|Retirement Provides Warren with Less Work, New Home, and More Time to Pursue Art
July 01, 2008
Contact: Bill Giduz
Editor's Note: In preparation for his retrospective exhibition in 2010, Warren would like to hear from alumni who own works he created in the 1980s and 1990s that might be included in the exhibit. Contact him through Lyn@LesYeuxduMonde.com or Andrea Douglas at the UVA Museum, firstname.lastname@example.org .
Russ Warren insists the spooky scenes on his canvases don't haunt him. "They don't represent anything autobiographical," said the artist, who retired this year after nearly 30 years of teaching at Davidson.
Warren explained that the depictions that have gained him fame - otherworldly landscapes inhabited by mystical creatures -reflect his questions, rather than his fears. "They're just my way of exploring all the age-old heavy questions about good and evil, heaven and hell," he said.
Warren retired this spring after almost 30 years of teaching, and is delighted to be working full-time on his art. He has recently moved to Charlottesville, Va., to be with his wife of four years, Lyn Bolen Warren '83. She was an art history major at Davidson who once took a basic design class from Warren. The couple met again several years ago when an artist canceled a showing at Bolen's gallery, and she hurriedly contacted Warren to mount a replacement show.
They're building a new W.G. Clark-designed studio for Warren in their home, and he enjoys sharing her involvement with the art world. Bolen was also instrumental in the University of Virginia Art Museum's decision to launch a traveling retrospective of Warren's work beginning in late 2009. Bolen will curate that show.
The retrospective will approach Warren's 40-year artistic career as four stages. A Texas native whose first love was music, Warren played in a rock band as a teenager and washed dishes at a Howard Johnson's restaurant. His interest in art was sparked by a work buddy who would talk with him about it over late-night cups of coffee. In 1966, they hopped a bus to New York, where Warren got hooked by the work of great masters like Picasso and Rembrandt that he saw in museums.
|From 1974 - Warren's "Texas Pride"|
There were also practical reasons to prefer art over music. "I liked the idea of being able to make something and exhibit it," he said. "You personally don't have to be there. That's what attracted me to art from music. I didn't like having to be in front of people all the time."
He started drawing in college, fruitlessly for the first two years at large abstract paintings. He finally developed a personal visual vocabulary around iconic images of Texas - cowboy hats, six guns, and cattle-that were his first successful works. His early paintings (from 1969-1973) were also influenced by Modernist painters. Warren experimented with cutouts of his own hands placed over newspaper clippings of the day to create collages with personal meaning.
After graduating from the University of New Mexico in 1973, Warren moved into his own studio in Houston and worked with a mentor, Earl Staley, on an installation for the Beaumont Art Museum. They created huge papier machŽ sculptures of Southwestern icons -longhorn cattle, oilmen, and Stuckey's ash trays in the shape of the state. His paintings of the time also poked fun at his home state, such as the longhorn cow titled "Texas Pride," a bull painted in outline form on a red and blue state flag so its only visible features are a smiling mouth of teeth and a Texas map branded on its rump.
|Portrait of a young teacher. Warren conducts class circa 1980.|
Warren earned his M.F.A. from the University of Texas in 1977 with a study of Southwestern regional art. He sought out a position in academe to support his painting, and emerged as the choice among 78 applicants who Davidson Professor Herb Jackson interviewed as a replacement for the retiring Doug Houchens.
With a two-person department, Warren taught six classes, focusing on drawing, printmaking, etching and lithography. At the same time, he painted ceaselessly, and his artistic reputation grew with appearances in 11 group shows and a one-man show at Spirit Square in Charlotte.
Repeated trips to Mexico and Spain throughout the 1980s fed his interest in folk art, and led to a new artistic stage of his life. He painted puppet-like, expressionless stick figure people and large dogs and horses in situations charged with drama and highlighted by extreme shadow and perspective.
A man and a bull attack each other. A starving dog sniffs a skull in a dark hallway. Naked, expressionless men with black knives assault other men. Black silhouettes cast long shadows out of tiny doorways.
These "funky figures" as he called them, won "Best in Show" prize in the 1980 annual exhibition of North Carolina artists at the Raleigh Museum and gave his career an instant boost. The juror for that exhibition was a curator at the Whitney Museum in New York, and selected Warren for the 1981 Whitney Biennial. Phyllis Kind, a dealer with galleries in New York and Chicago, saw the Biennial and gave him a one-person show. A curator of New York's New Museum saw his work and invited him to be one of just 24 American artists at the internationally prestigious 1984 Venice Biennale. From that point, his work was included in exhibitions from Rome to Los Angeles, including the 1988 Corcoran Biennial in Washington, D.C.
|Warren's "Sea Shepherds" from 1986.|
In the late 1980s Warren built a six-acre ranch a few miles out of Davidson, and furnished it Southwestern style with Mexican blankets on the floor and cactus plants. There was a barn with an attached art studio where Warren fed his vivid imagination with images from popular culture, such as postcards, Mexican folk art, and regional souvenirs. He painted early in the morning, when he still retained images from his dreams. He kept several paintings going at once in his studio. He explained, "You walk in and you have this whole world that you are playing with, this whole world that is beginning, and you have no idea where it is going to take you or what is going to happen. You are the boss. I really like that."
He always carried a drawing book, and constantly sketched ideas. "I may have 50 ideas in a drawing book and use only one," he explained.
|An expert equestrian, Warren won national awards for showing his Paso Fino horses.|
His personal career was flourishing at the same time he was proving to be a highly popular classroom teacher. His easy manner and good humor put students at ease when they had to bare their souls to fellow classmates in critiques of their artwork. During the art department's former retreats with majors in Little Switzerland, he would commandeer the kitchen and teach everyone how to make authentic Tex-Mex chili. As the evening unfurled, he would bring out his guitar and sing songs of Texas, Spain and Mexico.
From personal experience, he taught students to avoid tradition. "I'm a real control freak with my work," he said. "I try and not take anything for granted. I feel a little guilty when I do that, like it's too easy or something."
He explained, "Let's say you begin to paint the bark of a tree. Your first instinct is to paint it brown. But does it have to be brown? No. Does it have to be thick? No. Could it be thin? Do you have to have just one tree? I always ask myself a lot of questions as I paint."
He also devised an unprecedented course on Cubism that fused studio and art history. He began each class with a lecture on what Picasso and his contemporaries were attempting to do, then assigned students to make art in reaction to what they learned.
As he developed that class, Warren became obsessed with Paso Fino horses. They began to populate his paintings, and dominated his artistic interest during the decade of the 1990s. One of his most successful series, 20 large oil-on-panel paintings, are collectively entitled Mare: A Work in Progress. The animals' large bodies completely fill the rectangular frames, with squat legs and small, sparsely drawn heads squeezed into the corners. They are distinguished by bright color and random lines scratched and painted all over.
|Warren pursued his interest in Mexican culture through sculpture.|
Warren also began breeding and training Paso Fino horses for shows. He had as many as nine at once, and eventually won six national titles.
A leg broken during a horse show, and the time and financial cost associated with competitive riding, led him to downsize his involvement. He no longer rides competitively, but still has several horses in Charlottesville for occasional trail rides.
Three years ago Warren shifted gears again, and began creating what he terms "psychoanalytic portraits." These black and white images have the spontaneous feel of a sketch, and many are Cubist in form, with mere circles to represent eyes and mouth. They reflect his impressions of people he meets, which are not always pleasant. "They're kind of scary, and a little crazy" Warren admits. He sketched "Mr. Nuclear Submarine Architect Man" after encountering a man of that profession who had a distinctly hostile opinion of artists.
He has recently begun another artistic exploration based on his longtime admiration for singer Bob Dylan, a series of drawings based on Dylan's Biblical references.
|"Mare: A Work in Progress I" from 2000.|
Warren is excited about this new, post-Davidson phase of his life. He enjoys socializing and talking shop with his new associations in the Charlottesville arts world, and he looks forward to tending the horses and taking an occasional trail ride. Most importantly, his artistic skills and imagination are as strong as ever, and he now can paint full time in the new studio he and Lyn are building at their rural home.
More than anything, creating art excites him. "You walk in and you have this whole world that you are playing with, this whole world that is beginning," he said, describing what motivates him to pick up his brushes.
"You have no idea where it is going to take you or what is going to happen. You are the boss. I really like that. Then you see the paintings develop, and finally they're finished. Then it's very reflective because you see something of yourself that you didn't see before."
Posted By: Bill Giduz