Remembrance of Things Past

Eddie Silva meets artist Carol Crouppen, who sees old things through a new Iris

What's a nice former fiber artist like Carol Crouppen doing with technology like this: ominous contraptions such as a high-resolution monitor with its own camera and computer somewhere inside its bland frame to precisely manage the gamut of colors it can make; a scanner that can "read" and reproduce the phosphorescence of a butterfly's wing; a 1,000-pound beast of a printer that shoots jets of dyes through filaments as thin as capillaries?

In the case of Crouppen, she's making the best work of her career, a collection of Iris prints (Iris being the name of that 1,000-pound beast) that were recently exhibited at Elliot Smith's gallery in the Central West End. Granted, Crouppen has been removed from the warp and weft of the loom for some time. Throughout her artistic evolution from painting to collage and installation art, the initial tactile nature of the materials has been her first motivating pleasure. "It's really foreign to me not to have my hands on what I've made," she says in her spacious studio in the City Museum building.

Yet it is the very foreignness of Crouppen's recent prints that makes them stand out. She's been an interesting artist over the years, not in the lame, noncommital sense of the word "interesting" but as one whose work with artifacts (she's an obsessive collector of memorabilia from estate sales) and old photographs (sometimes of family members) has involved elements of memory and scale in ways that are appealing but not mesmerizing, more like being engaged in a thoughtful visual conversation. An installation at the A.D. Brown Building a few years ago suggested the discovery of an ancestor's secret closet.

"Real Time?" an Iris print by the artist Carol Crouppen, who says, "Sometimes it surprises me what I've made."
"Real Time?" an Iris print by the artist Carol Crouppen, who says, "Sometimes it surprises me what I've made."

But where her former work attracted interest, the new prints are more visceral in their effects. These are collages but seem made from ghost traces rather than old snapshots. A woman in a bridal veil is obscured by a dark mask; her gown throbs with an orange stain as she seems to be led by the hand, invisibly, to some dim future. Gold wrapping paper with a floral design absorbs the red imprint of two figures in silhouette. The smiling face of a Japanese bride is blocked by another image, that of a well-dressed mannequin, and another figure, shot from below, reclining, framed in red, suggests a body laid on a slab or a political figure slain in the street; at the edge of the collage, a woman, eyebrow arched, invades the scene like a conspirator.

Crouppen says her process of image-making involves "subverting the context. I'm interested in context in terms of our personal history, of how stories get told and retold. Things that we're really sure of that we think are gospel, when you ask again or look again, can be quite different. When you translate that to something visual, it opens up so many horizons."

The wedding scenes, for example, come from old photos in which Crouppen "was just fascinated by the dresses because they're so exquisite and feminine, the visceral sense of their being so beautiful, and the era was so innocent." But through her manipulation of the photos, the faces are obscured, the background is made a black void and those caught in the "innocent" ritual of the wedding-reception dance look to have the psychological menace of a Pinter play. "There's no intent to do that," says Crouppen, who looks every bit the pretty, well-to-do wife and mother that she is (she's married to Terry Crouppen, one-half of the legal team of Brown & Crouppen). She's the last one to suggest that underlying the happy wedding-day photos are subterranean nightmares of violence and rage. "I just come here and make the work that I make. I put one foot in front of the other and come here every day. Sometimes it surprises me what I've made." She refers to the wedding photos: "I'm sure everyone had a delightful time." The murdered tyrant is really a photograph of someone getting his hair washed.

Part of what makes these images cause such unease is the medium the tactile-loving Crouppen has enlisted for their production. In creating these collages, Crouppen is already working with the remains of the past, tokens of former lives. By working with the Iris printer, not only does the technology bring "authority to the image that transcends the original collage," as Crouppen describes the product, but metaphorically, in these scenes incarnating shadows and ghosts, the printmaking process takes them into a territory further removed from their physical origins. Rather than being works from the artist's hand, they are like specters emerging out of space.

The prints were made in the studio of Randy Barker, who owns the $100,000 technological marvel. Crouppen says she was referred to Barker after having worked with a major printmaking firm but becoming dispirited by working with "techies, not artists." Barker is himself a painter and printmaker who grew up in the Bay Area and moved to St. Louis to be near his son. He got involved in Iris technology when a "very, very small niche of people" were experimenting with it in Southern California, including the singer Graham Nash.

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