An Interview

In which an imaginary David Bailin interviews me for the purpose of acquiring material (for which he will claim credit) for his AETN blog. These are my responses to an outline of questions he sent me, which I have rewritten to suit myself. Criswell
Update: As it turns out, David has written a brilliant essay out of his own head, for which he alone is to blame, a fine piece of writing.

What is your basic approach to art and how has it changed?

Do I have an approach? I kind of wish I did, it would make things easier. Even though art is supposed to bring order to chaos, the creative process itself is very chaotic. Images come out of nowhere - no, not out of nowhere, out of the visible or audible world or out of some unknown or forgotten or forbidden part of myself, or from some combination of all those - and they come, or don't come, on their own timetable, not mine. But when they come they demand to be made into some object. It's more of an addiction than an approach. How does an addict approach his addiction?

An "approach" would have to be based on ideas-like, "Let's see, what can I paint that somebody might actually buy before I have to move under a bridge?" But that would be a rational approach. I jokingly called a recent exhibition of mine "Still Crazy," but there does seem to be something seriously irrational about art. Why would a sane person take it up? Jose Ortega says ideas are scarecrows to frighten away reality. This is why art can be dangerous-because it can penetrate our defenses against the truth and strip us bare. In retrospect, I can see that my painting Flash Flood from 2002 is an illustration of this--hilarious and terrifying at the same time! The hero myth exposed! But there's no 12-step program that I know of.

Flash Flood, 2002, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches

But didn't you used to be a writer?

Yes, I was clean for about eight years while I was trying to write the Great Apocalyptic Novel - well, not really, because writing is just another kind of obsession, but at least I was away from visual art. I was also on the road with my wife and kids in a bus called Toad Hall, Mr. Toad on a mission to save the planet, gaily bedight, a gallant knight, in search of El Dorado (not the one in Arkansas). I wanted to set up a self-sustaining, off-the-grid, solar-and pig-shit-powered homestead and write about it, thus preventing the coming industrial-ecological collapse.


But he grew old --
This knight so bold --
And -- o'er his heart a shadow
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like El Dorado.

(From "El Dorado" byEdgar Allen Poe)

Linocut from 1991

Eldorado, 1999, linocut

Near the end of this crusade I happened to see the watercolors of Hubert Shuptrine in a book of James Dickey's poems. They intrigued me because of their range of values--much deeper darks than I was used to seeing in watercolors, and in all innocence I began to steal time from the typewriter to fool around with watercolors. I built an "easel" that fit onto the steering wheel of the bus. That was my first "studio" since leaving Florida in 1972. My paintings weren't serious, there were no ideas behind them, I was just playing. I didn't recognize the siren's song and there was nobody to tie me to the mast. Pretty soon I began selling my watercolors and I was hooked again.

This was in Little Rock?

No, but this is where we ended up after five years on the road.
Sunday at Yogi's, 1979, watercolor,
30 x 40 inches

Howth Castle and Environs, 1980, watercolor,
25 x 38 inches

My publisher had gone out of business, the bus broke down and we had to get jobs. I discovered the photo-realists in a show at the Arkansas Arts Center and I sort of became one of them - but in watercolor. After a few years of this - during which I built up a pretty good group of collectors - I realized I had become a prisoner of both the medium and the photograph. I had painted in oils in Florida but didn't really know what I was doing technically, and now all I knew how to do was watercolor. And the photograph had become a dictator.

So I dumped the camera cold turkey and started carrying a sketchpad with me everywhere. I had to learn to see for the first time and learn to draw all over again. I discovered that the camera didn't see things the way my eyes did. Also, my work turned dark, both tonally and thematically, too dark for watercolor and Arkansas. I got good at drawing in the dark, inside strip clubs and on the shoulders of highways at night.

Sandi, 1986, graphite & gouache on gray paper, 10 x 12 inches

The Open Road, 1988, oil & pastel on paper, 33 x 45 inches.

One of These Days These Boots, 1988, oil on canvas, 37 x 50 inches

I lost all my collectors and my gallery strongly advised me to lighten up, but it was no use. I can't seem to do art unless I'm discovering something new. You asked me before why I work in so many different media, and I said it's because I'm easily bored, but what that means is that I have to keep making new discoveries or I run out of steam. I can't "search" for discoveries because I don't know what I'm looking for, but by working in 2, 3, and 4 dimensions, maybe I'm expanding the field of possibilities. It's like what Faust said to the Devil: "When I've seen it all and done it all, to hell with it."

Don Giovanni Impenitente, 2000, monotype with
colored pencil, image 10½ x 8 inches

So one of the things I discovered at that time was the futility of trying to be unique. Modernism was over, we had stripped art of everything we could think of, even the art object itself, trying to get down to the essence, leaving only the "concept" behind like a ghost. There was nothing more to get rid of, Number One was a monkey, and painting was dead. Somehow that seemed liberating to me. I had always loved the paintings of Caravaggio and Rembrandt and now I felt free to try that myself. I got all the books I could find on Old Master painting techniques, learned how to make paint from dry pigments, the panels and canvases they used, the whole nine yards. The upshot was that only after I started imitating Rembrandt did people start saying my paintings were unique!

A lot of your themes at that time came from mythology. What books inspired you?

Well, "themes" sounds like something premeditated. I was never that organized. But I was reading Joseph Campbell and Robert Graves, and I realized that myth and religion were not only attempts to deny death, as Ernest Becker says, but were also timeless reflections of our psyches. All our hungers and fears, joys and miseries, all our psychoses and obsessions were dramatized in myths long before Freud and Jung discovered them in our heads. So all my mythological images are set in my own time, and I'm usually the protagonist. Okay, always the protagonist. I used to think I used myself as a model because I couldn't afford a real model , and it wasn't really me in the paintings, but eventually I realized it was me after all. I was Acteon and the Crab King and all the others. This is what can happen when you go with the images first and deal with the ideas later. You reveal yourself without knowing it. But if I ask the Muse, "What do you mean by that?" nothing will get painted.

Another book that ended up generating a long series of paintings that I didn't know was a series was Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, specifically the chapter called "The Grand Inquisitor," Ivan's story about a second coming of Christ during the Spanish Inquisition. It was about this time that I was becoming fascinated by the concept of the double, the döppelganger, and I had also been looking at El Greco's portrait of Cardinal Niño de Guevara, and the image I got was a kind of twisted conflation of all that. I painted myself as both the Cardinal and the prisoner and called it "The Question," a title I think I got from Sartre's Being and Nothingness, which I was also reading at the time. Sartre said the question breaks open the egg of the closed universe.

The Question, 1991, oil on linen, 36 x 43 inches

That was in 1991, and for years after that everything I painted had these guys in it! For me they symbolized the existential paradox - that we are animals with self-consciousness, and the animal and the self can neither be reconciled nor separated. For "animal" read "image," and for "self" read "idea." You can't have one without the other, and "The Question" can never be answered.

The Storm, 1992,
oil on linen,
48 x 36 inches

Study for "Hiway 61",
1993, conte & acrylic on
paper, 34 x 26 inches

The Trespasser, 1993, oil/wax on linen,
60 x 48 in.

The Kiss, 1992, oil on linen, 48 x 36 inches

The Temptation, 1991,
charcoal & spray enamel
on paper, 28 x 38 in.

But I was so locked up in all this - as in A Man Reading - that life was passing me by, and I finally managed to break out of it. The last one was All the King's Horses. They were gone, egg and all.


A Man Reading, 1995, oil on wood,
42 x 27 inches

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

Since then you've gotten into sculpture, printmaking and animation. What were the biggest changes to your work over the years?

There have been a lot of technical changes. In 1999 I invented a new way of making linocuts-with a little help from Picasso. In the last five years I've been learning bronze casting-with the help of Michael Warrick. But probably the biggest change happened after Sammy Peters and I went
Death Waking Time, 2000, linocut,
5 x 7 inches

Simone Jumps! 2012,
bronze, 19 x 13 x 12 in.
Roadkill, bronze, 2010, 9 x 8 x 13 inches
 to New York in 2005 where I saw an animated film by William Kentridge.

That started me on a whole other addiction! Now I could bring my images to life - after the year or so It took me to learn how to do it. It was a fateful investigation into time itself, into the moments that we never see because they go by too fast. I had to do 24 drawings to get 1 second of video, so I had to slow down my creative metabolism to a crawl. It brings us back to the insanity of art, but I was hooked. I had become Dr. Frankenstein. "It's aliiiiiiiive!"

Nude Descending a Staircase, 2008, 1 minute

But aside from the technical problems, working in the fourth dimension had a profound influence on my other work. These "images" I've been talking about were always that perfect moment that you could immortalize on paper or canvas or in bronze or whatever. But now that perfect moment had a past and a future, a beginning and an end. I had brought my images to life, but I also brought them to death. I was right back at that existential dilemma: no life without death. Now when I did a painting it looked like a multiple exposure photo.

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

Frog He Went A Courting, 2009, oil on canvas,
36 x 48 inches

 The Punishment of Tityus, 2007, pastel on paper,
24 x 18 inches

I found I could do this even with sculpture-show movement and transparency in a solid opaque material. Thinking about it now, that seems like another metaphor for existence vs. essence, image vs. idea, animal vs. self.
Nude Descending a Staircase, 2010, cast aluminum,
3 of 12, 15 x 11 x 2 inches

But maybe my work hasn't changed as much thematically as it has technically. For instance, the double has haunted my work ever since "The Question." My last animation is an example. Aristeas is supposed to have left his body in the form of a raven and hung out with Apollo for years in a state of ecstasy. This is the double! One part of us wants freedom, the other part wants security. One part loves chaos, the other needs order. The animal is immortal, the self knows it will die. In the Inuit religion Raven is both the creator of the universe and a trickster, a dirty old man. The crow, you know, has been in my images for a long time. The raven and the crow, for all their intelligence and beauty, live on dead animals, so they are natural symbols for man with his double nature.

Aristeas from Warren Criswell on Vimeo.


Art seems to exist at the interface of this duality, drawing its energy from both sides. If it expresses just one side or the other-the beauty without the ugliness, the humor without the pain - it seems empty or trivial. To me, anyway. Sometimes the images that ambush me do indeed seem trivial: a roll of toilet paper, a coffee cup, the night sky. But maybe something in my unconscious - my muse! - recognizes that duality, the idea in the image, even though I don't figure it out until later. But I think the artist lives for those stunning moments, and then seeing them reborn from his own hands, and always in fear that they will abandon him. That's the addiction.

Still Life with Keys,2000, oil on wood, 14 x 12 inches


White Cup No.3, 2008,
watercolor, 22 x 30 inches

Conjunction, 2012, watercolor,
30 x 23 inches

So what's going on in your head now?

You don't want to know.

No, seriously. What's happening in the studio? What are you reading?

Janet took a picture of me with her phone last week while I was reading in bed. Actually, I was asleep. I always denied that I dropped off while reading, so this was her proof. It was a joke shot, the old fart snoring over his book, but something about the composition or the lighting grabbed me. It turned out to be one of those unexpected moments, so I went with it. Hey, the muse had not been singing, I had nothing else going, give me a break. The next day I did a monotype from the photo, and now I'm working on a painting and a linocut. It's called "Sleep Reading," a variation of speed reading.

Sleep Reading, 2012, monotype,
image 8 x 10 ½ inches 

Sleep Reading, 2012, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches,
in progress

Sleep Reading, 2-color linocut,
image 5 x 7 inches, edition of 12

The book I was sleep reading is called From Eternity to Here by Sean Carroll, and it's about time - actually, about how time is a function of entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I'm also reading a book called The Botany of Desire, which basically asks the question, "Did we domesticate the apple, or did the apple domesticate us?" And before that I read E.O. Wilson's The Social Conquest of Earth, which shows that, existentially speaking, there's not that much difference between humans and ants, except that ants are altruistic robots and humans are more destructive. I should also mention that a few months ago I read the 30-year update of the book which started me off on my crusade to save the world, Limits to Growth, and found that nothing had changed in the data since then to slow down the exponential growth of population, pollution and fossil fuel use and that we were even deeper into overshoot mode than back then. The ecological-industrial collapse was still on schedule for around 2050. But the books I mentioned, as well as my Aristeas animation, are giving me a somewhat different view of this than I had in my activist phase back in '72.

Working on the waves in the background of Aristeas, drawing frame after frame, plenty of time to think, I began to see everything as a wave. Careers, individuals, civilizations, species, ecosystems, all roll along in an orderly way, lowering their own entropy (that is, their chaos) by raising that of their neighbors, until they encounter some obstacle, like a beach or the food runs out, or the oil, and then they may rise up in a magnificent moment of fame and glory, go into overshoot mode, crash to the sand and get sucked back into the sea they came from. It's just a natural cycle. It's not us against nature. We are nature! All of this - cars, computers, wars - it's all nature! We think we're special because we have self-consciousness and can imagine infinity and draw pictures and write poems, but the apple gets along just fine, using us to spread its genes around, without imagination, consciousness or even mobility. From the point of view of ET a couple light years away, it wouldn't make any difference whether we destroy the biosphere or a colliding asteroid does it, the biosphere is toast either way. Both are just natural phenomena!

I grew up on the beach in south Florida, watching, hearing and swimming in these waves, but I didn't really see them until now, trying to draw their secret moments, using a surf video, seventy years later, landlocked in Arkansas.

But the strange thing about art is that some of its most depressing and frightening discoveries can reveal moments of awe-inspiring beauty! There's the dichotomy of human nature again: its self-destructive cruelty on the one hand and its search for beauty on the other. You just finished Moby Dick - finally! - and now you know that Captain Ahab lurks in the hearts of all artists to some degree. We are all obsessed with some whale or other. But remember the ending? "…and the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago."



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