House keeper: Crawford stills domestic life

Chances are most of you don’t look at the extension cord you left on the kitchen table or the rumpled hoodie you dropped on the floor day before yesterday and think, “Now that would make a great painting!” That is, unless you’re Elizabeth Crawford, in which case bathroom scrub brushes and plastic sandwich bags are the stuff of inspiration.

Crawford, whose exhibition, “Visuality,” is on view at Second Street Gallery, paints oil-on-canvas still lifes in the tradition of the Old Masters, but her subject matter is modern-day mundane. Which is not to say it’s boring. The wonder of Crawford’s artwork is how she infuses everyday objects with subtle drama and humor, suggesting they have a life of their own if we’d only notice. In other words, she puts the “life"in still life.

Crawford’s process is exacting and laborious. She slowly builds up her paintings using time-honored techniques that give her work a familiar presence despite its surprising content. She centers her objects on a neutral surface, usually a variation of brown that either recedes into the background or has a horizon where it meets the wall, and illuminates them with an unseen source off to one side. Her brushwork is neither hidden nor emphatic, yielding a realism that is tangible and convincing yet not photorealistic.

Previously, Crawford has arranged unlikely objects into harmonious compositions— e.g. canned goods and a roll of duct tape, or beer bottles and a scythe— but for her current body of work, she focuses primarily on one type of thing per painting.  In each case, the subject gains a personality through her treatment. For instance, in “The Twist,” the three-pronged male end of a white extension cord rears up like cobra, while the female end extends languidly into the foreground.

Crawford, like other realists, apparently enjoys the challenge of accurately depicting rumpled, shiny, and transparent surfaces. But rather than opting for the standard glass vase or crystal bowl repeated ad nauseum in ho-hum still lifes, Crawford hilariously chooses plastic sandwich bags. For “The Runaways,” she places two bags side by side, blue-rimmed mouths agape in three-quarter view. The bags are funny and cartoonish, like two fish that have jumped the bowl and are on the lam, but Crawford’s painting of them is masterful— precise and persuasive.

Crawford’s finely honed technique is impressive, but her ability to spin the utterly familiar into something new is genius. 

Elizabeth Crawford’s exhibition, “Visuality,” runs through May 28 at Second Street Gallery. 115 Second St. SE. 977-7284.