Warren Criswell at Cantrell GalleryAugust 25, 2013
Warren Criswell is an artist of the first rank, a remarkably prolific and consistently interesting creator mind whose work I’ve followed and admired for more than 20 years now. I’ve recently learned that my friends at Cantrell Gallery, who’ve had a relationship with Criswell since 1979, recently became the exclusive dealers of Warren’s work here in Arkansas. They’ve set aside a room in the gallery dedicated to Warren’s work. (It is the iceberg tip — there’s more downstairs at the gallery and even more in storage.)
If you want to know what Warren Criswell means by a painting, then perhaps you should ask him yourself. He is not so hard to find and, if you know his paintings (or prints or sculptures), then you likely know what he looks like. Or perhaps you should keep quiet and look — the art being infinitely more reliable than the artist.
If you want a label, pick one. Criswell is comedian and undertaker, no doubt a surer prophet than his charlatan namesake, the silver-haired gent at the beginning and end of Plan 9 From Outer Space who admonished us: “You can’t prove it didn’t happen.”
Just so. You can’t prove this Criswell’s visions never occurred — if they hadn’t, how could they be arrayed in these galleries? — or that they won’t. Our Criswell, the one who lives in Benton, has had visions, he has put them on the wall. You can see them, if you look.
One doesn’t have to “know” much about art to appreciate Warren Criswell. When the man paints a figure, you generally recognize it as something from your experience: headlights on a highway at night, topless dancers in a blue-lit nightclub, an old guy running down the road — Criswell paints with the acuity and precision of a dead Dutchman.
Another way to say this is to say his paintings often look like photographs — impossible photographs to be sure, photographs of someone else’s dreams and nightmares, but recognizable, unmistakable depictions of real world artifacts arrested in time. Criswell paints a shoe and you know immediately it’s a shoe, rather than a splotch or color field.
Criswell isn’t difficult in the sense that his “genius” — and we’ll use that overused word here because it’s applicable — is apparent in the same way Da Vinci’s or Rembrandt’s or Vermeer’s is apparent (and will be so long as human eyes can behold them). They can be enjoyed by anyone — and anyone can be disturbed by them.
But the “accessibility” of Criswell’s work — the fact that no one could dismiss it by comparing it to their kid’s scribbles — shouldn’t be taken as an argument against any higher emotive complexity. Criswell is not painting what he sees — he is not copying photographs or trying to preserve a particularly beautiful, horrible or exotic tableau. (We don’t “see” the world the way cameras render it anyway, we “see” with our minds more than our eyes.)
Still, one needn’t resort to artspeak to describe Criswell’s work, all one needs to do is look. This doesn’t mean that artspeak isn’t valuable; just that however erudite and perceptive the essays in the catalogs may be, they are written for an elite group of insiders — people who expect to contend with the sometimes circuitous constructions of an edge-walking critic seeking to explicate the work from the disadvantaged perspective of his own unreliable eyes. Though nonspeakers tend to view artspeak as a conspiracy of exclusion run on the rubes by the notalent dabblers and the insecure phonies who walk the galleries — a tongue in which it is quite easy to say much about nothing or nothing about much — those articles in artforum are not really so much jibber-jabber.
They are — or at least some of them are — a kind of dialogue between writer and artist, a working through of the writer’s perception of the ideas the artist, who works in a language closer to the heart and the gut than the brain, has raised in his art. Sometimes the writer misperceives, sometimes the writer has trouble describing his perceptions, sometimes the art itself is junk. But artspeak is a kind of necessary evil when talking about the work of most artists.
It would be wrong to suggest Criswell is one of the few artists who can blast through the critical filter and speak directly to an audience; all good artists do that. It’s just that with Criswell no one needs to be told what he’s seeing, no one need feel intimidated by the details of the process. Criswell’s process is invisible — only technicians look at his stuff and see brushstrokes and the brightening effects of lead white pigment. The rest of us see faces and ennui, the sad soft play of shadows in a desperate room at 4 a.m., a thousand anxious details caught in the interrogative flashlight of the first-person beholder.
Often we see Criswell himself, satirized, caught doing something disturbing or in difficult straits. Soft and balding, mild-looking, ordinary and bespectacled, wearing expressions of gentle bewilderment and spiteful indignation. Criswell paints himself without vanity, he uses himself as a prop, a symbol for the human component.
His paintings can be read and ciphered — we might guess at the stories being told or simply accept the nervous tension of the presented tableaux as the organizing energy of the human experience.
We know more about Criswell than his scant biography tells us — it allows that he was born in Florida in 1936 and that he received early training at the Norton School of Art. Other than that, he professes to being self-taught.
Apparently he painted for a while in his 20s, but by 1964 had decided to concentrate on writing — a quick trip around the Internet provides evidence Criswell is an astute critic of art and society. He returned to visual art in the mid-1970s, about the time he settled in Arkansas. That is perhaps all the artist wants us to know about him, though he might also welcome an extensive feature story.
In either case, a more meaningful autobiography probably can be gleaned from surveying Criswell’s paintings. For our purposes, Criswell is his body of work and the real test of Criswell’s work is its ability to intrigue and unsettle, to resist quick and easy assessments.
A Criswell becomes more interesting the longer you look at it (or live with it). Criswell’s paintings reward study. An educated looker might immediately decide that this artist likes allegory and paints in a neoclassic style but with Criswell, first impressions are generally misdirecting. Another person might see the humor first, and only later be discomfited by the ominous, admonitory nature of some of the images — the artist appears as prey and predator, as presumptive ritual sacrifice and object of humiliation.
It is difficult to say; the artist is everywhere, grinning and grimacing, furtive in the shadows. If you catch him maybe he’ll give up his secret. Or maybe you should just see.
This essay is adapted from one that originally appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2003.