Weird science 

Crowder's "Taste and See."

The hours spent staring at toasters, pigeons, gingerbread men, math equations, futuristic gadgets and DNA strands — if you're up to the challenge — will be some of the strangest of your life. These hours, squinting at the grotesque black and white drawings by Topher Crowder, will be something like playing Where's Waldo, except Waldo's been kidnapped by Robert Crumb or painter Joe Coleman or Marvel Comics' Basil Wolverton. You will be a giant studying an alien ant farm. You will be a student learning about mad medicine.

In Playing God, his debut solo show in Detroit, Crowder gets a Cpop gallery to himself to explore human anatomy and satirize the medical industry. The gifted illustrator and comic expressionist succeeds in visualizing mental anguish and physical pain.

Over the past year or so, the 39-year-old Crowder has participated in 23 group exhibitions, including four shows in Chicago, two in Dallas and several in metro Detroit, receiving a couple of awards locally. He looks forward to summer shows in Dallas again and Chattanooga, Tenn. But a solo show like this one is an opportunity to let work really breathe. And these drawings gasp for air. Crowder's works are packed so tight with imagery it's almost suffocating just to see them.

Playing God is a wacky yet disturbing exposé of advancements in Western medicine. It depicts human frailty in the face of corporate and scientific cockiness. Six larger works of pen and ink on board are balanced by 10 smaller serigraphs that are reproductions from his notebooks. The intricate serigraphs are actual notes from academic classes Crowder took as an art student at Wayne State University; they give the educational term "visual learner" a whole new meaning.

"Taste and See" lays out the odd story of a pioneering open-heart procedure performed in Detroit in 1952. Why call the story odd? Because General Motors engineers helped create the first mechanical heart. Crowder portrays the strange and scary notion that men who make half-ton, high-strength steel cars also make our own little tickers, and he does it by being way too literal — and also funny. A horrified-looking woman stares out at the viewer while nuts, bolts, pistons and valves enter into her torso by way of swirling tornadoes. She sucks in the stuff you'd find under the seat of your car too, like bottle caps, safety pins and stray peanuts.

"Frontal," however, is much less whimsical. This piece also centers on a woman's face. A scene of utter torture tells the tale of lobotomist Dr. Walter Freeman, who, in the 1950s and early 1960s, performed "miracle" cures on nearly 3,500 mentally ill patients by hammering an ice pick through their eye sockets and into their brains.

Detail of "I'm Impotent."

No doubt, Crowder's art fights a battle against big forces. "The Executive" deals with the money-making side of medicine, taking on, as he says, "a person who thinks they have unlimited power but, in reality, doesn't." Although Crowder critiques corporate America, he claims he isn't trying to make political statements. "I'd rather vote than make art as a political statement." He says art is his release, and it seems to be an all-consuming one, considering he can invest up to four months in one drawing. It's his obsession. "Sometimes I feel that if I don't do something creative, it would kill me."

Playing God runs through May 19 at Cpop Gallery, 4160 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9901.

Heather A. McMacken writes about art and literature for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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