It's about time (continued)

IV. “It’s aliiiiiiiiiive!”


Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337), Basilique Assise, Stigmatization of St Francis

When we get older the world has gotten older too. Fewer things surprise us. We start repeating ourselves without realizing it. Routine takes over our lives. Time seems to speed up and we can see Death down the road. If you're a creative person, you need to reboot.

I must have seen animation as a way to do that, but it came at a price. Like Poussin’s shepherds I had to give up on immortality. In bringing my drawings to life, I also brought them to death. As Hector Berlioz said, "Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils."

Giotto’s perfect moment now had a past and future, a beginning and an end. A painting seems to exist eternally, but I don’t have that feeling with an animation. I feel almost like a performance artist who can never repeat his performance. It seems to blur the distinction between art and life, a kind of branding by the stigmata of time.

Of course a movie can be played over and over, just as a musical composition can, but there’s something about its existence in time, the addition of a fourth dimension, that gives me a feeling of transience, of passing.

 “The world past, the world to come. Their common transiencies.
Above all a knowing deep in the bone that beauty and loss are one.”
(Cormac McCarthy, Cities of the Plain)

Music exists in time, painting and sculpture in space. Animation can be a kind of bridge between the two. As a painter, when I thought about making my images move, they always moved to music. But, metaphorically speaking, it's a shaky bridge. The artist, like everyone else, is in the river of time, but we think an exception has been made in our case, because we’re able to make stuff and throw it up on the riverbank (as long as we can believe in the riverbank).

Since Giotto, we capture a moment and immortalize it. As an animator you give this up. You're caught in the flow. The bridge falls into the river.

Aristeas I, 1996,
oil on wood,
24 x 17 inches

 Aristeas, according to a story by Herodotus, found a way avoid falling in. He flew away!

I painted this in 1996 and recently decided to animate it. Aristeas is supposed to have left his mortal body in the form of a raven and hung out with Apollo on his travels around the world. He wrote a poem of his adventures and part of it is preserved by Longinus in his essay "On the Sublime," written in the 1st Century AD.

"This too we remark in great wonder: men dwell in the water, far from land in the midst of the sea. Unlucky wights they are, for they suffer grievously, with their eyes on the stars but their life amidst the waves. Assuredly, lifting their hands to the gods, many are the prayers which they must make, with entrails sorely tossed."

 Seasick, I think he means. But as I worked on the background of this animation—I was working from a video of surf—I began to feel like those mermen, living inside the wave, but in extreme slow-motion, drawing frame after frame, sometimes 24 in a day, which would give me 1 to 2 seconds of movement.


 I keep having to use this quote from Conan Doyle, because it's so relevant to my experience in art. Sherlock says, "Quite so, Watson. You see but you do not observe. The distinction is clear."

Living inside these waves, I began to think of everything as waves—the lives of individuals, of civilizations, of species, all rolling through the ecosystem, lowering entropy for a while but, like the wave as it approaches shallow water and goes into overshoot mode, having to pay it back eventually. But it's a glorious moment, this breaking of the wave. Maybe it's like McCarthy said, "beauty and loss are one."

So I was having philosophical thoughts like these but at the same time I was discovering the intimate secrets of the waves. I heard an interview with Frank Langella, the actor who played Nixon in "Nixon and Frost." He said he couldn't get Nixon right until he accidentally hit the slow-motion button. Watching him like that, he said, revealed to him the soul of Richard Nixon. He said he could see everything Nixon was hiding.

It was like that with me, watching these waves frame by frame. I saw figures moving inside them, crashing to the sand and then sucked back into the sea. I grew up on the beach in Florida, watching, hearing and swimming in these waves, seeing them but not observing them, as Sherlock said, until now, 70 years later, landlocked in Arkansas.

After I finished this animation I read a review of Karl Knausgaard's novel "My Struggle: Book One" (2009), and I can't resist including his closing lines here, because they mirror my thoughts while drawing the wave:

"For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but also in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone, and water. And death … was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor."

And, he might have added, a wave that breaks on the beach. Here's my animation of Aristeas.

So if we step back and take a wider veiw of the creative/destructive struggle I mentioned before—a view from outside our own inflated heads—we might see this destructivity itself as a part of the natural wave. We think of ourselves as somehow outside of nature because we have consciousness, but from an existential point of view it's not clear whether, for instance, humans have domesticated tomatoes or tomatoes have domesticated humans. It just depends on whether you're a human or a tomato. Both are helping the other to propagate their genes. (And I've known some humans who were tomatoes.)

Otters pick up stones to use as anvils for breaking open mussels. Chimpanzees make tools to extract termites from a log, and sharpen sticks to use as spears to kill bush babies. We make guns and bombs to kill each other. When does it stop being nature? All this—this computer, the projector, the cars we drove here in, the good, the bad and the ugly— are all part of nature, not outside it.

After having that revelation I read Lee Smolin’s book Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe. Parts of it echo– from a physicist’s point of view—what I was saying about the efforts of religion, art and science to stop time. And near the end he writes, “We’re accustomed to seeing ourselves as apart from nature and our technologies as impositions on the natural world. But whether we fantasize about our conquering nature or nature surviving us, we have reached the limits of the usefulness of the idea that we’re separate from nature. If we want to survive as a species, we need a new way of seeing ourselves, in which we and everything we make and do are as natural as the cycles of carbon and oxygen we emerged from and in which we participate with every breath.”

H. G. Wells has a great line near the end of his novel Tono-Bungay, where a trip down the Thames becomes a metaphor for the transience of life and art. "The river passes--London passes, England passes. We are all things that make and pass, striving upon a hidden mission, out to the open sea.“

So from the point of view of an alien watching us from a few light-years away, it wouldn't make any difference whether the biosphere was destroyed by humans or by an asteroid. Both were natural phenomena, and the biosphere is still toast. Self-consciousness is just another natural phenomenon.

This is from the physicist Sean Carroll's book about time, From Eternity to Here (—which, by the way, is the book I'm "sleep reading" in the print) :

"We find ourselves, not as a central player in the life of the cosmos, but as a tiny epiphenomenon, flourishing for a brief moment as we ride a wave of increasing entropy from the Big Bang to the quiet emptiness of the future universe."

The funny thing is, that sudden realization of our own insignificance, pulling the rug out from under our self-importance, can somehow be a source of inspiration for the artist or scientist.

Why is that? Maybe because no matter how relative reality may be, or how insignificant in some other, larger reality, it’s still real to us! Maybe it’s the subjective reality of these precious, passing moments that inspires us.


The Moon & Six Cents, 2013, oil on canvas,
40 x 30 inches

Conjunction, 2012, watercolor,
30 x 22 inches


At this point I would have stopped talking and played my movie, but it occurred to me a few months ago that I’m not the only painter I know feeling this unconscious urge to push into the dangers of the 4th dimension. My friend Matthew Lopas is one of the most original painters you’ll find anywhere. Looking at Matthew's new spherical panoramas, I suddenly realized that he’s not just inventing a new kind of twisted perspective, he's introducing time into his work. This what I meant about linear perspective getting twisted by time.



Matthew Lopas, Staircase with Baby Grand,
2009, oil on canvas, 39 x 52 inches

 He started by just widening his view of interiors, and he discovered when he did that that the straight lines of linear perspective become curves. He painted like this for years (see Staircase with Baby Grand, above--and then pushed it to extremes.

Matthew Lopas, Baker House, 2012, oil on canvas, 54 x 61 inches. Progressives on the left, the final painting on the right. 

You can't look in 5 or 6 different directions all at the same time. He looks over here and draws that, then he looks over there and draws that, looks down, draws that, looks up, draws that, etc., connecting all the views in a global panorama to make a single map of his journey-- the journey of his gaze. So when you look at the painting you're looking at a span of time as well as space.

He pushed his concept to its logical extreme in his painting of the Baker House in North Little Rock– if you can call this logic. If you look closely you can see that his gaze meets itself at the edges, like Zoroaster meeting his own image in the garden. In 2013 Matthew pushed this concept even further in his Miller House painting in Little Rock.

Matthew Lopas, Miller House, oil on canvas, 55 x 102 inches.
Note the strange resemblance of this painting to the Goode homolosine projection of the world map. "Its equal-area property makes it useful for presenting spatial distribution of phenomena." (Wikipedia)

Not only does this painting encompass more than 360 degrees (I'm guessing 540), but when your gaze meets itself coming back – things have changed! The red glass lamp was on when your eye was first drawn to it, but now it's off! And somebody has moved the chair! No wonder Matthew was worried about ghosts invading his paintings! But seriously ... his interiors are empty of people but full of memories of them, so that in that sense, too, they are about time. "I search for a place that represents a certain sense of longing for something lost," Matthew writes, "for something I can never go back to, like my childhood home, a sense of mortality."

Then I realized that two of my other artist friends, David Bailin and Sammy Peters, are doing the same thing in different ways, both using pentimenti—that is, the overlaying of images over previous images, recording the tortuous journey they took to arrive at the final drawing or painting.
Destroyed drawing, charcoal on paper
 David often never gets to that point, because the search seems to be more important to his work than finding whatever it is he's looking for. It’s another example of creativity vs. destructivity. His inspirations have come from Kafka, the Torah, the Holocaust, Buster Keaton and old newspaper clippings. Each drawing is really a play like he used to produce in NY at the Abreaction Theater in the '80s.



Destroyed drawing, charcoal on paper


Ghosts, destroyed drawing
. This one’s a masterpiece. Everyone has gone, only the ghosts remain. Even the room is starting to fade.


Push, underdrawing.
Here is the river itself:
time defeating the artist.

Cars, 2011, Charcoal on Paper, 84 x 96 inches

This one was originally titled “Disaster” but his gallery didn’t care for that so he caved and changed it to “Cars.” But the point is, the final drawing—when there is one—is just the last scene of the play! It’s about time.

A similar thing is going on in Sammy’s paintings. You can see where they've been. You have to look at them like a geologist or archeologist to see their past lives.


Appeal: specified; devices,
oil & mixed media on canvas


Determined: interlocking; identity, oil & mixed media on canvas


Modified: circling; deception, oil & mixed media on canvas

Objects are stuck on, then painted over. Ancient strata are exposed by excavation. Sometimes, in the same painting, you’re looking at different rates of change: very fast movement—the splatters and drips—and the static strata of dried paint. So there’s all this painting and pasting and scraping and in the end you have a very complex integration of time and space.

And sometimes everything that went before almost disappears, leaving only incomprehensible traces, like an extinct civilization.

Connection: narrow; opinion, oil & mixed media on canvas


Time came into my work with animation, but that influenced my paintings too—

The Crow Descending, 2007, watercolor,
30 x 22½ inches

Dead Crow Walking, 2007, acrylic & graphite on paper, 30 x 22½ inches


—and even my sculptures. But now I see that I was still attempting to stop time. The only difference was that instead of freezing just one moment, I was freezing several.

Low Flying Crow, 2009, cast aluminum, 7 x 22 x 2 inches
I was amazed to discover that I could create the illusion of transparency—ghostly movement—in a solid material like clay or metal. But it's just another example of how our senses create the world we think of as reality. So my perfect moments now had a past and a future, a beginning and an end, just as each of us do. So what happened to my theory that art grew out of the knowledge of our own mortality? For that reason, sometimes I think my animations are closer to life than to art.


Nude Descending a Staircase, cast aluminum, 3 of 12, 15 x 11 x 2 inches


But I’ll give T.S. Eliot the last word. This is from his Four Quartets, and may express this puzzle as well as any words can:
 What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.

…The moment of the rose and moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration…

So with a heavy load of debt to my musical collaborators, especially the composers and performers Bob Boury and Steve Whiteaker, here are my Moments. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.

Warren Criswell, 2012



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