The Unconventional Artist of Arkansas
by Jim G. Miller
I first encountered Warren Criswell at the 2010 Arkansas Shorts Film Festival where I had just watched his animated film “Moments” in which he drew himself getting lap dances from strippers, being drug away by winged hyenas, and finally getting struck by lightning. It left an impression on me just as his oil paints do on his canvas. Movement and symbolism have long been characteristics of both his 2-D and film art.
Arriving to Arkansas in true bohemian fashion—on a bus named “Toad Hall” with a pet fox, a raccoon, his wife and child, and some other dude whose name has long ago been forgotten, Criswell’s presence has since changed the Natural State. Jettisoning into the rural landscape like a rocket ship from some other dimension, he warped from West Palm Beach Florida to Central Arkansas.
Prior to arriving, Warren was an environmental activist and writer working on his post-apocalyptic novel called “The Last Supper”. “Writing, for me, had such a delayed kind of gratification to it, whereas with painting, the sense of gratification I get is immediate,” admits Criswell. Though he still drives a Prius and still loves the written word, the environmental activist and post apocalyptic novelist inside Criswell have transformed into a rabid artist whose profound work has impacted many around the world.
“I didn’t want to offend anyone by showing his work, but I just wanted to make a statement that the art scene was changing and becoming more progressive,” says Carolyn Taylor who has carried Criswell’s work for more than two decades at Taylor’s Contemporanea Fine Art Gallery. Criswell’s work depicts a type of dark realism married with ancient mythology that conveys nudity, death, sex, longing and the post apocalyptic.
His intimately flawed self-portraiture grasps at that organic and self-sustaining redemptive quality of humanity. Perhaps this dark humor lends itself to the quality of his work. In the piece “Crab King Crossing” you cannot help but laugh at the figure of Criswell, a little old man crawling among a black background with a dozen King Crabs all around him. The defeated self-realization that all of our problems will never cease and never change almost demands that we have a sense of humor albeit perhaps dark at times.
Pentesilea (Love is a Dog Bite), another of his works exhibited at Taylor’s Contemporanea, depicts a dismal, mythical scene taking place at sunset on Interstate 30 complete with a nude Amazonian woman riding on an elephant past a turned over 18-wheeler. Beside the fuselage of the downed semi-truck you see a man who represents Achilles being eaten by dogs. In “The Death of Li Po” Criswell depicts the story of a man who mistakes his lover for the moon and drowns himself while attempting to reach her. The painting invokes a calmness that suggests peace rather than sadness in Li Po’s fatal journey.
Still occasionally writing essays, Criswell is a multi-faceted artist who does sketches, animations, sculpture, linocuts & monotype prints and watercolors. You can see his work at both Taylor’s Contemporanea of Fine Art at 204 Exchange Street in Hot Springs.