When three revered Arkansas artists come together in a single home state exhibit, a gift is presented to the public, to collectors, to artists, and to students interested in learning, thinking, and admiring excellent visual art. What makes it so great? The work of Sammy Peters, Warren Criswell, and David Bailin is profoundly provocative. Each artist creates work involving complex, alluring ideas that engage viewers. The allure comes in the form of mystery. Like receiving a beautifully addressed letter but not quite being able to decipher the contents, we yearn to read the writing, to learn the language, to know the purpose. But it is an elusive secret, and each artist lets his viewer toe the line of understanding.
The internationally collected abstractions by Sammy Peters are full of mystery and intrigue. The layers he creates of abstracted shapes indicate a hiding, or masking, of information. Like so many great abstract artists, a process of adding and subtracting, or concealing and revealing, provides depth as well as an inquisitive tone. As a representational artist struggling to learn abstraction, I admire artists who excel in creating abstracted spaces that move, have energy, and allude to ideas. So often abstraction can appear static, or shallow.
Peters creates many compartments for viewers to navigate with contrasting marks, colors and shapes. He also employs multiple patterns that emerge and wind their way around his paintings. Our eyes can follow the lines and marks through the space and feel like we are playing with puzzle pieces. When viewing his work, we search and seek, find places to land and ponder, and then wander again around the composition as a participant in a game of hide-and-seek.
In the work of Warren Criswell, I feel less like I am playing hide-and-seek and more like I am a voyerist, slightly uncomfortable with what I witness, yet too intrigued to turn away. His paintings, figurative and full of literary and historical references, are best appreciated by a thinking audience…and one who wants to tangle with dark ideas. Human foibles, sexuality and social commentary each play a role in the work of Criswell. Like Goya, he presents to the public ideas about the human condition that are not exactly pleasant, and like Goya, Criswell is highly respected for his ability to point out our flaws in a way we can accept and even admire.
For example, though Criswell uses his own image in much of the work, the struggles, fear and darkness presented applies to all. The nudity often references sexuality in a dangerous or sinful manner, though usually the unclothed figures evoke vulnerability or exposure. Often, there is a strong light source though it is purposefully garish amongst the dark settings. The bright light further exposes the characters, leaving them unable to hide. And speaking of characters who are unable to hide…
Made of charcoal, eraser and occasional shots of color on large pieces of paper, the expansive work of David Bailin is the ultimate puzzle. With chaotic bursts of energy, Bailin creates exquisitely interrupted narratives displayed in a variety of marks. The interruption occurs when our eye begins to recognize a shape or object, then meaning is yanked away, or at least heavily altered, where the eraser subtracts linear information that once was there. This process of addition and subtraction is provoking in and of itself. However, with the ever-present male figure, the space becomes an entity with which the figure relates, or rather battles. While Bailin’s figures are fleeing, and seem to want to escape the chaotic scenes, their physical existence is tied to the atmosphere. As they peer back over shoulder, or sharply lean downward, it is as if they know escape is futile, and that the chaos, the concealing and the revealing come from within. It can not be left behind, not matter how fast they run or how well they hide.
Bailin, Criswell and Peters each leave us hanging over a precipice of truths, experiencing that addictive feeling of delicious danger. It is a show that should not be missed. Now on display at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in downtown Little Rock through October 31st, 2015.
On a side note…please know these thoughts are simply my impressions. As an artist, writing about the work of others helps me further understand my own goals and art. I could be way off base in interpreting the work of these three artists…but it is eye-opening to try. If you have any comments or corrections, please reply. Thank you for reading.