Chinati Artist in Residence Mike Crane reimagines concepts of hell and biography in series of graphite drawings

Images from artist Mike Crane’s History in Hell series, 2021. While in town Crane, the Chinati Foundation’s most recent artist in residence, worked on an ongoing series of graphite drawings which incorporate text, images, graphics and biographical ephemera from his personal archive of print material. Photo courtesy Mike Crane.

MARFA — The Locker Plant in downtown Marfa recently displayed a series of framed graphite drawings, titled History in Hell, by Chinati Artist in Residence Mike Crane which the artist made available to view for private studio visits. 

Situated in recto-verso format, each work holds a set of opposing images, showcasing pages of an imagined book on hell or “the underground,” sourced from the artist’s collection of print ephemera. While in Marfa, Crane explored the evolution of the West Texas landscape and Permian Basin, private land ownership and local publications. He intends to return to round out his residency in early 2023, when temperatures are more suitable for outdoor excursions. 

Crane was toiling away in Chinati’s Locker Plant studio on an ongoing project, a 50-part series the artist first started during the pandemic, where he considers religious themes — Catholicism, punishment, and the relationship between heaven and hell — inspired, in part, by works including Dante’s Inferno and The History of Hell by Alice K. Turner. In a play on the visual grammar of commercial layout design — the use of headlines, columns, and perimeters to structure articles traditionally used in publications such as newspapers and magazines — the drawings instead pair disparate headlines, text and images, all which are sourced from Crane’s print media archive he’s been amassing since childhood. 

“It’s a way of, from a distance, creating what looks like a layout, or a sort of composite or template for a publication, and then when you look up closer, you realize that it’s made up of various fragments that come from different periods of this timespan in which I was collecting this stuff,” said Crane. 

Over the years, Crane saved pages and clippings consisting of comics, newspaper articles in English and Spanish, illustrations, drawings from books, and personal documents from the artist’s past, including Bible school assignments and teachers’ notes. One work combines a cutesy ad with flying bats for a “Halloween Boo Bash” with a headline that reads “A Familiar Anguish Revisited,” next to a Rembrandt drawing, an ad for townhouses, and a small illustration in the style of Precious Moments of a boy and girl in grad caps holding a heart which reads “Class of ‘88.” Crane said the works reimagine the format and meaning of an artist’s biography, only revealing pieces of his personal history.

“I think there’s a real thirst today for the authenticity that comes with something like biography or personal experience or personal history and trauma,” said Crane. “And that’s a way sometimes for some audience members to engage with [the work] as well. So I’m interested in teasing that or alluding to it, but also with using bits of data information without context.”

Images from artist Mike Crane’s History in Hell series, 2021. Photo courtesy Mike Crane.

Using photo referencing and graphite pencil, Crane hand draws copies of texts and illustrations from his rich collection of paper scraps into the larger works. He sometimes uses techniques inherited from his grandfather, an illustrator who worked on sports and politics sections for the Colombian national newspaper, El Espectador, during the Colombian civil war. As a print excerpt is incorporated into one of the mock-design pages, it is discarded. Crane said in a way the series memorializes the archive by creating more formal works of art and enlivens the material. 

“I see it as a kind of mutational system and as a way of putting things down in a way that loosens it from the material source of origin,” said Crane. 

Each set of drawings took Crane around eight days to complete, he said. The act of hand drawing copies of texts and illustrations from his archive can be tedious, he said, especially when recreating photo-realistic depictions, yet is compulsory in a satisfying way. From a distance, the drawings appear printed, but up close are revealed to be handmade by the texture of the graphite. 

“What draws me to graphite is it’s just a mineral that’s dug deep in the earth. It’s pretty standard and basic and cheap. It has a malleability you can structure in a way where it looks like ink, or it looks like paint or it looks like mimeograph prints, but then it also does its own thing anytime you move [the drawings] and [the graphite] rains down a little and they get a little smudgy.”

Crane, who is now based in New York and works primarily in time-based media including film, grew up in Bogotá, Colombia, and said he was spurred by the pandemic to return to his early phases of artistic development, where learning through imitation was common practice. 

“I decided to go back and dive into this earlier period and look at my interests within that early phase as an artist and try to get back into this more fun, more loose and interpretive way of making art, which is to look at things, compare things side by side, contrast and compare different sources,” said Crane. 

As Crane works through the print archive and discards sources once they are embedded into a drawing, he continues to grow the collection of print materials. Copies of The Presidio International and The Big Bend Sentinel were tacked to the Locker Plant studio wall. Crane lifted an image of an oak tree leaf from an article on a species previously thought to be extinct that was recently discovered in Big Bend National Park. He said he is focusing on pulling information from publications and books that maintain a sense of timelessness. 

“You’re not going to see the word Marfa or Chinati in these drawings anytime soon, maybe in like, 20 years once that’s like part of the backlog,” said Crane. “Things that aren’t locked into a specific region in time, for now is what I’m drawn to.”