Through average eyes, the places that artist Morgan Craig chooses to paint may seem, at first glance, to be simply derelict, mostly uninhabited structures passed over by time and purpose. In Craig’s intricate mind and his precise artist’s hands, they become much more than that.
The deserted factories, amusement parks, theaters and other communal sites painted by Craig are not only meticulously executed ghosts of the past but also provocative commentaries.
In his artist’s statement for the exhibition of 22 of his large-scale paintings on view at the Greater Reston Arts Center (GRACE), now through May 19, Craig noted: “My work is not merely a method of documentation, but a sociopolitical commentary on the effects of hubris, avarice and technological obsolescence upon communities throughout the world.”
Holly Koons McCullough, GRACE’s curator of exhibitions, suggested at the exhibition’s April 18 opening: “There also is huge poetic content to these haunting images. … These pictures are more than their places. Their [universal] quality overrides mere location.”
In addition to abandoned U.S.-based sites, like a Packard Motor Car plant in Detroit, a granary in Oklahoma and power and steel plants in Pennsylvania, Craig, an inveterate world traveler who paints from photographs, found inspiration at deserted, some restricted, industrial sites in Slovakia, Czech Republic and Australia and in a once-grand theater in Bulgaria.
The largest work in the GRACE exhibition is a 6-foot-by-14-foot oil on linen that depicts in explicit detail a classroom in the “Chernobyl Zone of Exclusion” in the Ukraine, “abandoned by man and made by disaster” after the catastrophic nuclear reactor accident in 1986.
The title of this painting, “Ou Est Desormais Maldoror?,” was inspired by a surreal 19th century poetic novel in which the character of “Maldoror” represents absolute evil. For Craig, Satan in this case is mankind, and as Chernobyl illustrates, he said, “if we keep messing with Mother Nature, one of these days you’re going to get burned.”
Titles of his works, Craig said, are scrupulously selected and fused with their pictorial meanings.
Craig’s subjects also are closely linked by their existential resonance. Focused on the apocalyptic end of the industrial era, Craig explained at the opening: “These places were the lifeblood of these communities. To see them close was devastating. … A lot of these spaces to me are very existential. … I personally question my own existence when I walk through them. I wonder what it’s all about.”
Although most are devoid of human figures, McCullough pointed out how they are implied, saying “the vestiges of the men and women who spent their lives laboring or living within the cast-off structures he portrays remain.”
Not all darkness. The luminous light and colors in which Craig bathes his Machine Age ruins are intentional, he said, admitting he is big fan of romantic, realist painter Andrew Wyeth, an anathema to some in today’s more abstract-oriented art world.
“I’m trying to play on your emotions,” Craig unashamedly admitted.