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Demure yet outspoken, Molly Crabapple seems like a heroine out of Nabokov: perched on the fault-line between the Belle Époque and the postmodern, comfortable with Symbolist poetry as she is with the demimonde of the skin trade. Art or ardor: … Read More

By / January 16, 2007

Demure yet outspoken, Molly Crabapple seems like a heroine out of Nabokov: perched on the fault-line between the Belle Époque and the postmodern, comfortable with Symbolist poetry as she is with the demimonde of the skin trade. Art or ardor: Who says you can’t have both? The daughter of a Jewish-American mama and a Puerto Rican papa, Crabapple (née Jennifer Caban) took off from provincial Far Rockaway at 17 to travel the world. She learned to draw in a Paris Shakespeare & Co., working the register and sleeping on the floor, before legging it to Turkey and the mountains of Kurdistan, where she imbibed peasant folklore and not a little self-determination. You know how it goes at 17. But do you know anyone else at 23 who's been photographed frolicking naked through pink cupcakes and packing peanuts and peddles vignettes on-demand for The New York Times and Wall Street Journal? Breasts, like ankles, were occasionally bared under Victorianism. Had Crabapple been sketching back then, Wilde would have had company at Reading Gaol. (Aubrey Beardsley, Oscar’s preferred book illustrator, is an avowed influence of hers.) A little over a year ago, she co-founded Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School, a palette guild cum rebel aesthetic movement where the models receive fair pay and the sketchers swill their absinthe and shade their bawdy in peace. The collective’s first volume, Dr. Sketchy’s Official Rainy Day Colouring Book, was released last month. We spoke to her recently – just last week, in fact – about art, religion and sex, Anatolian history and why burlesque (making fun of people with no clothes on) is making a comeback. When you were 18, you were briefly detained in a Turkish jail for sketching in Kurdistan. What did you make of the region? And as a Jew, were you sympathetic to the Kurds’ longing for their own homeland? I love the Middle East generally, and Kurdistan specifically. I studied Turkish and Arabic for years—being just fluent enough in Turkish to get me into trouble, though not fluent enough to get me out of it. I dug the relaxed Kurdish take on Islam, their language, their raw, throaty music, the wild green hills near Dogubeyazit with the silver roads that went from nowhere to nowhere, how you could walk around, and within a few hours, women would invite you over for food, and how easy it was to talk to anyone. I even liked the guns and tribalism and sulfur whiff of violence. But Southeastern Turkey five years ago was very recently a war zone. The Turkish government, despite being moderate by Middle Eastern standards, is no ideal democracy. Since Ataturk, the official party line is that minorities don't exist. Kurdish language and music were banned. Textbooks referred to Kurds as "mountain turks." "How Happy is He Who is a Turk" was written in thirty foot letters on the side of mountains.
I stayed with people who had posters of Ataturk in the front rooms, and Kurdish nationalist posters in the back. I spent a long time in a village called Hassankeyf, all ancient and honey-colored, which the government was flooding to build their new dam. Of course, they didn't make any provision for the folks living there. You can check out Amnesty International for Turkey's dismal human rights record. Police in the East also constantly hassled me for talking to locals. While I'm not sure about splitting Turkish Kurdistan off to make a Kurdish homeland (for one thing it would be vastly poorer than the more modernized West), the Turkish government could learn a lesson about multi-cultural tolerance from the Western democracies whose trappings they try to emulate. So your parents just let you take off to travel the world at the age of 17? Not your stereotypical Jewish parents. My dad's Puerto Rican, if that changes anything. And I'm just stubborn. Is globe-hopping on no money an experience you'd recommend to anyone? Yes! It teaches you diehard practicality, wile, guile, bits of several languages, how to keep yourself entertained on thirty-hour bus rides, and that everything you learned in high school is a lie. What influenced you to move into the whole neo-Victorian, absinthe-drinking aesthetic? Aubrey Beardsley is not a point of reference one usually associates with kids from Far Rockaway. I read lots of books when I was a kid. My mom's also an illustrator, and I grew up knowing about Toulouse-Lautrec and reading old copies of Salome. I'm not sure what initially tilted me towards that, but it sure stuck. Like you, I also grew up in the unfashionable part of the outer boroughs. It can be a really hard place to be a creative, weird kid. How did you survive?
Books! And having an older boyfriend (something I recommend to every precocious teenage girl). Do any books in particular stand out? And what do you recommend to the precocious guys? Older girlfriends? Inspired by a Russian friend, I got really into the Silver Age Russian poets—Blok, Akhmatova, Tsetayeva. There was this sort of romantic, tragic decadence—looking back, we know that the Russian revolution was going to wipe out their way of life. Also, clichéd as it is, stuff about the Lost Generation made me want to go to Paris. I was a pretentious little twerp. As for older girlfriends—if they can get them. Do you think that the radical Jewish intellectual milieu had a big effect on your development? Any yiddishkeit in your way of seeing the world? My family is a long line of Jewish non-conformists. My great-grandfather was an artist who joined the Bund, fled Russia in 1905, and opened a failed vegetarian chicken farm during the Depression. His paintings are now in the Smithsonian. The rest of my family were proto-hippies who went to India to follow the Baba, walked across America living on nuts, espoused communism and Madame Blavatsky, and got rejected by draft-boards for their long hair and pacifism. I definitely never felt out of place, looking at my lineage. There's something about Jews that makes us smart and nutty and dissatisfied. You used to model nude for a bunch of places. Which ones? And would you do it again, or do you have qualms now that you're selling your art for the New York Times?
I've posed for Lowrider with a 20's automobile, in Shojo Beat fully clothed with crazy anime hair, thrice on Nerve.com, for prints that hung in swanky gallery shows and for books of pseudo-19th century French postcards. I've posed for photographers who I'm immensely proud to have worked with, like Aaron Hawks, who built room-sized sets for each shoot, or the French fashion photographer Eddie Briere. I've also posed for lots of sleazeoids with point and click cameras who could pay me $100 an hour. I wouldn't be illustrating for the Times if I hadn't been a naked model. I got my Times job the way many illustrators get jobs—I did a postcard mailing to potential art directors. Postcard mailings cost hundreds of bucks. There's no way I could have afforded that if I were making $8 an hour (the fate of most art students). And, if I was pulling a 40-hour week, I probably would have been too tired to draw. There's a huge precedent for Jewish Girls Gone Bad—moving to the Village, joining the counterculture, becoming artists or whatnot. Do you feel part of a grand tradition? A bit. Right now I'm reading Trav SD's brilliant vaudeville history, No Applause, Just Throw Money, which is in part the story of Jewish girls who ran away from home, reinvented themselves, and took over the world. Would you ever consider doing graphic novels? Not my thing. Though maybe in the future, I'd love to do a heavily illustrated novel, though, a la Rent Girl by Michelle Tea and Laurenn McCubbin. You told Gothamist that modern libertinism "all seems forced and passionless." Has sex become more commodified than it used to be? And how do you react against that in your work?
I think that, like food and status, sex is too primal not to be commodified. And, as a former nude model and current pornographic scribbler, I'm just as guilty of selling sex as anyone. In fact, I'm all for selling it. You can turn a good profit. But glamourless, emotionless hookup culture isn't for me. And I found an awful lot of girls who were sleeping around were doing it for approval, not orgasms. Be promiscuous because you want to fuck. My art isn't a grand statement about sexuality in modern America, so much as a reflection of my darkish, adolescent-boy sense of humor. Sex is funny. I also worked in some of the milder aspects of the sex industry, which led to lots of time standing around naked and thinking about sex and power. Your style is reminiscent of Robert Crumb, who, despite his underground-comix origin, has become a serious figure in the art world. Do you have aspirations to be taken seriously by the bigwigs in Chelsea? Heavens, it sure would suck to need a stiff, boring opening for validation. As long as smart, interesting people like my work, and have the cash to keep me in style, Chelsea can go suck it. Besides, high art temples wouldn't be much interested in my work. I'm an illustrator, which, for many galleries, is a hairsbreadth lower than whore. Thank god for the amazing, Juxtapoz-fueled, pop-surrealist art subculture, which is rapidly infiltrating New York's white walled preserves. Mark Ryden recently sold a painting for a million dollars. With prices like that, we craftsmen don't really need to deal with high aahht.

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