Where to start, this story of three men who’ve talked philosophy, literature, politics, sex, death and sometimes dogs, but mostly art, for nearly 30 years?
Maybe with a big white sheet of paper, the way David Bailin begins his charcoals and then filling in the narrative until it makes a certain sense.
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At first, he’s “terrified” of the blank paper, Bailin said. But “by the time I end, I’ve got Van Gogh and Cezanne and others and it’s a party,” mind and paper noisy with chattering geniuses.
Our blank is filled in with the voices of Bailin, Sammy Peters and Warren Criswell, who have lunched together weekly for most of those 30 years, though now they meet biweekly, and no longer at longtime salon Damgoode Pies, gluten intolerance having caught up with them. (Bailin made an exception, however, for his photo shoot with the Times at Iriana’s Pizza.)
Bailin, Peters and Criswell have few equals among Arkansas’s painters (Bailin works in charcoal, coffee, gesso and pastels here and there, but let’s include him among the painters) and I think I can say that without offending any other Arkansas artist. The three say they are searching for the truth when they paint, and it shows. Their works, the product of their intellectual explorations and reflecting human folly, are, like the men themselves, often wryly funny. [Criswell has revealed his own thoughts about the three artists and their works in his essay “Behind the Curtain.”]
Bailin, 61, describes his narrative charcoals as Buster Keaton meets Kafka, or what he calls “goofy existentialism.” Criswell, 78, who’s the kind of guy who likes to curl up with a nice tragedy by Heinrich von Kleist, takes inspiration from what he sees around him — a girl with her skirt blown up, the night sky with Venus and Jupiter in conjunction, and so forth. Peters, 76, whose laid-back demeanor is at odds with his vibrant palette, extrapolates images from man’s alteration of his environment — the striped fabric on his canvas might be suggested, for example, by street stripes — and deluded ideas of permanence.
Their work is in no way alike — it is disparate, as the name of their exhibition now at the Butler Center Galleries, “Disparate Acts Redux,” implies — but at their now biweekly lunches they surely feed on one another’s minds.
“Disparate Acts Redux” is a follow-up to the “Disparate Acts” exhibition by the three at Arkansas State University last year. The name was “ripped off,” as Bailin put it, from the name of a play he wrote, which was performed at the Abreaction Theater in New York in 1979. Abreaction — the surfacing of a previously repressed thought — is a favorite subject of Bailin’s, and often what is going on in the lunchtime confabs, though what’s being verbalized is not unleashed trauma but realizations about art. (There’s a bit of angst, too, as the artists talk about being in “the pit,” dry spells in their studios.)
Dan Morris, an artist and then-journalist at the Arkansas Gazette, started the “art safaris” that brought the artists together back in the 1980s. “Morris just loves crowds,” Bailin said, “and likes to mix weird people with really straight people.” At one point, weekly art confabs moved to Hungry’s at Seventh and Chester, where the Weekend Theater is now. Criswell’s work schedule (paint at night, offset printing during the day) kept him from coming in from his home in Benton to lunch at first. They knew him, though. “He was a legend,” Peters said.
Later the three met regularly at Damgoode Pies in Hillcrest. They even considered naming the show “Damgoode Artists.”
PETERS: I never liked that.
CRISWELL: Three Damgoode artists.
PEACOCK: Darn good?
PETERS: Yeah, it was the language that bothered me.
BAILIN: See, I was the thinking that we could do a tie-in and see if Damgoode would support the show. …
BAILIN: Now that we kind of have food allergies in our old age, we can’t have, don’t do pizza. Warren’s probably the healthiest.
PETERS: I don’t know. Of the old men, but …
CRISWELL: Yeah, these guys have problems. That’s why we stopped eating, he [nodding to Bailin] can’t eat gluten.
PETERS: Me, either.
CRISWELL: And I’m vegetarian.
PETERS: I’m vegan.
BAILIN: I’m Jewish.
CRISWELL: We ended up bringing our own damn lunch.
PETERS: I just don’t know how a Jewish atheist works. It doesn’t compute.
BAILIN: You just combine Kafka and Buster Keaton and you got it right there.
PETERS: I think that’s sad. I mean it’s such a long history, the history behind it is so fascinating. When you were a little guy, you had a relationship with your God. I just … . That’s a different conversation. [To Peacock] That’s the kind of crap we talk about.
That a group of artists gets together on a regular basis and talks is not unique. There’s a weekly meeting of artists at Mugs coffee shop in Argenta, attended by a large number of folks who talk about upcoming shows and the like. “What’s unique is how we interact,” Bailin said.
BAILIN: I had to take remedial Hebrew. I almost didn’t get through the bar mitzvah. When I was giving my little talk about the Torah portion, I forgot my talk and the rabbi had already fallen asleep.
CRISWELL: You fell asleep during my talk at the Arts Center.
BAILIN: And I didn’t miss anything.
There’s a timeline in the “Disparate Acts Redux” catalog that juxtaposes images of Bailin’s, Criswell’s and Peters’ work for each year since 1986. It is offered as a way to see how they’ve developed as artists during their pizza-fueled debates. The timeline also allows the viewer to consider: Did years of gluten bind them in subject? Style?
Roads play a huge role in both Bailin’s and Criswell’s work. Bailin’s harried businessman tilts into the road, head down, or floats above it; Criswell’s highways are a setting for mythical pageantry or mysterious roadkill. Both found themselves on the road to Arkansas decades ago. Bailin, a native of Sioux Falls, S.D., and his wife, Amy Stewart, were living in New York when Stewart was offered a job clerking for a federal judge in Little Rock in 1986. “I thought I’d be strung up because I was a liberal New York Jew,” Bailin said. He applied for a job as a bookkeeper at the Arkansas Arts Center, but then-Director Townsend Wolfe asked him to run the Museum School (and keep the books) instead.
Criswell and his wife, Janet, ended up in Arkansas in 1977 when the city bus they’d converted to a camper and named Toad Hall broke down. They’d come because Criswell was writing a post-apocalyptic novel in which the rising sea had turned Little Rock into beach; it was research.
“If you’ve read ‘Wind in the Willows,’ you will remember Mr. Toad, who went on one maniacal quest after another, each one failing miserably,” Criswell said. “On the back of the bus I painted O YE OF LITTLE FAITH! After the bus and our faith began to decline, we changed the sign on the front to TOWED HAUL.” Arkansas was the end of the quest for a self-sustaining earth-friendly writer/farmer retreat. When a tornado blew the bus over in 1982, the couple built a house in Benton. Criswell quit writing, he said, because “it began to be a fight with the typewriter for me.” He returned to art “like a salmon spawning.”
Peters, on the other hand, grew up in Arkansas, though he was born in Shreveport. He is the jock of the three. He claims to be the famed Peters of the headline “Eastside plays with Peters out,” a headline every journalist knows and which is thought to be apocryphal, though Peters swears it is not. (At one stage in his life, when he took a break from painting, he played tournament ping-pong.) His father had a sign business, Ace, and was artistic. Peters eventually took over the business. He said his wife, Pam, agreed to marry him even though “she knew I was an artist. I was an artist, but she always said I was a hippie with a job and a truck,” and that worked well enough.
BAILIN: Did I tell you I’m on that committee selecting the artwork for the CARTI Foundation?
BAILIN: Their new building.
PETERS: No; I’ll be a little nicer to you.
BAILIN: No, well, don’t worry. We got the schematics for what they want, what they’re looking for. I luckily have no part of that list. And, um, you’re not on that list either.
PETERS: Well, of course not.
BAILIN: They don’t want abstraction … it’s too confusing. What we’re doing, what I’m doing … I’m in the infusion area, where they have the chemo; they certainly don’t want Kafkaesque stuff. My new series of skulls is not going to go over well, and they don’t want scary things like Warren’s pieces and they said they don’t want abstract stuff because it’s too confusing …
CRISWELL: Who is this?
PETERS: Oh, Warren, Leslie is taping this fucking conversation.
BAILIN: Ha ha ha ha ha.
PETERS: So don’t say anything …
It’s a stretch, but though Peters is an abstractionist and Bailin the creator of theatrical scenes, there is a similarity between their works as well: parallel lines and pentimenti, traces of work covered over by successive painting or drawing. The work of all three can be described as complex, whether in deciphering Bailin’s narratives of human frustration, Criswell’s references to myth and great paintings of the past, or Peters’ layered architecture. “One thing that ties us all together is we’re looking for the truth,” Criswell said. “We’re compelled or addicted to finding our own authentic truth in the studio as opposed to what we might sell or be successful at. Integrity is what really binds us.”
In Criswell’s case, it is often the naked truth, as he appears in many of his paintings. He is the man falling from the sky, crawling across the road. In “El Dorado,” he is both the bent-over and helmetless conquistador traveling atop a stork and armed with a broken lance, and the man in a coat and hat on the roadside giving directions. It is not only masterfully painted — the rocky road, the huge moon looming, the radiating clouds, the destroyed bridge, the two Criswells — it also tells a fantastically rich story. As Peters writes about Criswell’s work in “Disparate Acts”: “Warren is an autodidact who insists on finding his own way, often against my advice … and as with all great works, the images stay with us long after our encounter with them.”
The images stay with us and, if we’re lucky, the stories, too: His “Penthesilea (Love is a Dog Bite)” is inspired by both Kleist’s play about the Amazon setting dogs on her lover and Poussin’s “Et in Arcadia ego.” There’s a lot going on in this richly painted, ochre-glowing oil.
At one point in the last three decades — it would have been before the Internet — Peters and Criswell kept their debates going in their cars, taping rants on art and philosophy and then exchanging them.
PETERS: How long did we do that when we sent taped correspondences back and forth?
CRISWELL: Yeah, we used to rave on in the car in our tape recorders and send the tapes back and forth.
PETERS: Philosophical shit.
BAILIN: How come I was never involved in that?
PETERS: You’re too shallow.
BAILIN: Oh, dammit.
PETERS: I’m way shallower than you are now.
Bailin’s truth is set apart from the viewer: His narratives are stagey, monumental and full of absurdities, as if a theatrical “fourth wall” exists between the work and the viewer. His velvety charcoal lines are exquisite; like Criswell, he is a figurative master. In his 2013 charcoal “Papers,” a man is being chased down a tree-lined road by scribbles and mazes. Over lunch, Bailin talked about the way he’s drawn the trees — darkly outlined trunks filled in with horizontal lines. “Pure Van Gogh,” he said, the artist’s contribution to Bailin’s studio “party,” and they are gorgeous.
From his early Holocaust drawings, in which he superimposed symbols of the Kabbalah over scenes of outrage, to his series of Biblical scenes set in the midcentury, to today’s erasings, works that reference the loss of memory and personality, Bailin’s narratives offer us a way to think about the human condition. We can be cruel, we can be banal, and eventually we aren’t anymore.
Bailin says he is now drawing and erasing, drawing and erasing. “I’m afraid in a couple of years I’ll just be doing blank drawings. I’ll have erased myself.”
Criswell believes that such destructiveness “can be inspiring, even though we’re sawing off the limb we’re sitting on,” and in any case, that’s how new work is born.
Peters arrives at his abstract constructions by looking at “minutiae in nature and I find patterns. My ladders and stripes that I make, I’m looking at them right there [pointing at the street outside the window]. … It’s like the way man encroaches on nature I find more beautiful than nature itself. What man has done to nature is infinitely more attractive … it shows the humanity, the way that man looks at something and says I can do something with that.”
Like Bailin, Peters works in layers, his brushstrokes purposely allowing earlier marks to come through. In this way, Peters adds the dimension of time to abstract expressionism: At first Peters was there, then there, and now he’s here. It’s a kind of visual archeology for the viewer to explore. In his work “Beginning: current; integration,” the entry work in “Disparate Acts,” Peters’ fields of scumbled, washed out yellow-greens and manganese blues, painted in encaustic, allows light to penetrate the colors.
Here’s how Bailin looks at his colleagues’ work: “Sammy’s is dessert, Sammy’s is luscious. Warren’s is this upset stomach … It tastes OK going down but it’s going to upset you when it gets there. It’s all about the way his strokes are, that scumbling he puts on there, the individual strokes that he defines his figures with … . It’s like there’s a kind of fingernail on the chalkboard. You cannot … it forces you to look at it, at its kind of brutality. … ” (At this point in Bailin’s speech, Peters and Criswell are hooting.) When it comes to this threesome, there’s no verbal scumbling, no overlay of words to soften their real thoughts.
And what part of the meal is Bailin? He hasn’t thought about it, but he comes up with this: “Borscht.”
BAILIN: Sammy used to do these cartoons, he was reading these philosophers, and he would do a cartoon to explain what he was reading.
PETERS: It was an important concept so I would draw it. They’re bookmarks, so if I go back I have the baby version of what Heidegger was saying.
CRISWELL: Heidegger made easy. … There’s a big disconnect between philosophical thinking and what we actually do in the studio [big laughter from Bailin and Peters] but sometimes … I know when I got into the existentialists and phenomenology … that actually started me on a whole series of my still lifes. Phenomenology is the study of an object without knowing anything about its history or its chemical makeup or anything about it but as you perceive it. …
PEACOCK: How do you do that?
CRISWELL: I don’t know. You can’t. I’ve tried it. That’s the point. I tried it with my still lifes. I was ambushed by things I see around the house, a coffee cup, whatever. I was sick of narrative. My whole career had been narrative and I wanted to do strictly phenomenology still lifes. So I did these things. So when people saw it, they said it was the most intimate self-portrait [laughing] … . In other words, there’s always a narrative. You can try to get rid of it but you can’t do it. Like Sammy’s abstract paintings. You see the narrative in them. That’s what humans do. Tell stories. …
PETERS: There were a few books [we were reading] that were about mathematical savants.
CRISWELL: There’s a similarity in the creativity of a mathematician and us, unconscious sparks go off. If you tried to find it, you can’t. It has to happen. Or not, as is the case with me.
PETERS: And with me.
BAILIN: We’re all in the pit?
The pit is a terrible place for artists, but they don’t go there unless they are serious about the act of creation. When they don’t know what to do next, when they want to create something new and can’t — that’s the pit. Inspiration sometimes goes missing — but then Criswell and Bailin leave Damgoode Pies to see a woman getting into her car. The wind has blown her skirt up and she’s wearing no underwear. There you have it: “It was an epiphany,” Criswell said. The result: His painting “Revelation.”
Peters, in a searching spell once, created a series of works on paper. “I was trying to paint one a week, finish one a week. I have one where I did a whole series in one day, small pieces of paper that were really cartoons. And I didn’t use my real name on them and sold some on eBay.” The name: Stella O’Schmidt, inspired by Oscar Schmidt’s Stella guitars. Initals S.O.S.
BAILIN: So did you ever dress up like Duchamp did?
PETERS: Nah. I would tell you if I did.
BAILIN: Not on tape, you wouldn’t.
If Bailin and Criswell and Peters find themselves staring at blank surfaces in their studios, it’s because they are refusing to churn out what they’ve done before. They maintain that if they could take a pill that would let them paint whatever, they would. This is what makes them different: A drive to create, dig deeper into why they are making art, get closer to the truth. That’s where their kvetching, their debating, their joking (Bailin describes the three as “cow chip” rather than “blue chip”) comes in.
“We understand the need to abreact, to explore issues, and we don’t tire of our own separate abreactions. That’s one thing that holds us all together. Otherwise, I could talk politics with anybody,” Bailin said.
“The hook for this show,” Bailin said of “Disparate Artists,” “is three artists, 30 years, weekly lunch, nobody psychologically or physically damaged. How is that possible?”