In Search of a Body

an Art Mystery

by Warren Criswell 

 1. Early Work

A “body of work” usually means a collection of related works, connected by some characteristic or principle. I can never deliberately carry out a program like that. I sometimes think I have a series, I can see all the paintings or drawings in my head, stretching into the future. Once I even proposed to a gallery a show devoted to such a series, but after the first painting the rest of them disappeared. I’ve done a lot of series of one. So where is the body?

I can’t seem to start with an idea, in the intellectual sense. It has to be an image that comes unbidden out of god knows where and ambushes me. But I find that sometimes, after a many of these ambushes, the images do reveal themselves to be part of a whole. And why not?—since they all came out an encounter between my unconscious and something I saw or heard in the world.


The Question, 1991, oil on linen, 36 x 43 inches
 I'll show you a montage I made recently of my early work in Arkansas, dramatized humorously by Mussorgsky. I just stuck them together more or less chronologically, but you'll see that after a painting called The Question a series seems to unfold.

But I had no intention of doing a series. It was just that these two characters wouldn't leave me alone. The first one was a collision between El Greco and Dostoyevsky....


El Greco, Cardinal Nino de Guevara.

Notice the sheet of paper on the floor…The list of charges against you! (This thing people miss about Kafka's The Trial is that K really was guilty....)

Francis Bacon, Study after Velasquez
Portrait of Pope Innocent X
, 1953.

 "The Grand Inquisitor" is a chapter in Dostoyevski's novel The Brothers Karamazov, in which the young monk Alyosha tells his brother Ivan a parable about a second coming of Christ during the Spanish Inquisition. During the interrogation, after which the Cardinal intends to burn him at the stake, Christ says nothing. The Cardinal does all the talking. I'm seeing this now as a right-brain / left-brain thing. The Cardinal has the Book, his body of work. His prisoner is only an image. But I wasn't thnking that while working on the painting. I had only the image.

And then there was Francis Bacon and Sartre. I was interested in the origin of self-consciousness. If I am conscious of myself, who is it that's conscious of whom? There must be two of me. This is the origin of the doppelganger, a theme which still haunts my work. The double can be the conscience-- the Grand Inquisitor--or it can be the irresponsible person you would like to be, running amok, naked and free, like Adam and Eve before the Fall. I think the broken egg in the paintings represents that split, the birth of the self, the loss of innocence, the expulsion from Eden, the outbreak of war, the beginning of pain and pleasure. In other words, the beginning of being human.
 There's actually a forerunner of this in a much earlier painting, my Dies Irae, a landscape which includes a billboard advertising Francis Bacon, with one of Bacon's screaming popes. You'll see it in the video.

But none of this was planned, that's my point. Just as a painting or drawing seems to create itself, so does a body of work. So here's the montage...

Warren Criswell, Dies Irae (detail), 1987 



 2. Lenny & the Black Riders

In 1982 I started drawing in a bound sketchbook. They were just exercises at first, pencil sketches, mostly of stuff on TV. I would let the VCR record whatever was on and then play it back afterwards, and whenever I saw something that I thought would make a good drawing -- or sometimes just at random-I would hit the pause button and start drawing. The VCRs back then would hold the pause for about 5 minutes, I think, and then continue playing. I made a rule for myself that I would look at the screen image only that long, because I was trying to learn to capture the essence of an image as fast as possible.

  OK, sometimes I broke the rule, give me a break. But the point, again, is that I wasn't thinking thematically, only technically.

But this was a bound volume, not a notebook that I could rip pages out of when a drawing went bad, so I was extra careful and pretty soon I realized the thing was turning into a book -- but about what I didn't know. I began to go back and develop my pencil sketches with sumi ink washes, or pastel or sepia ballpoint or combinations of the three. For the night scenes I used liquid frisket and black sumi.

I drew everything -- frames from the news, movies, concerts, even commercials -- but after about 100 pages I saw a theme developing. This was 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon, so there was a lot of that on the news. And they were running a series of concerts on PBS -- Bernstein conducting Mahler symphonies and Ricardo Mutti conducting Verdi's Requiem. I also watched the first movie made of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, so there were lot of drawings of Black Riders. Pretty soon the BlackRiders began showing up among the smoking ruins of Beirut, and I saw a sort of theme developing -- love and art vs. hate and destruction -- something like that. So I decided to give the book a name: Lenny and the Black Riders.

Later, to give it some structure -- as if I'd planned it from the beginning -- I divided it into three parts. The Verdi concert gave me the idea of taking titles from the Roman Catholic Requiem -- Krie (Lord have mercy), Dies Irae (day of wrath) and Lux Aeterna (eternal light). But, as I said at the beginning, I'm no good at series and long term projects, so while I didn't abandon my sketchbook and always intended to finish it someday, other pursuits pushed it into the background.

In 2001, after 9/11 happened, I felt the need for some kind of artistic response. Not that it would do any good, but just to express what I was feeling. I wanted to put some image on my homepage, but the only appropriate source I could think of was my old sketchbook. I got it down and found there were two blank pages near the end, as if I had intentionally reserved them for an appropriate conclusion.

Flipping through those old pages, I was amazed at how relevant much of it seemed now. The 1982 invasion was the beginning of suicide bombing and the birth of both Hezbolah and Al Qaeda. I drew my last drawings from TV news -- the Twin Towers burning and falling. I was afraid then that the only thing worse than this attack would our response to it, and I certainly nailed that one.

So the end of my book was also a terrible new beginning. Israel's reaction to an attempted assassination of an Israeli ambassador by Abu Nadal was to invade Lebanon which had nothing to do with it, just as our reaction to 911 was to attack Iraq which had nothing to do with it. Ironically, it was Sadam Hussein who had Abu Nadal killed in 2002. So it's a vicious cycle of misguided responses.

So here it is. I've added a soundtrack from the music that inspired it, Mahler 5 and the Verdi Requiem. In his last Harvard lecture in 1973 Bernstein said the reason Mahler's music had been neglected for 50 years was that "It was simply too true … telling something too dreadful to hear." It was a premonition of death: Mahler's own death, the death of tonality and "the death of our society, of our Faustian culture."


 3. Moments

The evolution of a body of art work is like the evolution of a living body: natural selection from a series of random mutations. Theo Jansen is a Dutch sculptor who creates what he calls Strandbeests, or beach animals, out of pvc tubing. They walk along the beach, powered only by the wind. Watch this.




 Jansen didn't plan these things. They are not "intelligent designs" anymore than my book, my paintings or my animations were. They just happened. "Everything we think can in principle be thought by someone else," Jansen says. "The real ideas, as evolution shows, come about by chance. Reality is very creative. Maybe that is why the Strandbeests appear to be alive, and charm us. The Strandbeests themselves have let me make them."

When I started doing animation, I just wanted to bring my drawings to life -- or to "appear to be alive," as Jansen puts it. Each one was a separate entity, two or three minutes long, not part of a longer narrative. They were like short stories, and I called my collection of them "Moments." I put a title at the beginning and closing credits at the end of each one, and it played that way at the Little Rock Film Festival. But last year Bill Solleder invited me to be part of his Arkansas Shorts, a night of short films at the Malco Theater in Hot Springs and I said OK. But they only accepted films no longer than 10 minutes, including the credits, and mine was 15. So I cut out the credits and titles but it was still too long, so I had to do some serious and painful editing. When each second of animation takes a day or more of drawing -- 12 to 24 drawings per second of film -- it really hurts to chop stuff out!

But when I finished, not only did I like the short version better, but I began to see it as a unified work, a cycle, like the Schubert song cycle I use in the soundtrack. A homeless guy -- I always figured that's the way I'd end up -- wanders through the snow, followed by a crow. He remembers a bedroom scene from his past life; making out in a car -- and then the woman vanishes; a naked woman comes down a staircase toward him -- but turns into a crow and flies away. Nothing works out for him. He wakes up in a culver and here comes the crow. He shoots the damn thing -- or tries to, but of course you can't kill death.

Then he's in a topless bar, having a philosophical conversation with David Bailin about whether they exist or not. He leaves the bar and there's a doppelganger scene in which he runs over himself and ends up as roadkill on the highway. A flying hyena (which I borrowed from a Schoenberg opera, Die gluckliche Hand) drags his corpse off the road. But during a storm the hyena turns out to be a kind of muse. She howls and a bolt of lightning strikes our hero -- the lightning of inspiration! -- the miracle all artists wait for, hoping it will strike before it's too late. And the cycle begins again. But you can decide for yourself whether this is just a collection of fragments or a whole body of work. Here it is.


 Yesterday I was looking through another old sketchbook of mine, The Green Notebook, and I found something amazingly relevant to this subject. I must have written it down after hearing an interview with Phillip Glass on the radio, back in June of 2001. It said that Phillip Glass finally understood Indian music after talking to Ravi Shankar.

"Instead being divided into bars and measures as in Western music, it was made by adding the parts. In Western music there is an implied whole -- an empty but completed vessel -- which is divided up into its constituent parts, while in Indian music the whole emerges only as the sum of its parts. In our system there is an a priori essence which we divide into particulars; in the Indian system the 'essence' emerges as the sum of the particulars."

And that's exactly what I've been talking about. That's the way creativity works -- for me anyway. It's a synergistic process, and it brings us back to Sartre's existentialism, where existence precedes essence. So the body appears only after its parts are assembled. Case solved!

Warren Criswell
Presented at Hendrix College, Conway, Arkansas in September 2011


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