August 30, 2015
Three LR artists converge in 'Disparate Acts Redux'
They huddle together in the back room of the restaurant, three old friends sharing bits and pieces of their lives and work with each other, like veterans of some long-forgotten artistic war. Their conversation is peppered with references to artists from Monet to De Kooning and laced with a boisterous camaraderie.
David Bailin, Warren Criswell and Sammy Peters are three Little Rock area artists who for decades have gathered regularly for lunch. They share connection that is deep, profound and sometimes profane.
On this day in late July, they are at Boulevard Bread Co. on North Grant Street in Little Rock, discussing the big, overarching themes that can be found in their work, which is hanging at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.
"Disparate Acts Redux: Bailin, Criswell, Peters" is open through Oct. 31. "Disparate Acts" comes from a play Bailin wrote years ago. "Redux" was tagged onto it in acknowledgement of the original "Disparate Acts" exhibition at the Bradbury Gallery at Arkansas State University at Jonesboro in 2014 albeit with a different selection of works.
Bailin, Criswell and Peters are three of Arkansas* pre-eminent artists with very different approaches. "Disparate really describes our work," says Criswell, who resides in Benton. "We are so different."
Nevertheless, he sees similarities. "All three of us are always trying to push ahead, to discover something new we create and discover things, but we destroy at the same time." Destruction is frequently found in Criswell's art. "I'll show a bit of a post-apocalyptic scene or something." he says.
As for the others, it is more about the physical process of creating and destroying.
"David working on a series where he draws something and erases it, draws and erases: He is creating and destroying at the same time, leaving only the ghost behind," Criswell says. "In Sammy's work you can see whole civilizations ... if you look at it like an archaeologist, you can imagine whole worlds destroyed and new ones on top."
As this trio of creators and destroyers scarf down their lunch, Bailin mentions an "existential crisis" he is having, a crisis brought on by some critical observations Peters made about a pair of his current drawings.
“I didn't just volunteer that, " Peters says of his critique. "I wouldn't just walk in and say, hey, this one needs work, David. I mean. I just want to make that clear …”
"I asked him [about the drawings]. yeah."
Criswell takes this all in and cackles: "David actually asked us into his studio for advice! I would never do that!"
Bailin realizes that “There's this barrier ... as Warren says, we need to get out of the studio. Our relationship is really out of the studio so when we criticize each other or when we analyze each other, it's always the ideas behind the work, not necessarily the work itself, although when you have a masterpiece, we'll tell you. If you are full of crap, then we kind of tell you."
A while back, Bailin did a series of "destroyed" drawings. In these works, he would draw something and then destroy it. But first, he would photograph it for later analysis. Criswell wrote about one of these images, inspiring Bailin to remark that it was "The only time any of my work has been called masterpiece, and it is the one work that's destroyed, so it's been driving me crazy for years." The implicit irony sparks the three men to burst out laughing. The laconic Peters is asked to explain his artistic process.
Criswell's eyes light up. "I have all kinds of fantasies about it," he says, giggling.
“And do they involve women?" asks Peters, causing another burst of laughter.
“Really, there's nothing mysterious that I want to share in front of these guys." he says.
“It's just making marks, at the beginning, and most of the time I am just building on top of things. The way I paint, I am making quick marks and impulses, ideas as to what colors and shapes are going to go on there. So it's just a hodgepodge of stuff, but at some point something will relate to something else, and it will seem as though maybe l have something interesting.”
Peters has something interesting inside the front door of the "Disparate Acts Redux exhibition. Appropriately titled Beginning: Current; Integration, the oil painting features a big block of lake blue that anchors the bottom half of the canvas, while a field of beige envelops the rest. There are little collage elements scattered about, like the small bits of black fabric with white polka dots that sit near the center of the image area. Ladderlike shapes occupy several strategic spots and primitive architectural structure rises up the right side of the canvas. A semicircle of bright yellow pops out of the blue below.
Peters has a sophisticated eye for color and composition that he combines with a dash of primitivism to give his canvases a warm, happy, almost childlike feel.
Midway through the gallery is Papers, one of Bailin's great drawings. In this tableau, a short-sleeve businessman scurries across the paper. He is on road that spreads out toward the bottom of the canvas as woods spring up on the right side. Bailin's slap-dash scribbling is everywhere, delineating the road and the sky, especially the space above the protagonist, who is frantically trying to escape the scribbles above him or the patch of bright color that hover high. It's as if the man is being chased by these abstract-expressionist ghosts, remnants of an old Adolph Gottlieb painting from the 1950s.
Perhaps the most provocative and apocalyptic work in the exhibition is Criswell's Penthesilea (Love Is Like 4 Dog Bite). The painting was inspired by a play by Hein rich von Kleist about the warrior Penthesilea, mythological queen of the Amazons.
Criswell says that one scene in the play "so disgusted Goethe that he gave the play a very bad review, so bad that von Kleist killed himself." Mixing imagery from the play with a modern highway disaster, Criswell creates a dark, ominous world with naked, dead bodies, an overturned tanker truck, nude women carrying torches and riding elephantsand a pack of dogs running wild. in the foreground, a man lies prone, with a naked woman standing over him. The guy on the ground is a river god," says Criswell, pouring out time."
There doesn't seem to be any medium that the restlessly talented Criswell can't dominate: In this show, he moves effortlessly from oil and watercolor paintings to sculptures and prints. with little deviation in quality.
In the painting Secret Sharer, Criswell inserts a panel into the middle of a canvas. On the canvas, he has painted a seascape reminiscent of a Whistler nocturne. In the inset panel, there are a pair of Criswells, one leaning over the side of ship, beaming a flashlight on the second Criswell, who floats helplessly the water below. Nearby is a superb linocut titled Nocturne, in which naked woman stands with a light source behind her, casting a long shadow across one wall of a room. There is a great surrealistic image in the show called Eldorado. Once again there are two Criswells here, one talking and gesturing to the other Criswell, who is riding an ostrich. They are silhouetted against a gigantic sun, and there are the ruins of a destroyed highway all around them in this bizarre world.
Another outstanding work by Bailin is Cloud. Amid the continual scuffling, scraping and symbol making, Bailin has painted a road, with a car in the background. in the foreground man, or perhaps, two men bent over in the street. The artist has partially erased and drawn over the figurative elements so it is hard to see what is actually happening. The large sky above this scene is filled with a scratchy, pastel blue. A white orb dominates the center of the canvas, accompanied by a smaller, bright yellow swatch of color. This image stands at the intersection of abstract expression• ism and surrealism: it has mysterious, anxious energy. Something urgent and important is happening here, but the viewer can't quite recognize what it is.
Yellow Lines, also by Bailin, features an off-kilter man failing forward in the mid die of a suburban street. The roadway has arrows pointing in different directions and a cloud of scribbles fills the sky.
Possibility: Authentic;Limitation is the largest work in this show by Peters. It is also his most lively painting. The emphasis is on action, and the composition isn't quite as carefully organized as it is in the other canvases. Here, a series of color squiggles writhe and twist across the canvas. As with his other works, there are bits and pieces of fabric and other collage elements embedded in the paint.
Another fine effort by Peters is titled Determined: Escapist; Appearance. A bright yellow band of paint dominates one side of the canvas as a multicolored patchwork series of collage elements compete for attention. The canvas Possession: Attenuated; Reversal is a sublime combination of colors and shapes with a warm glow. When asked to pick his favorite Peters painting in the show, Bailin couldn't do it and it's easy to understand why. There is very little variation in quality in these canvases: They are all excellent.
Ongoing conversations have informed these artists* work, leading directly to "Disparate Acts Redux." Woven through their artwork is the thread of a conversation dating to the mid-1980s when these artists were young men, just finding their way in the art world. Whether it's Criswell's dark and weird world, Bailin's anxious, oversize drawings or Peters* paint-splattered abstractions, these are images worth seeing and studying.