If you missed David Bailin’s talk “SUUM QUIQUE VENENUM (To Each His Own Poison)” at the Darragh Center a week ago Wednesday, and know you missed a terrific presentation on the work of Bailin, Sammy Peters and Warren Criswell, take heart. Bailin has provided me a link to the videos he showed and notes from the talk.
The three artists — the subject of my Times’ cover story Sept. 3 — have a group show at the Butler Center, “Disparate Acts Redux,” through Oct. 31. In the show, for example, you’ll see Peters’ abstract expressionist works, encaustic paintings that incorporate fabric and other materials. Peters’ paintings have a pluperfect layer, partially covered by a succeeding layer and the ultimate layer, so that ridges of red from the first incarnation of the painting may fight through to a surface of yellow. The palette is complex — even muddied at times — but Peters will put in a stroke of pure hue in places. The work is geometrical, and it’s not. His use of cheesecloth, for example, is like crosshatching but it bends the way you see time-space rendered for people who aren’t quantum physicists or mathematicians. The paintings give you something to look at time and again. Criswell’s painterly “Secret Sharer” there is two paintings in one: An Albert Pinkham Ryder-like seascape surrounds a painting of Criswell leaning over a boat, shining a flashlight on his fearsome doppelganger in the water. Bailin’s monumental charcoals — of men who appear to be lost, or floating or fleeing down neighborhood streets or tree-lined paths — portray profound confusion in the drawing of the figures and the scribbles — like foggy thinking — drawn in the sky. The foregrounds are quite painterly, a brush drawn through watered-down charcoal (I’m guessing here). (Interestingly, if you combine the painterly portions of Criswell’s scumbled skies and roads and the wide brushstrokes from Bailin’s foregrounds you would have elements of Peters’ work.)
The cover story touched only briefly on the paintings in the show, just enough to let the reader know something about how each artist works. It focused instead on the fact that the three have gotten together weekly or bi-weekly for 30 years to talk about their work, art and the trials of being an artist in search of, as they say, the truth, hoping the muse will not fail them. Bailin’s insights into the work of the three, not surprisingly, go much deeper than anything I could write.
In a super video at the link, filmed by the Double Trouble filmmakers (Bailin’s talented twin daughters),Criswell talks about the betrayal of the muse, one of the many things going on in his painting “Penthesilea (Love is a Dog Bite).” The painting is a post-apocalyptic scene: An oil tanker is overturned (we’ve used up all our oil); dogs are ripping a man to shreds as women — a couple atop elephants — watch and on the hill; a man (Criswell himself) is collapsed against a headstone inscribed (but partially obscured) “Et in Arcadia ego.” OK, what is going on here? Lots. Penthesilea (bear with me here) is, in Greek mythology, an Amazonian warrior killed by Achilles. But Heinrich von Kleist’s 19th century tragedy turns the tables on the myth, and Penthesilea kills Achillles. The scene on the right is a reference to a painting by Poussin about Virgil’s writing that death finds us all — it is even in Arcadia. Penthesilea, Criswell says it has occurred to him, stands for the indifferent muse who, though the artist must paint — it is his obsession — is indifferent. She cares little about his desire for immortality through his work. “The muse can destroy us,” he says. So already we have much to think about — and we haven’t even yet considered how Criswell puts paint on canvas, his beautifully wrought work in an evening light palette (which must be seen in person to be fully appreciated).
Here’s what Bailin said about the abstract expressionist Peters (in his notes and in his talk), whose work he addresses first:
I’ve selected him first because I’ve never heard him abreact. I’ve never heard him say a bad thing about any artist. He is the gentleman and scholar of our group. He rarely talks but when he does it strikes at the heart of the matter. I have been trying to write the definitive essay on him for at least three years. I just can’t do it. How do you describe art work so beautiful and sublime that it takes your breath away…that is so perfect that it draws you into it and you never want to leave it.
Of his own work, Bailin notes the progression of some of his drawings, from sketch to completed work to successive works that take the narration farther — think Act 1 to Act 2 and so forth, reflecting Bailin’s theatrical roots. Bailin — and Criswell and Peters — fear they’ve reached the final act (though it’s not the first time they’ve believed that), a fear Bailin introduces with a video of Milton Resnick talking about the ups and downs of being an honest artist. “If you’re a good artist, you’re going to go down. … Pulling yourself up again is the most important part of your life.”
That’s what these 30 years have been about for the three artists, Bailin writes. “What this all comes down to is battling the pit. That is the release we seek in our company.”
Criswell has also written about “Disparate Acts” in “Behind the Curtain,” where he addresses why the three paint the way they do — freed by the end of modernism to return to the figurative and abstract expressionism — and the scary obsession that is making art.