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story.lead_photo.caption Warren Criswell’s oil on canvas painting is titled Half-Finished Hell.

It has been two years since a sizable showing of works by Warren Criswell, one of our region's best painters, has appeared in central Arkansas.

So his participation in "New Works," a four-artist show with Steve Adair, Robin Tucker and Bryan Frazier at Little Rock's M2 Gallery, is particularly welcome. Criswell's sizable portion of the exhibition -- more than 35 works hanging and more on hand -- is a heady mix of dazzling new pieces, familiar older works that have gained power and continue to haunt the viewer, and a sizable assortment of very cool lino cuts, drawings and some very early watercolors. It almost feels like a retrospective.

The last large showing of Criswell's work in central Arkansas was "Disparate Acts Redux" with Sammy Peters and David Bailin at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in 2015. (He participated in a show with Neal and Tammy Harrington in February 2016 at the Arts Center of the Ozarks in Springdale.)

The ingredients that distinguish his best works are in abundance at M2: folklore, mythology, Jungian archetypes; works inspired by classical music and opera. Social commentary, dystopian scenes, the complexity of relationships and mundane objects such as a roll of toilet paper all have their place here. And, of course, the artist also figures prominently in many of these works.

It's wonderful to see Aristeas again, a powerful 1996 work based on the story of the Greek poet Aristeas from the seventh century B.C., who was thought dead until he reappeared, telling people he had been traveling with the god Apollo as a sacred raven. In this oil on hardwood, a man lies on the beach, a raven emerging from his gaping mouth. In the stunning, 54-by-36 inch Tango, a couple dance near the entrance of a large cave near a giant dead raven. The 1996 work is an oil and beeswax on plywood.

Criswell's recent works have made pre-exhibition appearances on Facebook and Instagram, but those internet sites don't do the art justice. They need to be seen in person.

Autumn Leaves is a subtle, superbly executed watercolor with collage. The perspective plays with the viewer; it is as though we are in the water and the leaves are floating through the reflections of the trees. It's touched with a melancholic surrealism, suffused with pastoral mysticism.

Criswell takes an even bigger step with Half-Finished Hell, a 30-by-40 inch oil on canvas. Inspired by the poem "The Half-Finished Heaven" by Swedish Nobel laureate Tomas Transtromer, the watery reflection is perhaps a scrying of a dystopian future of our planet. In the water, we see Earth, its coasts altered by rising sea levels, the land ablaze (recalling satellite-photographed images of wildfires) and a hurricane in the planet's ocean. (Criswell says the figures at the top slinking away were inspired by Hieronymus Bosch's Wayfarer.) One can easily connect this piece's power to human neglect; a half-finished transformation of heaven on Earth into hell. Or many other interpretations. A copy of the poem is posted alongside the painting.

Other new works include Artist & Model 10: Interior With Green Moon, an oil on linen that plays with perspective as the artist's model drifts away from him and he is blinded by the moon. It speaks to artistic vision and the muse as well as relationships. The Miraculous Mandarin, an oil on panel based on Bela Bartok's 1926 mime ballet, depicts the aftermath of an attempted murder. A Chinese man is lured into a room by a dancing woman, is jumped by three men who try -- and fail -- to kill him. The men are startled as the intended victim begins to glow.

The wistful and soulful Ghosts, a 23-by-30 inch watercolor, is also available as a smaller limited print. The 2017 work depicts two people -- Criswell says it is he and his wife -- taking their last walk together.

Criswell isn't one to rest on past achievements. As his new paintings show, he is still searching, still wrestling with his muse, still pushing himself forward.

...

Steve Adair, from Rogers, has a number of vibrant canvases that evoke old Hollywood and a sort of moody, Mad Men sensibility. There are hints of Andy Warhol in the works' design, maybe even a little Peter Max.

Vestige, an oil on canvas, evokes those influences in a singular fashion. Cary Grant? Bogart? Jon Hamm? The retro-cool vibe makes this a stylish, irresistible piece. Also strong is Peace Warrior, a haunting treatment of the Buddha in oil/spray paint.

Robin Tucker, who won a Delta Award at the 2014 "Delta Exhibition" at the Arkansas Arts Center, had two pieces in this year's Delta.

The photorealistic painter has several new acrylic on canvas works in this show that are beautiful on the surface, but have emotional underpinnings. Not All Are Saved is, on the surface, a beautifully executed glass jar with a richly textured cork with marbles inside and outside the jar. It could easily be thought of as a social/political commentary, as in "not all are admitted." Sheltered is focused on two rocks that recall Shiva lingam. Is their stance over the clear glass ball or marble protection or suppression?

Bryan Frazier has a number of interesting canvases in the show, but it is his intriguing screen prints of French actress Brigitte Bardot that really stand out. There are two takes on Bardot's image and both are appealing.

Four artists, one excellent show.

New Works by Warren Criswell, Steve Adair, Robin Tucker and Bryan Frazier, through Oct. 13, M2 Gallery, 11525 Cantrell Road, Suite 918, Little Rock. Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and by appointment. Info: (501) 225-6257.

TWO WORLDS

Kirk Montgomery's vibrant acrylic paintings and ink drawings crackle with energy, reflecting a fascinating confluence of influences that meld into a distinctive, affecting storytelling style.

One can easily feel the warmth of the romanticized and painterly illustrations of Wendell Minor, who has created book cover art for authors such as Arkansas' Donald Harington (Butterly Weed), Pat Conroy, Jean Shepherd and Jodi Picoult, among others.

There also are hints of pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, Japanese illustrative art, Thomas Hart Benton and comic book illustration in Montgomery's paintings and drawings. There are stories to be told about these works, which are often populated with stylized mountains, lovely crescent moons, explosions, the occasional tornado and fires. Landscapes are sometimes populated with a solitary, leafless tree and mountains that blend the Japanese line with an anime sensibility.

The Democrat-Gazette's assistant managing editor of design and graphics, Montgomery uses a vivid palette, especially the rich yellows, oranges and blues. His strong and bold lines make the skies of his landscapes -- especially Good Day Sunshine -- feel positively psychedelic.

An element of nostalgia is sometimes apparent, particularly Standing Outside My Home as a Child, an acrylic and ink work that is a romanticized, retro kind of cool self-portrait. In contrast, a sense of foreboding grips Mor-Rioghain (Phantom Queen), an acrylic and ink work of a raven in flight in a tumultuous sky.

Also outstanding is the wonderful ink drawing A Truck Burns in Bryant and the acrylic and ink Journey Through the Sacred Valley.

"A Tale of Two Worlds" marks the emergence of a painter who has gained confidence and trust in his vision.

Photo by Courtesy M2 Gallery
Are We All In is the title of Robin Tucker’s acrylic, part of a “New Works” show at M2 Gallery in Little Rock.
Photo by Courtesy M2 Gallery
Steve Adair’s Vestige is an oil on canvas. It hangs at M2 Gallery.
Photo by Courtesy Kirk Montgomery
The title of this acrylic and ink on board painting is Good Day Sunshine. It is part of Kirk Montgomery’s “A Tale of Two Worlds” show of drawings and paintings at Cantrell Gallery.

"A Tale of Two Worlds: Recent Drawings and Paintings by Kirk Montgomery, through Oct. 28, Cantrell Gallery, 8208 Cantrell Road, Little Rock. Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Info: cantrellgallery.com, (501) 224-1335

Email:

ewidner@arkansasonline.com

Style on 09/24/2017

Print Headline: Criswell's newest works dazzle

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