This is a copy of a fax sent to Capital Arts Center, Taipei, Taiwan, R.O.C., in response to a request for information about my drawings,
sent in July, 1993.

 

ULYSSES AT CIRCE'S
 "So they stood in the gateway of the fair-tressed goddess, and within they heard Circe singing as she went to and fro before a great imperishable web. . . . And she straightway came forth and opened the bright doors and bade them in, and they all went with her in their folly. . . .
"Now when she had given them the potion, and they had drunk it off, then she presently smote them with her wand, and penned them in the sties. And they had the heads, and voice, and bristles, and shape of swine, but their minds remained unchanged even as before."
The Odyssey, X, 231-41 

I usually "see" my work before I understand it. I have an image but not a whole idea, in the intellectual sense. My work is always created on the wave-front of lived experience, between perception and conception. So the "hero" of my visual dramas is always stumbling unprepared into dark and dangerous places, getting himself stuck in imperishable webs. The "Ulysses at Circe's" drawings address the problem of seeing in that darkness.

As a living person I can never arrive at a totality - a whole idea of my life-because I can't stop time. But a work of art does become a totality, a thing completed. Art is able to lift lived experience out of the stream of time and offer it up as a static object to be reflected upon. When I reflect on these barroom drawings now, I see meaning in them that they didn't have at the time I made them.

My main concerns then were problems like how to draw in the dark, how to draw moving figures, how to see the colors of the lights and to remember how they fell on the bodies of the dancers and the faces of the men watching them. I used to carry a penlight to see what I was drawing, and a few times I wore a headlamp contraption fitted with two tiny lights sticking out from my temples like horns.

I was coming to the end of a photorealism phase when I began making these drawings. I had decided that working from photographs was too restricting and had sworn off using any kind of photographic aid - which would have been impossible for this location, anyway. I wanted to be like Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec at the ballet and in the brothel, coolly observing and recording.

To me, the topless bar was a pagan temple. The dancers were holy priestesses, incarnations of the Goddess, and the male customers were supplicants performing an ancient liturgy. Social theorists may argue about who's being exploited in these places, the women or the men. But for me it was not a matter of exploitation but of sensual beauty. It was a wild, raw, Dionysian beauty: a smoky darkness throbbing with deafening music and pierced by moving beams of colored lights illuminating the naked body of the dancer and the naked faces of her worshippers.

The men's faces seemed even more naked, in fact, than the women's bodies, and I began to realize early on that they were the true subjects of my work, even when I left them out of the drawings. They were also the hardest to draw, because I couldn't look directly at them. That is an unspoken law of the temple: the congregation must look only at the women, not at each other. The dancers, at least while they were on stage, seemed as anonymous as those faceless Venuses of the Paleolithic caves, as though they wore opaque masks. But the masks the men wore were transparent to their longing souls. Instead of concealing us, our swine-masks revealed us. Which is why we couldn't look at each other.

But even this is more abstract conceptualizing than I was able to manage at the time. The erotic doesn't require or admit any meaning beyond itself. And yet, in order to make drawings of this scene I had to somehow separate myself from it. Art can't be practiced in state of arousal. It requires a repose of the glands. I found I was able to partially detach myself from the environment, so that I could make clinically objective observations without losing the erotic subjectivity that was essential to the subject.

All of these drawings were done originally as studies for paintings. And working on them and from them in the quiet of my studio, I began to see how, metaphorically speaking, the men were turned into drooling pigs, and how this sojourn at "Circe's" was an episode in the odyssey of my mythic hero - who is not "Warren," nor any specific person, but maybe a sort of Everyman made up of many identities - and how he eventually escaped from the magic of that dangerous sorceress, blindfolded and tied to the mast like Ulysses hurrying past the Sirens.

But I hope these drawings, crude as some of them are - or maybe because they are so crude - preserve some of that opaque, prereflective immediacy, a sense of being there in that place of enchantment and imprisonment. And I hope they record with some accuracy the details of this ancient ritual, which, in one form or another, is performed in a million places all over the world, every night, as it has been for at least the past four thousand years.
 Warren Criswell, July 1993

 THE DRAWINGS

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