Crazy Like a Fox

Carroll Sockwell was a troubled soul -- but art doesn't always imitate life.

Artist Carroll Sockwell's life story reads like a psychiatric case study, and the danger is that one might view his work, a cross section of which is now on display at Case Western Reserve University's Mather Gallery, as the product of a sick man. This would be a mistake. Although Sockwell committed suicide in 1992 shortly before his fiftieth birthday and battled personal demons for years, much of his art boasts a self-discipline that would be the envy of many less troubled artists.

Exhibition literature tells us that the Washington, D.C. artist drank, heard voices in his head, was a loyal friend, alienated precisely the people who could help him most, and spoke animatedly (though incoherently) about the abstract expressionist art he loved. Eulogies, however, belong at funerals and not at art galleries, and one suspects that the David Helfgott phenomenon, popularized by the movie Shine--"boy, that dude did some great art, even though he was so messed up"--is in full swing here. In fact, the exhibit's persistent focus on Sockwell's tortured mental condition is reminiscent of the recent television documentary that follows Helfgott as he makes his rounds at an English music school. In the documentary, the "schizophrenic pianist" babbles happily along while his comments are translated by the director into "normal" English subtitles. It's a pathetic moment, because one realizes that Helfgott's handlers have not even allowed him to have some harmless fun. Even his insipid puns are given the Hollywood Biblical Spectacular treatment. If the CWRU organizers aren't careful, the Sockwell retrospective could turn into a mushy gala, which celebrates not the art of a gifted man but the triumph of the human soul over the "cycle of hopelessness and despair."

On the plus side, this exhibit introduces Clevelanders to a talented artist who has remained relatively unheralded (although he showed at several established galleries, and his star seemed on the rise at the time of his suicide). Sockwell described himself as an abstract expressionist and, though he sometimes dabbled with cubist strategies, the label fits well enough. He didn't use sticks, knives, bits of glass, and paints straight from the can as Jackson Pollock did, but he, too, was concerned about expressing an inner world and devised his own set of tools to get there: crayons, partially burnt paper, thickly applied pastels, and tears in the canvas which expose a white surface underneath.

The works on display at CWRU reflect Sockwell's penchant for experimentation. Sometimes, in the cubist works, he piles together interlocking quasi-geometrical shapes so as to emphasize, say, the diagonals. Emphasis is conveyed through color (the diagonals are red and hot orange) or by contrasts in thickness (emphatic pastel strokes exist side by side with shapes whose outlines are implied but not directly stated). These works are a winning mixture of cubist rigor and abstract spontaneity.

In the work titled "#69" (though not by Sockwell; he left the task of cataloguing his frequently untitled, undated work to his executor), the artist goes for a kind of monothematic overload. The piece is a long, complicated improvisation on a single color that starts at full intensity rather than building up gradually. The brilliant reds that cover the canvas create an almost claustrophobic atmosphere; thinly applied white pastel swirls that weave about the frame provide an apt counterpoint to the earthy vigor of the reds. This is striking, jazzy work--a Charlie Parker solo rendered in pastel.

Sockwell applied pastels heavily, and in the works at CWRU, the paper has such a difficult time with all that pressure that it seems on the verge of tearing in spots. Nineteenth-century American artist Albert Pinkham Ryder's canvases had this same effect; he applied paint so heavily and was so unconcerned with the changes that took place when paint dries that, almost as soon as his paintings were complete, they began to chip and peel. For Ryder, it seems, emotional intensity came with a price, and so, too, with Sockwell.

In Sockwell's "#8," circular forms alternately rendered in dull grays and blues alternate with passages in deep brown and shafts of faded yellow. There is unexpected textural variety here, because the pastels have been applied so liberally that the underlying gray paper has frayed. Sockwell seems to be saying that new needs require new techniques. Like Ryder before him, he expresses emotion directly, and it shows in a kind of impatience with the tools of the trade. The resulting work is intense, though it's not always clear what Sockwell is being intense about. He's working abstractly in "#8," unlike Ryder, who frequently chose mythological subjects or other representational material. But this study in impasto textures has its own logic. It's stark and elusive, but invites you to spend some time thinking about it.

Gestural elements are particularly prominent in a five-panel work titled "The Wrecking of the Berlin Wall," which has less to do with the famous wall than with the general idea of destroying things considered oppressive. Sockwell develops a vocabulary of forms and then repeats them in different contexts; each panel is a dense arrangement of pastel flecks which are sometimes rounded, sometimes straight and stick-like, sometimes a combination of the two. There's no deliberateness here; rather, it's as if Sockwell has set in motion a chain reaction, with each step leading inexorably to the next. If he's wrecking something, the flecks of pastel might be fugitive bits of debris; on the other hand, they might be elements whirling about in search of something to create. Completed in 1991, "The Wrecking of the Berlin Wall" is one of Sockwell's final, and finest, works.

The works that Sockwell rendered in crayon on rag paper seem to describe some impending cataclysm--or perhaps one that's already in progress. He frequently uses the color black, and if one wanted to point to signs of despair and possible mental instability, this would be a good place to start. Sockwell never lets up on the thick application of crayon to paper. While "#69" included the white pastel flourishes as an anti-claustrophobic counterweight, "#34" is almost all black crayon, heavily applied, with only brief glimpses of orange and deep blue forms at the far edge of the frame. The shape is idiosyncratic, as well--three inches tall and two feet wide, like some private movie screen that shows only nightmares. This etude in black is unremittingly bleak and does not reward close investigation. Here Sockwell's formal control falters, and his jazzy improvisations with line and color veer into a slo-mo disaster. Charlie Parker is playing at the wrong speed.

On the whole, however, Sockwell's brand of abstract expressionism is compelling, and if his work frequently has a single-minded, obsessive quality, there's usually enough of a sense of repose to put things in perspective. The works in crayon go overboard in their pursuit of intensity. But works like "#69" and "The Wrecking of the Berlin Wall" have a keen, even eloquent, sense of balance.

That's not the impression left by the CWRU show, though. And that has everything to do with his handlers' well-intentioned but unfortunate efforts to turn him into a poster boy for those poor souls who succeed in art, though they fail at life (as though success in art were not enough). The organizers really should tone down the sensationalist literature on Sockwell, which threatens to swamp his artistic achievements and make him seem like a full-time head case who just happened to produce art. But since Sockwell's no longer around to defend himself, we'll put up with a little help from his friends in return for the pleasure of viewing his art.

Carroll Sockwell, through February 19 at the Mather Gallery, located in the Thwing Center at Case Western Reserve University, 11111 Euclid Avenue, 216-368-4440.

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