Montage of Criswell, Peters & Bailin, assembled by David Bailin for the Disparate Acts Redux catalog

The following are some rambling notes I made in preparation for a possible gallery talk at the opening of the exhibition Disparate Acts Redux: Bailin, Criswell, Peters at the Butler Center of Arkansas Studies in Little Rock, August through October, 2015.

 

BEHIND THE CURTAIN



I read an article, a review, of a show of new paintings at MOMA, in which the writer was lamenting that there was nowhere new to go, aside from outlandish gimmicks, and therefore painting was finished. It could bleed, he said, but not heal. That was Peter Schjeldahl. But this is a misunderstanding of creativity and not what Arthur Danto meant by "The End of Art." It's true that this is the feeling that dominated Modernism, whose main tendency was to eliminate everything considered to be necessary to a work of art up until that moment - narrative, verisimilitude, line, color, whatever - in search of the final essence. It was a spiritual quest, really, in spite of some of its phenomenological results, like action painting and minimalism. But it was like the search for the Wizard of Oz, and it ended - for me - in the '70s when Sol LeWitt eliminated the art object itself. The final work was the concept, which in this case was a list of instructions on how to make the painting or the "structure," as he called his sculptures. With the physical presence gone, or unnecessary, there was nothing left to eliminate, no Wizard behind the curtain. At least that's the way I saw it, and it ended my futile pursuit of uniqueness. Or gave me an excuse to end it.

Arthur Danto called it "The End of Art," and the three of us are a good example. He meant the end of the linear history of Western art theory: the progression from Romanticism to Realism to Impressionism to Expressionism to Cubism to Abstraction to Minimalism to Conceptualism. The end. After that there are no more isms, no more manifestos, no more movements. We were forced in upon ourselves, to find our own truths, our own personal way to express them. It was only when I gave up my pursuit of uniqueness and started trying to paint like the Old Masters that people started saying my work was unique. Danto quotes Leonardo da Vinci, ogni dipintore dipinge se ("every painter paints himself").

 
The Question, 1991, oil on linen, 36 x 43 inches (private collection)

Sammy stayed with AbEx but let it evolve into something difficult to categorize. Just as in a great symphony you discover something new every time you hear it, every time you look at a painting of Sammy's you see it differently.

 
Impulse: significant; origin, 2015, mixed media on canvas, 52 x 68 inches (Remember that worm....)

In the '80s, David, who had gone into theater in response to the announced death of painting, now drifted back into the graveyard of visual art, translating his scripts into stark charcoal dramas on paper.

 
Salt (Lot's Wife), 1994, charcoal on paper, 96 x 144 inches

This reminds me of another similarity between David and me in those days: we both looked back, like Lot's wife, and we both defied gravity.

 
The Pool, 1991, oil on linen, 72 x 48 inches


Because after Modernism there was no direction you had to follow. It wasn't a dead end, it was a garden of forking paths, a liberation. Artists were free to follow their own personal obsessions and not be called reactionaries or dinosaurs.

Changes in styles and materials and media of course still happen with social and cultural changes, but those are external. The inner parts, the processes of creativity, don't change. They are the same now as they were 35,000 years ago in Chauvet and Altamira, and most of those parts are unconscious. Creativity is mostly letting your unconscious override your conscious, rational mind - the mind that tries desperately to become unique! - or rather allowing it to give direction to your rational mind. But creativity feeds on discovery, which means a change in perception. So there's the problem: finding and executing changes in a changeless process.

The true artist, the addict, like the three of us, can't keep doing the same things over and over. We each took different paths but we're alike in needing that fix, that hit, which is stumbling across something new, a discovery, whether it's a sudden hypotenuse in a painting of rectangles ...

 
Transference: imagined; requirement, 2015, mixed media on canvas, 48 x 48 inches

. . . or a concave curve in a model's thigh . . .
 
Psyche, 2012, terracotta, 17 x 13 x 3 inches


. . . or the way a stroke of paint looks over charcoal.

 
Raincoat, 2013, charcoal,oil and coffee on prepared paper, 84 x 95 inches


Yes, later we may find that we discovered that before, years ago, but as long as we don't realize it at the time, we're good!

I remember David's despair when he thought he had exhausted Kafka as a source . . .

 
Drip, 2013, charcoal on prepared paper, 52 x 54 inches (Now I'm seeing cups full of blood: bleeding but not healing!)

. . . the same way I felt when I had brought my Grand Inquisitor series to an end.


All the King's Horses, 1992, oil on linen, 48 x 36 inches


And I know Sammy is as concerned about this as David and I, because recently when I was cleaning out my bookshelves I came across an interview in a magazine from 2003 (Pasatiempo, Sept. 12-18, "Pleasurable Tones" by Craig Smith, p.54), where Sammy said, "When you look back at Pollock or de Kooning or Rothko, it looks so serial." He said he knew there was a progression in his own work too, but "the tone and mood from one painting to the next can jump more dramatically" than most of the guys he used to look at.

 
Repose: significant; memory suite, No.10, 2015, mixed media on canvas, 11 x 14 inches

 

 
Repose: significant; memory suite, No.16, 2015, mixed media on canvas, 12 x 16 inches

 

 
Repose: significant; memory suite, No. 9, 2015, mixed media on canvas, 11 x 14 inches


And those are all in the same suite!

So it's important for all of us to stay at that edge - that doorway to the abyss that we haven't yet experienced - or think we haven't. The trick is finding the door.

I read an article in the New Yorker about Yitang Zhang, the mathematician who proved the "bounded gaps" problem, a 150-year-old mystery of prime numbers, and he said exactly the same thing: "Where is the door?" Like art, mathematics is a pursuit of beauty, and you can't find it just because you want to or have some formula to get there. Zhang said it was like "trying to maneuver himself into a maze. When trying to prove a theorem, you can almost be totally lost to knowing exactly where you want to go." Finding your way, can happen in a moment, and "then you live to do it again."

It's exactly the same with the artist. That's the addiction: you live to do it again.

But that's not so easy. Art is artificial, but we want it to be the truth. Our truth. An unsolvable conundrum. How to find that door from artifice to truth? You can't find it because you want to, it has to ambush you. This was Riggan's problem in the movie Birdman, trying to get from comic book character to serious stage artist, and he only found it by shooting himself in the head. Benjamin Haydon and Mark Rothko found similar solutions. Rothko didn't think people understood his work and were buying it for the wrong reasons. (I'm not saying that's why he killed himself, but it must have had something to do with it.) Haydon, from Turner's time, had some success with the royalty at first but was then ignored. Like Rodney Dangerfield, he didn't get no respect. (Haydon shot himself but screwed that up too and had to cut his throat.)

But those of us who are neither suicidal nor able to cure our addiction have no choice but to keep hoping to find those doors, going deeper into the maze. Or maybe trying to get out. The maze, the labyrinth, keeps showing up in David's drawings, from the early Midrash series to the recent Dreams & Disasters.

 Pryramid (Moses and Aaron), 1999, charcoal on paper, 96 x 157 inches (Here the labyrinth is lurking darkly in the lower right.)

 


Papers, 2013, charcoal, pastel & coffee on prepared paper, 73 x 83 inches 
(Here it whirls above the terrified bookkeeper, threatening to swallow him up.)



Lately, I've been following the crumbs of my earlier work, back out of the labyrinth, avoiding the Minotaur, making prints of old images, hoping the Muse will take pity on me. But the Muse has no pity. She will sing only when she's damn ready. All three of us know the agony and terror of confronting a blank canvas or paper, alone in our studios, and the joy when the lightning strikes. And the fear when it doesn't.

Because the truth, the unknown entity lurking behind that door, is not only an object of desire - it's also scary. We live our normal lives on this side of the door, in a state of denial. We have all the animal drives for pleasure and survival, but we're the only animal that knows it was born and is going to die. Art, religion and even science were born not only out of our need to find order in chaos - to tell a story - but also out of this terrible knowledge of our finiteness, our transience. We ate that apple from the Tree of Knowledge and have been trying to deal with the consequences ever since.

We hide our animal pleasures - which is why you didn't see my videos in this show (they were deemed a little too truthful for this public venue) - and repress our human fears. This is necessary. It's like when you're driving down the road, seeing only what's necessary to get safely where you're going, editing out all the rest. As Sherlock Holmes said, you're seeing, Watson, but not observing. Observing can lead to dangerous things - like a wreck, or a painting. To live our lives we have to steer a course down the middle, avoiding the pleasures and the terrors, or else social order would collapse. But the artist holed up in his or her studio, in search of that monster Truth, doesn't have this luxury. We have to try to find that door to what is either too much fun or too scary - or, as in my case sometimes, both at once.



Regis Cancorum Trahsentis (The Crab King Crossing), 1991, oil on linen, 48 x 54 inches 


I see now that my Crab King Crossing expresses both desire and dread! (The crabs are crossing A1A on the Florida east coast to the beach for their annual spring orgy. A lot of them didn't make it.) At the time I saw it as a confrontation with the Other, and it is that too. But the Other only allows us to see ourselves through his or her eyes. And the artist painting himself is his own Other. Thinking also about my Dies Irae painting ... Day of Wrath.

 
Dies Irae, 1985, oil on canvas, 50 x 63 inches


And I suddenly realized what the "worm" in some of Sammy's paintings is! Many of his shapes and motifs, like David's, have a way of reappearing and evolving in his paintings, and one of them is this convoluted, twisted, tubular, organic looking thing. Thinking about transference, as the psychologist call it, is what led me to this interpretation.

Transference is kind of a tricky concept. According to Becker and Jung, we transfer our fears and desires to an object - our job, our family, whatever - thereby avoiding facing them directly. But what if the object is one's art, which demands honestly confronting both fear and desire? It looks like in that case transference loops back on itself, feeding on itself like the Ouroboros, the self-nourishing world snake. That's what Sammy's worm is! - to me, that is, surely not to Sammy.

Here's one example - that black thing lurking on the right like David's labyrinth, a python swallowing its tail.

 
Essence: inseparable; illusion, 2015, mixed media on canvas, 72 x 60 inches

(I know this isn't the way Sammy thinks when he's titling his paintings, but this one could be read "Essence is inseperable from illusion." That is pure phenomenology!)


Becker says, "The real world is simply too terrible to admit; it tells man that he is a small, trembling animal who will decay and die." But for the artist that too can be an inspiration! For the artist the truth, no matter how terrible, can open the door to his or her creativity, and as a creator, he once more becomes a god who has conquered his mortality - even though he has done it by confronting the very fact of his mortality! The Ouroboros indeed. Art with a bite.
 Otto Rank said that the artist must "step out of the frame" of the ruling mindset, whether one's own or the culture's, and learn how to unlearn. Creative solutions emerge from the fluctuating, ever-expanding and ever-contracting, space between separation and union. Art and the creative impulse, said Rank in Art and Artist, "originate solely in the constructive harmonization of this fundamental dualism of all life" (Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death)
Another dualism of mine has been the urge to push forward into the undiscovered and the equally strong urge to look backwards, like Lot's wife, into the past. I love the cave art of our early ancestors. Already they were pushing into the unknown, creating images of animals - mammoths, aurochs, woolly rhinos - which they subsequently hunted to extinction. This duality is the terrible but unavoidable truth of being human. Neanderthals, when they came to an ocean, stopped. Humans - differing only in a few tiny genetic variations - built boats and kept going. Neanderthals apparently had no interest in art or discovery. They didn't look into the past or the future. If we hadn't come out of Africa they would probably still be around, along with the mammoths and aurochs, hunting with the same tools they had used for a hundred thousand years. They didn't have the "creativity gene," as some have called it. We might also call it the "destructivity gene." Elizabeth Kolbert, in The Sixth Extinction, put this way:

"With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it, which, as it happens, is also the capacity to destroy it."

Which we are doing. Even as we create and discover new things, we're sawing off the limb we're sitting on. This can be depressing, but for an artist it can also be perversely inspiring, and it has shown up in my art from time to time, as in Penthesilea . . .

 
Penthesilea (Love is a Dog Bite), 2011, 36 x 48 inches

El Dorado . . .

 
Eldorado
, 2013, oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches

. . . Two Men on Stilts, from back in 1991, and many others.


Two Men on Stilts, 1991, acrylic & oil on paper, 46 x 53 inches


But now I realize that while this creative/destructive dichotomy sometimes shows up in the subject matter of my work, it's actually an integral part of David's and Sammy's process. David is working on a series in which he rubs out everything he draws . . .

 
Red Tie, 2015, charcoal, oil, pastel & coffee on prepared paper, 72 x 84 inches


And my favorite, a destroyed drawing from several years ago . . .

 
Destroyed drawing

. . . in which only the ghosts are left. Even the room is starting to fade.

And Sammy's paintings are also equal measures of creation and destruction.

 
Momentary: accessible; appearance, 2015, mixed media on canvas, 72 x 60 inches

If you look at them with an archeologist's eye, you can imagine whole civilizations under the surface, created and destroyed during the painting process, leaving only glimpses of their past glory, like Ozymandias' trunkless stumps, eroding in the desert. So in a way, their work is as scary as mine! If I may translate another of Sammy's titles, "Appearance is only momentarily accessible."

So even if the work we're producing in the isolation of our studios is bleeding but not healing, as Schjeldahl says, maybe that too can have the beauty of truth.

 Warren Criswell
August 2015

 

PS. At the risk of being morbid, I can't resist giving David the last word:

 
The Last Artist, 2015, charcoal on gessoed canvas, 11 x 14 inches

 

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