Warren Criswell's narrative drawings and paintings have secured for him a place as one of Arkansas's premier artists. Night roads lit by headlights, crows, nudes, self-portraits populate his work, in scenes often erotic, sometimes dark — in mood as well as setting — and always wry.
Now, the birds fly, the nudes vamp and his self-portrait fires a gun, thanks to Criswell's forays into animated video. He may well be better known someday — at least outside Arkansas — for this work, which deftly combines soundtracks with the artistically jumpy drawings. Criswell says the videos bring his art to life, a la Frankenstein (“It's aliiiiiiive!” he says), by adding the dimension of time.
This weekend, Criswell's 12-minute film, “Six Moments,” a compilation of six videos, will be shown as part of the Little Rock Film Festival's short films competition. Screenings are at 1 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. They may be viewed individually on a computer screen at his website, www.warrencriswell.com.
“The thing with painting,” Criswell said last week, “is you're looking for a perfect moment and then the painting is there forever. With this thing, I've added stuff before that perfect moment, given it a past and future.” Because he's given them life, it follows that he's given them death. A Criswellian death — well, it doesn't get any better than that. His 40-second “The Crossing” opens with a man crossing a highway in the night, the lights of a tractor-trailer illuminating his body, and closes with a body in the road, a winged hyena at its neck.
Criswell has packed a lot into those 40 seconds. He opens his moonlit scene with Beethoven's “Moonlight Sonata” and after the truck passes by slips into the similar chords of John Lennon's “Because,” a decision he made after learning that Lennon wrote his song after hearing Yoko Ono play “Moonlight Sonata” and asking her to play it backwards. The world is round, the Beatles are turned on and the winged hyena — from a Criswell painting inspired by Arnold Schoenberg's drama-with-music “The Lucky Hand” — feasts on the man.
Criswell's drawings are perfectly suited to movement; the flight of a crow in “The Crow” is a marvelous thing, the wingbeats perfect (he studied how birds fly) and the wings changing color in the light. You couldn't get any more Criswell than the conclusion to “The Crow” — at 3 minutes 5 seconds an epic. The crow flies into a culvert where a man (Criswell himself) is lying; the man picks up a gun and shoots. The inspiration was less high-brow — it's from “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The scene ends in a blackout; “I got that from the ‘Sopranos,' by the way,” Criswell said.
Criswell's style of drawing (Edward Gorey-ish, had Gorey drawn in charcoal) fits the tenor and the medium well, but the music is the thing with the videos. Dubbing was a totally new thing to Criswell, but he shows himself to be inspired — as well as technically adept — in his choice of music. Music composed by Robert Boury, composer at scores by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, accompanies the shorts “Nocturne” and “Nude Descending a Staircase” and Steve Whiteacre's country-rock “Misery” is perfect in “Night Moves.” Criswell said that by adding “Misery” to the video — which is about love lost — “it's like he's saying, ‘Fuck it,' and drives off. It adds a note of humor to it that wasn't there before.”
It took Criswell four years to make the 12 minutes of “Six Moments.” It takes 24 drawings — which he's doing by hand and not by computer — to make a second of video. “Labor intensive is an understatement,” he wrote in e-mail before the interview. “And so far I haven't made a dime on the damn things!”
He's hoping, however, to see them at Cannes.
A Q. and A. with Criswell can be found online on the Times' Rock Candy blog.
Speaking of Robert Boury, hand-written scores by American composers that he and his wife, Angie, have collected will go on exhibit Thursday, May 15, at the Historic Arkansas Museum. “On Second Thought,” part of the Eclectic Collector Series, will feature scores by Victor Herbert, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Dave Brubeck and Stephen Sondheim. The exhibit runs through Nov. 6 in the Study Gallery.