On an early morning in her Hollywood home, which is also her studio, the artist Rosson Crow stood before a massive, wall-size painting of pink and purple cactuses. In the middle of the canvas, a bumper sticker read: “Good cowgirls keep their calves together.”
“I love bumper stickers...” Crow, 34, began, and then struck a purposeful smile. “... especially vaguely sexist ones.”
Tongue-in-cheek jokes and playful ephemera appear throughout Crow’s work, and are on full display in the huge, neon desert dreamscapes that make up her latest solo show, "The Happiest People on Earth," roughly a year in the making and opening April 28 at the Los Angeles gallery Honor Fraser. Vintage Elvis memorabilia, cars, and tabloids all make cameos—“The best [tabloid] name would be Hush Hush,” Crow remarked—in service of what has become Crow's signature style, a colorful pop aesthetic that has drawn fashion luminaries into her orbit.
She's become a regular on the Instagrams of her friends Jeremy Scott and Zac Posen, but her fraternizing with fashion has also led some more uptight observers to perceive Crow as a less than serious artist, Crow said, all “because I like to play with glamour and dressing up." Certainly, her paintings are stylish and approachable, but they also present a rich, definitive point of view soaked in historical references, and utterly unique to L.A.
“She brings that lust for life and high-contrast joie de vivre to her paintings, and is unabashedly proud to turn up to her own openings in full regalia, whether it is a showgirl costume or a giant ball gown,” gushed Crow’s close friend, the writer Liz Goldwyn, who is L.A. royalty. “So many painters feel they have to ‘intellectualize’ their personas to be taken seriously, but Rosson’s work, I think, speaks for itself—and often more quietly than she does.”
When I arrived at Crow’s studio, the first thing I saw was her red Corvette. (Plate tag: “Rocrow.”) She wore cucumber-shaped earrings with a yellow-and-mint Moschino dress designed by Scott. A love of vivid color bonds the painter and the designer, but the friendship also goes deeper. “One of our favorite things to do is go to antique stores together,” Crow noted. Their haul was evident in her studio. If a wall wasn't taken up by a canvas, it was covered in memorabilia: newspaper clippings from the day Martin Luther King, Jr. died, pictures of John F. Kennedy, a flag from the 1964 World’s Fair where Walt Disney unveiled the It’s a Small World ride.
“I have a love of history, especially American history,” Crow explained. “[The works in "The Happiest People on Earth"] are history paintings. These are all collaged, made-up worlds. They come from photographs I’ve taken, vintage postcards, a random combination of all these things, and that’s what all these paintings are based [on].”
Crow's practice starts early in the morning. She goes for a run or a hike and then works for the rest of the day. She sketches her images by hand or on Photoshop, and then paints while listening to Audible audiobooks. She considers Cormac McCarthy her favorite author, but more recently has listened to George Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo and Jane Mayer's Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, about the Koch brothers. “I’m having [the audiobooks] input into my brain [during painting sessions],” Crow said. She pointed at a rendering of a pink cactus. “I wanted it to feel like a hot afternoon in the desert, and you’ve walked into this post-apocalyptic world.”
She grew up in Dallas, where her mother designed airplane interiors for a living and crafted Christmas wreaths in her basement as a hobby. That's where Crow first came upon the “idea of somebody creating a world and paying attention to small details." Before she became the neon painter of the West though, Crow was a New York scenester. She studied Francisco Goya and El Greco at the School of Visual Arts in New York in the early 2000s—“I ate all that up,” Crow said. “It’s [still] in my brain”—while deepening her love for pop culture. During college, she and her friends attended Michael Jackson’s 30th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden the day before 9/11 (coincidentally, I was there, too). Crow still raves about the event: “Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, some of the Jacksons were there!” By the middle of the aughts, she was appearing on the Wall Street Journal’s list of “23-Year-Old Masters,” alongside the likes of Dash Snow.
After getting a Yale MFA and a period living in Paris, in 2006 Crow decided she had to move to L.A. “I had this intense longing for the west,” she remembered. There was appeal in California's vast expanses, which reminded her of Texas. Plus, working in a larger studio meant bigger paintings; the spaciousness freed and elevated her art. Crow took her bright paints and applied them to larger subjects: hosting a seance for JFK, who was assassinated in Dallas, and launching a show about Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel, where Robert F. Kennedy was shot.
Crow’s neon materials and fashion associations may initially overshadow the historical depth of her paintings, but she’s saying grand things with her California-size canvases. As Crow said, “I love the Western cowboy thing, the Americana thing of Texas… anything that is a Texas mentality of ‘go big or go home.”
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