By Peter Frank

The Question, 1993, oil on copper, 5 x 7 inches. Collection of Rickey Medlock

 Warren Criswell's painting - and his drawing and printmaking no less - troubles the waters of contemporary artistic discourse. Criswell's work proposes that an entirely backward-looking stylistic approach can act as a vehicle for entirely timely thoughts and sensations. Furthermore, although supported by the post-modernist argument, which encourages us not to dismiss an art such as Criswell's out of hand, his work does not rely on the conceptual dodges and self-conscious anachronisms we associate with post-modern practice. While Criswell's subject matter brims with the passions and disturbances of early 21st century life, it does not place itself at a dissonant, ironic angle to his entirely realist manner or technique. Rather, that manner, so thoroughly rooted in the late 19th century, and that technique, based on examples from the 16th (late Titian) and 17th (Rembrandt in particular), proves its durability and suppleness in Criswell's hands, serving as a graceful and powerful vehicle for the artist's sweeping narrative focus. 

Man in a Yellow Shirt, 2002, oil on linen,
24 x 18 inches
 Over the past two hundred years the narrative impulse has risen and fallen repeatedly throughout artistic practice. Considering that those two centuries have been dominated by powerfully persuasive communication technologies such as photography, cinema and television, it is no surprise that the discourses in more traditional media - themselves transformed by the liberating possibilities of abstraction - have wrestled with the narrative "question". The narrative is about the most provocative tradition in western art; as such, its profoundly uneasy condition in contemporary artistic practice - its relation to the novel, to theater, to film, and also to less exalted, even kitschy aspects of visual culture such as illustration and comic strips - only amplifies its ability to engage us on a variety of levels.
  Many contemporary narrative painters working in the United States exploit this newfound multivalence, not only mastering the formal and physical obduracies of traditional artistic media in order to meet the demands of pictorial storytelling, but developing a narrative practice whose peculiarities root it in those media. They have developed a not-quite-surrealism - an imagery loaded with idiosyncrasies derived from and dependent on the tones and textures of paint on canvas, pencil on paper, and even ink on plate or block - whose distortions of quotidian reality mirror (or anticipate) the slippages in perception to which we inhabitants of a complex and uncertain world are subject. If the ideologies of the Modernist era provided at least the projection of certainty onto a tumultuous civilization, the sociopolitical disillusion of the last half-century has left us without such psychological safety nets. (No wonder that so many people around the world now resort to religious fundamentalism - or that their fervency has now become one of the principal sources of the world's political, and spiritual, destabilization.) The "anxious realism" of these American artists embodies our cognitive, even somatic, free fall. Nothing is quite what it seems - nor, as the Zen koan goes, is it otherwise.
Anxious Realists are at work all around the United States, some contravening the dominant artistic discourse in major art centers, others taking advantage of their removal from such centers, still others responding to regional artistic environments and traditions. Although Anxious Realism answers to a countrywide malaise - a new age of anxiety in which the monsters under the bed seem more potent and less placable than ever - it invariably reflects local attitudes and circumstances. This would suggest that the American Southeast, vaunted as a hotbed of narrative expression and homegrown surrealism, would be especially hospitable to Anxious Realism.

It's thus not surprising to find that the state of Arkansas alone boasts one of America's best known and most extravagant Anxious Realists, Donald Roller Wilson, as well as one of the subtlest, Warren Criswell. The literary impulses of both Roller Wilson and Criswell are quite evident, and also quite evidently different. Roller Wilson transcends the anxiety of his realism with melodramatic imagery, baroque humor, and an anthropomorphism so attenuated that it at once mocks and celebrates the dogs-playing-cards tradition of the "cute." Criswell's imagery may reach similar levels of unlikelihood, but even his most elaborate fantasies are rooted in human behavior, in the conventions of seeing, and in formalized, readily recognizable modes of visual-verbal storytelling such as theater, film, and opera. If we can think of them as filmmakers rather than painters, Roller Wilson is an animator (in many senses of the word), while Criswell directs live people (although clearly willing to drop in a few special effects where needed).
 The Navigator, 1987, pastel & spray enamel on paper,
30 x 40 inches. Arkansas Arts Center Foundation
Purchase: Tabriz Fund, 1988. 87.031


What connects the two Arkansans' otherwise disparate styles so emphatically is their shared lack of irony. They mean what they paint. Roller Wilson's apparitions, linked in their staggering narrative arch, are clearly as heartfelt as they are zany. And Warren Criswell's pictures, whether of climactic moments in an operatic Gesamtkunstwerk or of strange and poignant moments in an everyman's

 life, brim with the same ingenuousness - the same commitment to this vision and to the sympathetic character of its protagonists. These painters need to paint these things, in these ways.

Criswell's earliest mature work is, not surprisingly, his most prosaic. Grounded in the conventions of photo-realist painting, if slightly less dependent on the exact translation of camera to canvas, his work of the 1970s cleaves to the banality of the life and lives around him.

The Open Road, 1988, oiil & pastel on paper,
33 x 45 inches. Collection Arkansas Arts Center Foundation

Sunday at Yogi's, 1979, watercolor, 24 x 36 inches.
Collection of Janet Criswell
That life and those lives would remain Criswell's principal preoccupation, but as of 1982, he could no longer adhere to the homey mereness of their surface appearances. Increasingly painterly in technique and interested in the effects of light and night, Criswell began to imbue, or at least surround, his subjects with a preternatural immanence, a glow, lyrical and ominous by turns, that gave heightened meaning to even the most mundane of still life subjects. In this magical chiaroscuro, coins and keys and cups as well as people and buildings and roads become pregnant with implications, as if props in a drama.

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The exhibition catalog, Warren Criswell Shadows, in which this essay appears is Copyright 2003 by the Arkansas Arts Center

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