First published: Fall 2010
In the 2009 drawing The Yell King and Burrowing Asterisk, artist JJ Cromer created a landscape revealing wildness and human manipulation. The work reads as a mountain cross-section, populated by small, clothespin-like figures tunneling through the swelled ground. The burrowing figures are miners in a forced march, and some move forward while others have collapsed. Since he began drawing in 1998, Cromer’s body of work has evolved rapidly in style, but certain motifs and themes, such as his clothespin figures and concern with ecology, have remained and only become more pronounced. To consider Cromer’s visual vocabulary and his environmentalism reveals the ideas and intentions behind the artist’s evolving and ‘looping’ aesthetic.
Cromer developed his adult imagination through text rather than image, becoming a librarian and receiving a master’s degree in creative writing. In 1998, feeling frustration with his library job, he began to work with oil pastels while watching television after work. His computer-paper doodles developed into more substantial drawings and, eventually, he would draw until 2 a.m. every night, despite having to leave for work at 7 a.m. From the start, Cromer saw his art as counter to library work. He notes that while librarians have to provide answers, his art shows ambiguity.
Cromer and his wife, Mary, first encountered Outsider Art during a trip to New Mexico in 1998. They started researching the field, made a conscious decision that they ‘wanted to live with art’ and began their with a Mose Tolliver work from a gallery in Alabama. In 1999, Cromer contacted Virginia-based gallery Grey Carter Objects of Art about purchasing a Malcolm McKesson drawing. This connection with Carter proved a turning point in Cromer’s life.
As Carter humorously tells it, ‘I wish I could say I discovered JJ, but JJ actually discovered me.’ After several phone conversations regarding payments for his McKesson, Cromer asked Carter if he ever looked at new artists. Grey asked who he knew that drew and was surprised by the response, ‘Well, I do.’ The two arranged a meeting and Carter brought 22 of Cromer’s drawings back to the gallery; the works sold within 2 weeks. For many self-taught artists, recognition of their output as ‘art’ comes through the approval of a gallery owner or artist. Cromer, however, flipped the narrative: he has always considered his output ‘art’ and he solicited the attention of Carter, the gallery owner.
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #70