at Tough Gallery, through February 25
In 1923 Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov wrote a manifesto in praise of the possibilities of cinema. Speaking as the camera, he declared, "I have created a man more perfect than Adam....I take the most agile hands of one, the fastest and the most graceful legs of another, from a third person I take the handsomest and the most expressive head, and, by editing, I create an entirely new perfect man."
Three of Ken Warneke's four paintings at Tough reminded me of Vertov's ambition, though Warneke lacks Vertov's optimistic view of human perfectibility. Each combines four fragments of a face--two eyes, a nose, and a mouth--isolated in circles or ovals or triangles and set against a prepainted abstract ground. None of the features is in quite the right position, and each is obviously a part of a different person. The odd tension between the features and the backgrounds, the photographic precision with which each face fragment is painted, and the mind's natural tendency to try to unify the diverse facial types into a single visage are what make these paintings exciting.
In the gentlest and most unified of the three paintings, an untitled piece from 1994, women's features are set amid a multicolored field. Looking a bit like a wall with many layers of paint peeling off, this ground also resembles what could be an impressionist version of mist. There are patches of blue, gray, purple, and yellow, though the dominant color seems to be one or another pale flesh tone.
Each figure fragment is a different complexion, from near brown to almost white. One eye is blue, the other hazel. But while the eyes and nose fill the areas in which they are set, the mouth is angled slightly, and we see that the area around it to its right is a tiny bit of solid white, which sets the mouth in a different kind of space from anything else in the painting, partially separating it from the rest of the implied face.
Although each part is different, the human face seems to be one form we're all wired to recognize, even when it's not there--witness the "man in the moon" and rock formations that appear to harbor faces. If one doesn't concentrate too hard on anomalies such as the mouth edge, the parts do make some kind of whole. The mysterious fleshy ground suggests that all are part of some larger, if not strictly biological, unity.
Born in 1958 in Milwaukee, Warneke dates his interest in the figure to an incident that occurred while he was making Cy Twombly-inspired abstract drawings at college. He came across a bunch of his mother's "simple little drawings done at her desk" while she worked at a trucking company, which, he says, "just kicked the shit out of my big, aggressive, surface-rich, Twombly-esque" things. Warneke then felt his abstract works to be "content devoid," while his mother's "single, solitary women...almost had a kind of existential presence, like a Giacometti sculpture would." Soon Warneke was making drawings of simply outlined portrait heads. He moved to Chicago in 1981, and beginning in 1985 he concentrated mostly on painting single figures in violet against a white field. His work was selling fairly well for a young artist, and he was represented by galleries in Chicago and New York.
Then in 1991 both the galleries closed during the art market's collapse, and Warneke found himself liberated from the "factory" of dealer and client expectations, such as requests for paintings to match colors of draperies or couches. He felt freer to experiment, to change styles.
Warneke begins his face-fragment paintings by looking at photographs in magazines. "By and large," he says, "I don't find the entire image to be satisfying." So he cuts out fragments, moving them around "for hours or days" to arrive at a photo collage, whose outlines he then transfers to a board that he's already painted. He then paints in the face fragments.
To Warneke the face paintings are about racial harmony, shared human experience, and sensuality in variety of skin color. But beyond that he doesn't want to lock up all the works' meanings, which, he admits, he hasn't figured out himself.
Racial harmony, though, is not the phrase that first comes to mind when viewing an untitled 1993 painting. A large black oval set amid a brownish ground takes up most of the picture's area; the four face fragments seem to peer out through "holes" in the oval, almost as if it were a mask. The blue eye stares directly and angrily at viewers, while the hazel eye looks off to the left and down. This calmer eye, seen partly in profile, does not fill its oval, and a small amount of the brown ground is visible to its left, as if this brown were "behind" the head and mask.
Once again one's natural impulse is to unify these parts into a single face. But how could two eyes so markedly different in pupil and eyelid color, expression, and direction of gaze be part of the same face? The other parts don't match up any better. I found myself wondering what kind of bizarre head might lie hidden behind the mask, what strange shape could contain these disjunct pieces. The harder one tries to unify the parts, the more one disconnects them from reality. Instead of diverse individuals combining to make a new, utopian being, we have the diverse pieces of our fractured culture coming apart.
Warneke implicitly acknowledges that these faces aren't smoothly unified; a key influence, he says, is his fascination with several transvestites and their dual identities. Several years ago Warneke was suddenly surprised to see a man he'd known for ten years dressed as a woman. "And not only a woman," says Warneke, "he was dressed as Heidi." Warneke admits to not really understanding "Heidi"; s/he appears to him as a split personality. The splits in Warneke's faces, at least at first glance, are akin to the dissonance that any viewer of our diverse culture might experience.
The central orange area of Cry (1995) is surrounded by streaks in various colors--falling tears, or perhaps dripping candle wax. The four face fragments are especially discombobulated; the left eye is almost next to the nose. On either side of the nose are visible the very edges of the two other eyes that would have been above it in the original photo. The lips, pointed slightly upward, are surrounded by jaundiced skin. But what makes this picture, and to some extent the other two, so affecting is the almost photographic realism with which each fragment is painted. We see tiny eyebrow hairs, various small discolored spots on the nose, precise chap lines on the lips. The result is that despite the impossible combination of face parts this does not appear as an arbitrary abstraction, as some cubist or postmodernist deconstruction. Rather it's a new form of human being, some strange multicultural amalgam, struggling to be born. Tragically imperfect, imprisoned in its own "vale of tears," it is nonetheless palpably physical, touchable, even kissable.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Reproduction of "Cry" by Ken Warneke.