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Artist Robert Cremean takes on conformity in new show at PMCA

Robert Cremean, Torquemada: Gula (Gluttony), Acedia (Sloth), and Avaritia (Greed) from THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS, 2005–2007.
Robert Cremean, Torquemada: Gula (Gluttony), Acedia (Sloth), and Avaritia (Greed) from THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS, 2005–2007.
Crocker Art Museum, gift of the Artist

Off-Ramp arts correspondent Marc Haefele reviews "Robert Cremean: The Beds of Procrustes and the Seven Deadly Sins," at the Pasadena Museum of California Art through April 3, 2016.


We all need limits, but sometimes it gets ridiculous.

Take the ancient Greek hotelier Procrustes, who had a distinctly odd approach to the hospitality industry. He’s the mythical host who felt compelled to make all his guests fit exactly in the same iron bed—lopping body parts when the guest was too tall, stretching them on the rack when they were too short.

These guests checked in, but they never checked out.

A plump Procrustes, doing his dirty work in a flaming Nazi helmet, is a key image in a disturbing, perturbing seven-part installation of the work of artist Robert Cremean at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. Along with its accompanying Seven Deadly Sins, the Beds of Procrustes provides a grueling art experience, hatched with craftsmanly skill and great devotion to a kind of perfectly shaped, almost geometrical madness—not to mention anatomical correctness.

Procrustes, to Cremean, is a kind of universal revolutionary necessity, an embodiment of Darwinian selection throughout human history, who demands we all change to conform to his dictates. In an interview, he said: “We’re borne into the acceptance of Procrustes in our lives—we’re born into natural selection. And when you think about it, it is necessary—after all, without it there would be chaos everywhere.’’

But inevitable as Procrustes is, Cremean wants humanity to resist him, to hold on to our full individuality. Cremean’s personal Procrustes seems to have been the American art world’s c. 1950 move towards abstraction, leaving the young Cremean’s superlatively figurative work critically stranded by what he still terms “the Culture Makers.”

He says: “New York was (Procrustes). It was in control, Procrustian. The world is full of Procrustes.” He was equally alienated by the “gallery system,” which, he says, was taking an undue share of his earnings.

As a result, Cremean has largely isolated himself from the American art mainstream to the extent that a show like the PMCA’s is a considerable rarity.  He’s developed, via a benefactor, an “arrangement” with the Fresno Art Museum whereby it displays most of his new work. Including his Procrustes array, which combines painted canvas, friezes, written words and surmounting sculptures of variously lopped human beings, in seven entities which confront the viewer in a judgmental arc, victims and victors combined.

The Procrustes assemblage also challenges the show’s other installation: “The Seven Deadly Sins.”  Each sin is represented by a tormented human form, and surrounded by lengthy, self-accusatory writings, like the words of the death sentence written all over the prisoner in Kafka’s "Penal Colony,’’ where "Guilt is always beyond a doubt.’’

The mightiest of these turpitude paintings is a triptych of three iniquities—Sloth, Gluttony and Greed. At the very center is a representation of the prototype Spanish inquisitor,  Tomas de  Torquemada and the dates, 1492 and 8/6/45— 1492 was Columbus’ year of discovery, of course, but also the year that the (Jewish-descended) Torquemada’s Edict of Alhambra drove all the Moors and Jews out of Spain. The other date is Hiroshima Day. Each date marks some of the worst actions of mankind against humanity. All for what seemed like perfect reasons at the time.

His painting-art is much as a creative act against historic human malfeasance as a lifetime of self analysis.  

Robert Cremean in 1957.
Robert Cremean in 1957.
Dorothy Tyler/Smithsonian

Now 83,  Cremean was early—and unsurprisingly-- influenced by medieval art, particularly the illuminated Chaucer manuscript at the Huntington Library. “I was amazed at the way the words and pictures met one another on the page.” Most of his painted words are transcribed from his own notebooks.

He’s working on a new installation—“It’s 30 by 8 feet.’’ But after this, “I do not want to do things like this any more.’’ He says, after decades of his massive installations, that he wants to do smaller things. After 52 years of working in the US, he is thinking of moving to France.

"Where I work, it doesn’t make a difference. I am with myself in my studio here in [the honky tonk  district of ] Winston-Salem for the past 7 years,  as much as I was on the ranch on Tomales Bay for 45 years.’’ He can manifest what’s been called his “desire for truth and escape from illusions” anywhere.

Guardian of the Timberline, ca. 1924. Block printed in colors on paper, 12 ⅛ x 14 ⅜ inches. Collection of Roberta Rice Treseder.
Guardian of the Timberline, ca. 1924. Block printed in colors on paper, 12 ⅛ x 14 ⅜ inches. Collection of Roberta Rice Treseder.
© Ellen Treseder Sexauer

Cremean’s creations are on show at the PMCA with "Of Cottages and Castles: The Art of California Faience and The Nature of William S. Rice: Arts and Crafts Painter and Printmaker.’’ These are worthy and worthwhile displays of c. 1900 works in a style you might call California Biedermeier. They provide something of a reassuring counterbalance to Cremean’s outrageous creations.