Molly Crabapple On ‘Shell Game,’ Her Surreal Take On the Financial Crisis


Before Occupy Wall Street artist Molly Crabapple had largely shied away from political themes in her work. Crabapple’s signature compositions are described on her website as what would happened “If Dr. Seuss backtracked through the time-space continuum and commissioned Toulouse-Lautrec to reimagine his storybooks.” But when Occupy started, Crabapple, who lives across the street from Zuccotti Park, immediately started making posters for the movement.

“Before Occupy I felt like using my art for activist causes was exploitive of activist causes, ” she said in a phone interview Friday. “I think what Occupy let me do was it allowed me to instead of just donating money to politics or just going to marches, it allowed me to engage my art in politics.”

Now, in a project she’s raising money for on Kickstarter, Crabapple is hoping to combine the activist threads in her Occupy work with the swirling, baudy detail of her original style.

“I want to do stuff about the Occupy movement, about the American Dream as expressed through the mortgage bubble and the student loan bubble, the health insurance industry, Tahrir Square, hacktivists,” she explained when we spoke to her Friday. “But I want to filter them all through my lens of surrealism and satire and burlesque and animals in funny hats.”

Along with illustrating for various publications, Crabapple has worked as the house artist for The Box nightclub for four years.

The resulting body of work will be called “Shell Game,” a show of a series of nine paintings about the financial collapse and the people protesting against it. Once the paintings are completed, Crabapple explained she wants to set the work in a makeshift gambling parlor in a rented storefront — “probably on the Lower East Side” she added — complete with poker chips and money decked out in her art. The parlor will even feature a “wheel of fortune” on which guests can test how their lives “can go good or bad in the U.S. economy.”

“Obviously, one of the things that kind of wrecked the world economy was that banks were allowed to basically make money through incredibly risky endeavors that were built on air, and and I just kind of wanted to make that very literal and I wanted to play with that gambling metaphor,” Crabapple said.

Each painting is going to have a “central female figure that sort of represents the ideal or the image.” For instance, the one she has already completed, entitled “Great American Bubble Machine,” features what she called a “bubble-made goddess of the market.”

“Then around that there are going to be these tiny allegorical animals that are all either fighting against the image or they’re building the image or they’re trying to project the image,” she said. “They are the reality beneath the image.”

While these paintings each will take a month to complete, Crabapple’s work for Occupy was completed in a more immediate fashion. Included among her Occupy posters is an image of the Wall Street Bull eating books, designed in anger after books in the People’s Library were destroyed in the Zuccotti Park raid. A friend working at Occupy printed her poster and within an hour of Crabapple drawing the image, it was being used as signage in street demonstrations. Her most recent effort for the movement is for the May Day General Strike — the image is a reference to the London matchgirls’ strike of 1888.

The painting “Great American Bubble Machine:”