Criswell's Conundrum

David Bailin
"The painter unfolds that which has not been seen." Cezanne

Warren Criswell's story of his arrival in Arkansas reads like a story from his abandoned apocalyptic novel: Wanting to set up a self-sustaining, off-the-grid, solar-and-manure powered homestead, he and his family set off in a bus called Toad Hall on a mission to save the planet only to be stuck in Arkansas five years later when the bus breaks down.

Howth Castle and Environs, 1980, watercolor, 25 x 38 inches Sunday at Yogi's, 1979, watercolor, 30x40 inches

During his journey through the wilderness, he fitted his steering wheel to accommodate an easel and began to paint photorealistic watercolors. As brush replaced typewriter, Criswell demanded more from his materials and from his working process than mindless photo duplication and drew inspiration and ideas from sketches - sketches drawn in the dark, inside strip clubs and on shoulders of highways at night. From the cool vision mediated through the lens of a photograph to the hot vision mediated through his flesh and blood, Criswell learned to see the world and discovered what he called the membrane (the interface between existence and essence, chaos and order, beauty and ugliness, humor and pain) and the anxiety of the creative act (those stunning moments where the image becomes the idea only to escape from grasp).

The Open Road, 1988, oil & pastel on paper, 33x45 inches The Navigator, 1987, pastel on paper, 30 x 40 inches

Criswell is an artist's artist. Scarecrows, ravens, golems, myth and mysticism, the Doppelganger, storms and seas liter his work as he plows through the topography of history, culture and the personal. He calls it his addiction - the need to create art to achieve an opening onto existence and the need to create again as a result of its closing. Art is dangerous, he says, because it penetrates our defenses against truth, and strips us bare, but mostly because the process flirts with death. The multiple styles and techniques he employs in producing his art, the almost frantic attempts at solidifying (finish, lay to rest) an idea or vision, the constant struggle to balance the literary with the visual, the theme with its rendering, and to reconcile consciousness and grace, idea and image, objective analysis and subjective action, are obvious in every drawing, painting, and sculpture he creates. It is no accident that Criswell moved to animation in 2005. All the matter of drawing and painting is undercut by a process whose beginnings are erased, whose process is measured in frames per second and whose product is binary code. For an artist whose critical eye turns a light into all the dangerous darkness of self, loss of what has come before takes on a larger dimension.

Study for 'Hiway 61', 1993, conte & acrylic on paper, 34 x 26 inches Flash Flood

What makes Criswell's work so provocative is that it forces the viewer to remember that which he wishes to forget - the taboo, the uncanny. It takes an effort to view his work because experiencing the rough impasto of his paintings, the scratchiness of his prints and drawings and the obsessive detail of his sculpture is a physical act as much as a psychological one. Issuing from Criswell's well-read and encyclopedic mind, the themes and narratives inspire an art filled with insight as well as the unsightly. If his figures (and that includes animate and inanimate objects) are naked, so too is the viewer. This is not a sublime unveiling but the shock of recognition: this is who we are.

Still Life with Keys, 2000 oil on wood, 14 x 12 inches Africa, 2002, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches

Criswell makes his viewer complicit in his narrative. In a Criswell exhibition, the viewer sees multiple versions of singular works recreated from different view points and in different materials. For Criswell, multiple versions are not attempts at refining his vision. His attitude is not that of Rodin's whose revisions and recasting of limbs and torsos represent an attempt to get it 'right.' Criswell's multiples are attempts to find new fissures into the subject as a way of breaking open his narrative; an attempt at re-claiming something once grasped that has slipped out of his hands. The viewer is aware of this persistence as one version leads to another version and then another. As much as one piece reveals it alsoconceals. Compositional changes open or close spaces, details are revealed or hidden, figures and objects become corporeal or ghostly.

Sleep Reading, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches, in progress Sleep Reading, 2012, monotype, 8 x 10 inches Sleep Reading, 2012, 2-color linotype, 5 x 17 inches

In the five pieces called Die gluckliche Hand (2008, oil on canvas), Roadkill (2010, bronze), Roadkill (2011, linocut), Roadkill (2011, monotype), and The Crossing (chalkboard animation, 2010) a winged hyena picks at a carcass. The body is that of the artist. Created over three years, the five works explore fate in different media and provide the viewer with an understanding of Criswell's artistic process and concerns.

Die Gluckliche Hand, 2008, oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches

The painting, Die gluckliche Hand (2008), shows a body face down on a country highway. It is raining and the sun appears low behind dark clouds. The sunlight through the mist has tinted the trees and grass with grey blues. Over the body a scavenger is picking away at the back of the carcass' head. We have come upon the scene from the shoulder of the road and the incident is positioned in the distance at the center of the composition. The question of how the man got there seems to be a minor issue compared to our shock of being witness to a desecration of a body - the body of the artist. It is only after the shock wears off that we see the wings on the beast's back (camouflaged by the contour of the trees and the curve of the road following so closely to those of the wings). Criswell has painted the moment not before or after death but at death: the road (the personal, historical, mythical fate) we travel, the lonely isolated figure(everyman) struck down at the top of a rolling hill, and a wild beast (death) that picks at a carcass. This is the moment, when life is laid to waste - no catharsis, no deeper significance. It is obvious that the specific meanings of the monster or the body, or the landscape are not important to the artist, who always feigns that his is one of discovery rather than explanation. For the viewer, we too search: Are there skid marks on the road, wounds on the body? Are we the witness or perpetrator? Our search for clues turns up nothing. We can discover nothing more and yet we are drawn back into the labyrinth.

Roadkill, drypoint-linocut, 2010, 11 x 15 inches

Criswell took up the subject again in 2010 by creating versions in print, sculpture and animation. The monotype, Roadkill, lowers the background trees and lightens them so that the black wings dominate the composition. The scavenger has gotten larger, more commanding and the viewer's position has gotten closer to the action. A shoe lies next to the body suggesting that the body received an impact from something not evident - a vehicle, a branch, or more than likely, from the scavenger itself. The position of the body hasn't changed since the 2008 painting except that the carcass appears flaccid like a bag of discarded garbage. The title of the print makes a sardonic reference to animals killed and left on the road, and the viewer can't help but get the message: death is not impressed by our humanity or our attempts to defy it by creating art, our intimations of immortality. It consumes us with impunity. Even the left wing of the scavenger bars us from even considering moving past the incident, of forgetting what we have seen there or dismissing it as something we have dreamed.

Roadkill [details], bronze, 2010, 9 x 8 x13 inches

The bronze sculpture (cast in 2010) brings us right up to the beast and the body. The body has weight and dead mass and seems to have started to decay onto the pavement. Whatever happened to the man has long passed. Lifting the body, the scavenger is no longer some magnificent and majestic mythic beast looming over a body but a mangy scavenger with wings. Whether the scavenger is pulling the carcass out of the sludge or dropping it down to consume it is not clear. Even as Criswell forces us closer and closer onto and into the scene, opening one narrative fissure after another, he closes interpretation. This is a cycle of life and death, consumption and decay - an Ouroboros.1

It is in the animation that the circular notion of fate is made clear. Like Joyce's Finnegan's Wake with its opening phrase "riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs2" that concludes the sentencestarting on the last line of the last page of the book, "A way a lone a last a loved a long the", the animation begins and ends with the same action.

The Crossing, 2010, screen shot chalkboard animation

The animation The Crossing opens with the artist walking along an interstate highway. After 4 seconds, the artist, only a ghost in the opening sequence, is passed by a car as the mist and fog of the cold air blinds the viewer in a winter haze and the sounds of road and footsteps are covered by the opening three distinctly dirge-like piano notes from Prelude No.1 ("The Bells of Moscow") by Rachmaninoff (performed by Robert Boury). With a short pause in the music the scene opens with a naked man running across the highway, truck lights coming towards him. Caught in those lights, the frightened running man instinctively exhales a "Holy ****!" while the music continues its progression of dark chords. The road darkens, the moonlight opens onto a stilled rain soaked highway. The music changes to a guitar picking out a tune and the backlit road revels a winged scavenger over a dead or dying body. We recognize the image immediately. As the music begins to take shape the scavenger, with some difficulty, drags the body on to the shoulder. The deep gray greens and blues of the setting abruptly turn to a chalky outline of road, body and scavenger over a sepia background, as the bluesy country song Misery (written and performed by Steve Whiteaker) begins.

You can take away my body, take away my bones,
After I'm long forgotten, I still won't be alone,
'Cause I'll have my misery, it's my only friend,
It'll be here with me when its near the end.
When I'm sad and lonely and I'm feeling blue
I'll have my misery to remind me of you,
I'll have my misery to remind me of you.

The Crossing, 2010, screen shots chalkboard animation

At this point the monster has moved the body off the shoulder into the woods. Just beyond a row of trees a fire is burning in a field. The music ends, a chomping sound is heard and then replaced by forest sounds. Turned upward, and splayed in the foreground the body can clearly be made out. The scavenger turns from the body, makes a circle and as the rain begins to fall again, howls. With a crash of thunder, as if in response to the howl, two bolts of lightning strike the body, revealing his skeleton and a leaving behind a smoldering corpse. Smoke rises out its crotch in the form of a dancing female figure and dissipates into the air.3

The Crossing, 2010, screen shot chalkboard animation

As a fresh fire breaks out beyond the trees, the body moves its hands. The reanimated artist rubs his eyes and slowly sits up, turning on his side and lifting his right leg for balance to stand. He coughs as he does so and says what the viewer is probably thinking, "What the ****?"  The scavenger comes in from the foreground acting more like a dog waiting for some command.4 In the distance a truck passes on the highway, lights streaming behind the trees. As the artist staggers to the road, toadstools grow up on the ground where his head had been5. He turns and whistles at the doglike beast and the scavenger follows the artist's path to the road and then spreading his wings flies off. Rain picks up and whitens the screen as another truck passes through the scene. Footsteps on snow are heard and the artist, now a wanderer dressed in winter clothing and holding onto a walking stick, walks towards us following the road. He turns before passing out of the scene. A car comes down the road in his direction. There is a pause and then a sound that seems like a cross between an animal snorting and a footstep or a body falling in the snow. There is a pause both in the soundscape and in the landscape. While the image remains stationary Whiteaker begins singing again. "I'll have my misery to remind me of you." The screen turns black. The song ends punctuated by thunder.

Criswell has opened up the narrative to a series of complex and interconnected relationships and references. Not just the scavenger and the artist play within this operatic scenario but also the golem and the spirit, sexuality and sensualism, the irrational and rational, sturm und drang. As the relationships add on so do the references, and we find ourselves falling into another labyrinth - a labyrinth of history, self and myth. A cycle where it is never clear whether the beast is pursuing the wanderer or the wanderer is pursuing the beast, or both.

Speaking of this beast, the protagonist in Criswell's drama, Criswell writes, "It doesn't have a name. The viewer will supply the name--or not. Everyone has their own monster. Schoenberg calls it a 'winged hyena' in his music drama Die gluckliche Hand where it appears at the beginning and end, a fatal cycle." Criswell's fatal cycle lies in the hiker, the wander, the homeless, who represents the artist using his materials to expand "the field of possibilities." As Criswell puts it, "I can't search for discoveries because I don't know what I'm looking for, but by working in 2, 3, and 4 dimensions, maybe I'm expanding the field of possibilities. It's like what Faust said to the Devil: "When I've seen it all and done it all, to hell with it."

Don Giovani Impenitente, 1999, oil on linen, 48 x 36 inches

This is the primary artistic conundrum for Criswell and the basis for all his work: how to see it all and do it all and still have more to see and do. In the words of Beckett's Unnamable, "I can't go on. I'll go on."

Copyright © 2012, David Bailin

  1. See Criswell's Mobey Klein, animation at vimeo.com/7890595
  2. Criswell entitled one of his 1980 watercolors Howth Castle and Environs.
  3. Was this what Criswell has called "the lightning of inspiration?"
  4. The thunder and lightning has changed the scavenger as well from brazen attacker to almost diffident companion. In the context of the animation, the scavenger may be seen as a muse - at once the provoker of ideas gnawing in the head of the artist and then watching demurely as the idea takes shape in the artist's hands.
  5. Mushrooms and Toadstools have a rich mythic history. Associated with the full moon and lunar cycles, toadstools were believe by the Japanese to be created by thunder; by the Greeks and Aztecs lightning. The men of Corinth emanated from mushrooms when Sisyphus founded Corinth. Mycenae was founded by Perseus when a mushroom grew and supplied him with water. Interestingly, mushrooms were thought to be the tinder for an eternally spinning wheel of fire the mythic Ixion was lashed to as punishment for crimes of passion.
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