[The Narcissistic Sinner: Warren Criswell's Pictures, by Donald Kuspit, page 2]

 

It is a wonderful fantasy—a magnificent wish fulfillment, an ironical balancing of pleasure and reality principles—made all the more magnificent by the dense, hand-ground paint Criswell uses. It will last forever, or at least as long as the stone of the Egyptian temple. But for all the clarity of the image and its meticulous execution, Criswell implies that it is a fleeting illusion.


 Donald Kuspit is Professor of Art History and Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stoney Brook, Andrew Dixon White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University, and a contributing editor and critic for Art Forum Magazine. He is the author of The Dialectic of Decadence, Idiosyncratic Identities: Artists at the End of the Avant-Garde, Signs of Psyche in Modern and Postmodern Art, and The Existential/Activist Painter: The Example of Leon Golub, and many other books and articles on art and artists.
Its brushy, unstable edges—it does not completely fill the canvas—suggest that it is a dream. (Virtually all of Criswell's works show a similar picture-within-a-picture concept, or rather, a vision-in-a-void concept.) Its tenebrism also confirms its hallucinatory character, as does the startling detail of the red rope and its shadow, lying low and cutting horizontally across the very vertical picture.
 Criswell will awaken from this particular dream of himself, and record it, but he will quickly have another with similar content and structure, and record it with the same painstaking attention to hallucinatory detail. He invariably shows himself doubled, sometimes tripled, as in Highway 61, 1993. It is the self against the self, in conflict with itself: carnal Criswell threatened by the Grand-Inquisitor-Cardinal-Superego. Thus, in The Storm, 1993, a Cardinal Criswell—he wears the red vestments of the Inquisition—confronts a naked Criswell. His hands are tied behind him, while the Cardinal's hands, behind him, hold a no doubt incriminating document.

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The Trespasser, 1993,
oil/wax on linen,
60 x 48 in.
(detail)

  Their nightmarish encounter—and virtually all of Criswell's pictures are aggressive, if also erotic nightmares—occurs on the side of a highway, that peculiar no-man's-land that is America's contribution to civilization. The eggshells that litter that desert reappear on the table of The Question, 1991. In that dream picture the same naked, bound Criswell faces the same Cardinal Criswell, who interrogates him with the aid of an electric lamp.

In The Kiss, 1992, a liberated Criswell tries to kiss the startled Cardinal Criswell at the same table. This may be a reference to Ivan's parable of "The Grand Inquisitor" in Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov, in which Christ returns to earth during the Spanish Inquisition. Indeed, the double egg yolk in the glass is illuminated like the infant Christ in a medieval nativity, and this life symbol also appears in the drawing The Cardinal Reading, 1993. In Dostoevsky's story the captured Christ stands up after his long interrogation and kisses the Cardinal-Inquisitor, who had planned to burn him in the morning at the auto-da-fe.


Highway 61, 1993
oil/wax on plywood
48 x 36 inches


The Question, 1991
oil on linen
36 x 48 inches


The Storm, 1992
oil/wax on linen
48 x 36 inches


The Kiss, 1992
oil/wax on linen
48 x 36 inches

But if Criswell's version of this scene is to be read as an attempt to reunify his fragmented self, it is obvious—to judge from the expression of horror on the Cardinal's face—that is does not succeed. Nor does the Christ reference negate his prisoner-self's carnal nature: in The Cardinal Reading the naked Criswell, once again bound, sleeps, while in the shadowy background a woman is getting dressed.

In Table Dancer and Two Manikins, both of 1992, Criswell gives his game away, as it were: both figures are puppets in a play, more particularly, projections of his psyche. The naked figure is sexually obsessed but inhibited by the Cardinal, who has bound him—but at the same time tempts him in Table Dancer (perhaps a reference to the Devil's temptation of Christ, as told by Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor). The same conflicted attitude to woman—simultaneously guilty and lustful—is suggested by Changing Woman, 1992. Both figures, in miniature, are laid out on the table in front of a naked woman. She holds the glass of egg yolks as though it was the vessel of a sacrament—a symbol of her sacred, mysterious womb. (Changing Woman, in the Navajo religion, is the virgin mother of twin heroes who went on a quest to seek their origins.) The Animation, 1992, makes it clear that they are fighting over—performing for, being animated by—the woman. Is she the Great Mother or the Great Whore, or both?

 
The Cardinal Reading, 1992, acrylic & conté on paper, 22 x 30 inches

 



Table Dancer, 1992,
acrylic , conté on paper,
28 x 23 inches

 


Two Manikins, 1992,
mixed media on paper
25 x 33 inches

 


The Diver, 1993,
oil/wax on plywood,
59 x 44 inches

 

 

 

 


Crab King Crossing, 1991,
oil/wax on linen,
48 x 54 inches

 In Table Dancer a third Criswell observes the scene, turning it into art with the detachment and integrity of what W. Ronald Fairbairn calls the "central ego." Criswell the artist has a strong enough ego to survive the conflict. Criswell the artist is also able to be detached about woman, as The Pool, 1991, suggests. Indeed, hovering in the air above her, unsupported, he appears at first to be "superior" to her. Criswell the artist must in fact be detached from—the observant student, even intellectual interpreter of—his conflict. This is indicated by Highway 61, in which Criswell the artist, again hovering, plays the part of the angel in a bizarre appropriation of Rembrandt's masterpiece, The Angel Stopping Abraham from Sacrificing Isaac to God. Criswell the artist can watch from inside a corked bottle, as in The Diver, 1993, while the naked prisoner—here liberated and aroused—comes to the rescue of the sinking Cardinal (or perhaps to finish him off), and face, unblinking, his terror of the Other in Crab King Crossing, 1991.

A closer look, however, reveals the failure of this artistic detachment: in The Pool, for instance, sprouting antlers identify the artist as the voyeur Actaeon, only moments before being torn apart by the hounds of his own lust, as the floating Diana looks on, serenely outraged; and in Highway 61 the artist-angel is unaware that he is about to be run down along with his other "selves." Criswell the artist is in fact just another character in the play. With each objectification of himself the "real" artist—"central ego" or St. Augustine's "inner man"—recedes ever farther into the tenebrae.

 Working with a great economy of iconographic as well as formal means, Criswell has made a number of intense, uncanny, highly concentrated images of his own inner life. He has objectified not only his sexual conflict, but his "transcendent" position as an artist. It clearly saves him from himself: his art is the saving grace in his "sick" scenes. It permits him to see his conflict as a kind of theater, and to regard it with irony and finally good humor, that is, as a funny if weird melodrama.

But make no mistake: his images are grim and sinister. Not only does their tenebrism—their generally Caravaggesque realism, modified by American populist descriptive realism—testify to this, but their setting as well. It is uniformly desolate, indeed, desolately uniform America. The empty highway in Highway 61, Two Men on Stilts, 1991, The Storm and Crab King Crossing—Criswell here is caught in the headlights of car and perhaps about to be hit and killed by it, just as he was caught by a flashlight in The Trespasser and about to be caught and punished for his crime (ultimately the crime of his desire, his animal nature; he holds his penis in the latter picture)—is as important a subject matter, that is, as obsessively thematized, as the figures in those pictures. Similarly, the table at which the naked Criswell and Cardinal Criswell sit is barren, for all the objects on it. They are equally futile, as All the King's Horses, 1992, makes clear.

 Working with a great economy of iconographic as well as formal means, Criswell has made a number of intense, uncanny, highly concentrated images of his own inner life. He has objectified not only his sexual conflict, but his "transcendent" position as an artist. It clearly saves him from himself: his art is the saving grace in his "sick" scenes. It permits him to see his conflict as a kind of theater, and to regard it with irony and finally good humor, that is, as a funny if weird melodrama.

But make no mistake: his images are grim and sinister. Not only does their tenebrism—their generally Caravaggesque realism, modified by American populist descriptive realism—testify to this, but their setting as well. It is uniformly desolate, indeed, desolately uniform America. The empty highway in Highway 61, Two Men on Stilts, 1991, The Storm and Crab King Crossing—Criswell here is caught in the headlights of car and perhaps about to be hit and killed by it, just as he was caught by a flashlight in The Trespasser and about to be caught and punished for his crime (ultimately the crime of his desire, his animal nature; he holds his penis in the latter picture)—is as important a subject matter, that is, as obsessively thematized, as the figures in those pictures. Similarly, the table at which the naked Criswell and Cardinal Criswell sit is barren, for all the objects on it. They are equally futile, as All the King's Horses, 1992, makes clear.

 They cannot put the Humpty Dumpty Criswell feels he is together again after his "fall," a term which of course connotes sexual—"original"—sin, and the mythic origin of mortality. This is why Criswell expects to be punished, to crack up—to be hit by a car, captured by a guard and imprisoned, that is condemned by the spectator—by the Other (no doubt for showing himself literally as well as emotionally naked, and thus violating a social taboo, especially against the latter).

In the same way, The Diver, Two Men on Stilts, and The Pool contain vast voids. Emptiness is vulgar rather than solemn in America, that is, a sign of indifference rather than interiority. Criswell's brilliant rendering of all-American emptiness symbolizes his feeling of anxious emptiness in an indifferent world. It is in effect the punishment the Cardinal threatens him with: to escape the void he must endure the exhaustion of his conflict, more particularly, of his restraint of his lust. His empty space is always ominous and threatening, as in Two Men on Stilts, where the sky is full of smoke and fire, and in The Diver, where the sea is a stormy abyss. Both suggest infernal suffering, punishment, and doom.


All The King's Horses, 1992,
oil/wax on linen, 48 x 36 inches 

 D. W. Winnicott once said that the catastrophe one fears has already happened—one's fear of going mad, for instance, always acknowledges a madness that already exists. Criswell's works are a remarkably precise demonstration of such fears. They also motivated many equally histrionic surrealists, but Criswell is less mechanical they they tend to become, no doubt because he does not have the same didactic purpose, which is one of the saving graces of working for oneself, and in an American idiom. Criswell's pictures are rooted in sexual conflict, but reach deeper, into the mystery of the self.


The Narcissistic Sinner: Warren Criswell's Pictures
by Donald Kuspit (1994)
Copyright 1997 by Warren Criswell

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