravado tinged with a sharp social conscience, it is Jennifer Caban, better known as Molly Crabapple. 

A third-generation artist of Puerto Rican and Jewish ancestry, Caban is the farthest thing from a pampered and privileged aestheticist with a silver-spoon and trust fund. Paying her way through the notoriously tough Fashion Institute of Technology with work as a figure model, Caban sweated and bled, especially while learning framing from scratch, with a personal credo of ‘bust your ass to be good.’ An experience and ethic which shows up in every line of her trademark neo-Victorian style.

As lush as anything produced in 19th century Europe Caban’s work, these days done entirely with a diluted Pilot pen, infuses an undertone of glorious and gleeful filth and furious rage. One of Caban’s main themes is artifice, particularly in terms of gilding ugly reality as representations of history tend to do. 

Never losing her hard-grafting, working-class ethic, much of her career has consisted of commercial jobs in terms of illustration. A mode of employment which in the more elitist sectors of the art world is: “considered very much equivalent to whore.” A label that doesn’t seem to bother her at all, Caban having gone through far too much to give a damn what strangers might think of her. An impressive show of perspective for someone who had yet to turn 30 at the time. 

Thoroughly politicized by her early-30s, Crabapple started doing what could only be referred to as political illustrations including traveling to Greece during austerity to document the devastation wrought on the country by the momentary collapse of the Euro. Even her series of canvases titled “Shell Game” is philosophically blunt to the point of being aggressive about the bullshit of modern society, particularly in terms of politics and justice, despite, or possibly because of the exquisite rendering. 

A stark standout is “The Divide.” Framed by theater curtains stylized as an American flag, the center of the image is a rendition of the old Lady Justice statue reimagines as a Steampunk nightmare of gears, the only recognizable parts the head complete with blindfold, arms and sword and scales, which are still rendered as metal, complete with bolts representing the system, or machinery, of justice. In a modern touch, the scales hold men of various races dressed in orange prison garb, the figures on the scales on the right, standing secure, as those on the left hang on for dear life, some already falling to their death in the gears as the ‘lady’ smirks. ‘Justice’ in this case blind and cruel in equal measure. The subtle addition of pig heads in top hats at the top of the scale and pommel of the sword poking at the corporate interests driving and perverting justice though the private prison system.   

Born in the far north, T.S. McNeil was attending art galleries before he could walk. Earning concurrent degrees in Art History and Political Science, he has written on Arts and Culture both in print and online since 2002, starting while still in college. He lives in a cabin in the woods with his dog, and firmly believes that Marie-Gabrielle Capet was criminally underrated.

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