THE SPIRIT AND THE FLESH
An interview with Warren Criswell
By Dr. Lloyd W. Benjamin III

Excerpts from the May 22 and 24, 1992 broadcast of The Arts Scene on National Public Radio affiliate KUAR-FM, Little Rock, Arkansas. Dr. Benjamin was Dean of the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
 

 

Lloyd Benjamin: For those who don't know your background as an artist, why don't you, if you would, say how you got started in making artwork

Warren Criswell: I've drawn and painted all my life, but I began showing my work in the late 1950's in West Palm Beach - and I had a solo show at Alex Kirkland's Gallery 14 in Palm Beach in 1960. But I had an urge to write, and I spent the next fifteen years trying to be a writer. It wasn't until 1978 that I got back into visual art, first in Louisiana and then in Arkansas.

 LB: As a writer - and we'll talk more about the show in a moment - but does text play an important part in your work? Is there a sort of narrative - ?

WC: It definitely seems to have a narrative quality, and yet I don't think it can be understood as narrative. Maybe this is why I could never be satisfied with writing, because it lacks the visual, corporeal aspect of painting.

LB: In visual art, you have the presence, irreducibly, of objects, but then it can mean something transcendent of that opacity.

WC: Right, and become partially transparent. The forms can become partially transparent to their meanings, like a text, but never completely. There's always that physical, sensual aspect to it, and that dual nature of painting parallels my basic subject, which is the tension between the spirit and the flesh, you might say - although I should add that I say that as an observer of the work and not as the artist, who pretty much remains a mystery to me.... I do think in terms of narrative in my painting, obviously, but narratives of what? I mean, I'm not illustrating any known text. I don't even know what the forms signify, often. If I do know, it comes later, after I've been working on the thing for a while, or sometimes long after I've finished it.

LB: That happens a lot In life experiences, too. We sort of live those things automatically, and without separating ourselves from them, and it's only upon reflection that you can sort of begin to piece things together in a certain identifiable pattern.

WC: Exactly. Pattern is separation. Sartre said essence is the past... But in discovering the essence, you lose the becoming - that coming-into-existence which can only take place in the present. A painting can combine those two things - its essence with Its becoming, or in other words its transparency with its opacity. I could never manage that with writing.

LB: You seem to be, both formally and in terms of your content, very familiar with the history of art. And I noted that in the large newer works there are hovering figures that recall so much those frogleg-kicking pictures of Correggio, for example. And then in those dramatic close-ups of the sort of Inquisition type images I'm reminded so much of people like Caravaggio and the Utrecht school, like Honthorst and Terbrugghen and those.

WC: Thai's true, and I've asked myself, why this regression into the seventeenth century baroque, as it were - what does it mean?... I don't really know - I try to follow my internal images without asking too many questions. But I have tried to analyze it - or maybe rationalize would be a better word - and it may be a sort of reaction to what I might call the Alexkatzification of art. Shadows are eliminated in a lot of contemporary painting, because we live in well lighted, wall-to-wall fluorescent interiors. We live in them, we work in them, we shop in them. But between those places, at night, under the bridges, in the alleys and the bars, that old chiaroscuro still exists. And since my protagonists are often socially marginalized characters who live in these dark places, this may be an appropriate way to portray them. Also, in a metaphorical sense, I think we read light and darkness in an image basically the same today as people did in Caravaggio's time.

LB: Do you see yourself as a postmodernist? We have a certain vantage point in the 1990s, and we can for a variety of reasons look back now over a very well documented, for example, visual art history. And we can take these images and manipulate them in various ways. Even great themes, which sort of continue to define our existence, have been restated and restated and restated -

WC: Well, we're all postmodernists whether we like it or not. I mean, our traditions, our myths, even those of Modernism, are gone. You can't have an avant garde without a consensus on the meaning of progress, some idea of which direction to advance in. So we manipulate images and ideas of the past, searching for those lost themes which, as you say, define our existence - or used to. The way I look at postmodernism - this is a gross oversimplification, but in general it's a synthetic way of working. Modernism is analytic, postmodernism is synthetic... But I like to think of my own work as neither analytic nor synthetic but as organic, growing spontaneously out of its own obscure roots.. . . You just have to trust that your own personal myth is also, on some level, a universal one.

LB: Do you think it's unusual for an artist such as yourself to be a kind of contemporary mythmaker or narrator, today?

WC: I think a lot artists try it, but it's not really a thing you can try to do. Myth and dream are linked together, and neither can be created artificially. You can always spot a made up dream. That's what I mean by organic. It's just a sort of flowing out in that spontaneous way - an opaque flow. The transparency may come later. Two of my favorite artists are El Greco and Botero, and I like to think of their work as bracketing, or standing at these two poles, the transparent and the opaque. In El Greco we have all those elongated forms stretching upward, reaching up like flames toward heaven. Everything is air and fire. Botero is all earth and water. His figures are round and heavy, full of mass and volume, rooted in the earth. So I think the tension between these two extremes - the spirit and the flesh, the conceptual and the perceptual - is what my own work tries to express. But I think all artists, at their best, are working on the cusp of these two fundamental aspects of human consciousness.

 

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