Russ Warren (born 1951) is a contemporary figurative painter who has exhibited extensively throughout the U.S. and abroad, notably in the 1981 Whitney Biennial and the 1984 Venice Biennale. A painter in the Neo-Expressionist style, he has drawn inspiration from Spanish masters such as Velázquez, Goya and Picasso, as well as from Mexican folk art and the American southwest. Committed to his own Regionalist style during his formative years in Texas and New Mexico, he was picked up by Phyllis Kind in 1981.
Born in 1951 in Washington, D.C., Russ Warren began his studies under Earl Staley at the University of St. Thomas in Houston from 1969 to 1971 and finished his B.F.A. at the University of New Mexico in 1973. His earliest paintings reveal a dedicated study of the early Modernists, such as Cézanne, Kirchner, Matisse, and, especially, Picasso. Still Life with Hands (1971) displays an impressive mastery of these influences. The cutouts of the artist's own hands, placed centrally within and over newspaper clippings of the day points to an autobiographical component that will resurface periodically in his work. In 1981, Eva Hesse noticed this in her review of his first solo show in New York, calling the works "private autobiographical paintings that create a mystique of the self."
After graduating from the University of New Mexico in 1973, Warren moved into his own studio in Houston (1973-5) and worked again with his mentor at St. Thomas, Earl Staley, on an installation from the Beaumont Art Museum in which he created huge papier-mâché sculptures of Texas Longhorn, oilmen, businessmen, oversized Stuckey's ash trays in the shape of the state, and other Pop-like images.
In graduate school at the University of Texas, San Antonio (1975–77), he participated in a program designed as an equivalent to a Ph.D. for artists. He received his M.F.A. in 1977, after completing an in-depth thesis on Regionalism, beginning with the WPA works of the late 1920s and ‘30s, and continuing through the Chicago, California and Texas art movements of the ‘70s. His belief that an artist did not need to become "mainstream" to "make it" in New York seemed to be upheld when on separate occasions both Marcia Tucker, then director of the New Museum, and Tom Armstrong, then director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, gave him "Best in Show" awards. Their recognition led to his participation in the Whitney Biennial of 1981, gallery representation with Phyllis Kind, and inclusion in the 1984 Venice Biennale, among other important exhibitions.
After moving from his native Texas to Florida and then to Davidson, North Carolina, Warren's Regionalism gave way to what he has dubbed "Funky Figurative," and others have called "mad cap surrealist" (Donald Kuspit), False Image, False Naiveté, New Image, New Wave, and Neo Expressionist art. His repeated trips to Mexico and Spain during these years heightened his interest in folk art and the Spanish masters Velázquez, Goya, and Picasso. His animals and figures, now stripped of all particulars, act and interact as in a strange "Magic Theatre" (Barry Schwabsky), taking part in what seem to be epic passion plays, often hovering in catastrophic spaces produced by his exaggerated use of shadow and perspective.
In 1990, while developing an art class on Picasso at Davidson College, Warren become obsessed with Paso Fino horses, and they began to populate his paintings. One of his most ambitious and successful series, Mare: A Work in Progress, consists of twenty oil paintings, each measuring 4’ x 7’ or 4’ x 8’. The huge pregnant mare in these works and the house or temple in works leading up to them become the vessel or metaphor for painting itself. Timeless themes of creation and destruction, light and dark, life and death, exist side by side with tongue-in-cheek references to high and low art, as in Elvis Ain’t No Cubist.
In 2001, Warren returned to basics and to his sketchbooks for a series he refers to as "Psychoanalytical Portraits". The earliest paintings—oil on panel, mostly in black and white, measuring 20" x 16"—are emblems of personal and/or universal angst, recalling the isolation and pain of Munch's Scream and our post-9/11 world. These "portraits" morph into concise analyses of human attitudes and conditions, from isolation and anxiety to union and joy and back again.
Since 2008, Warren has made a radical departure from the modest in size, jarring in impact, black and white "psychoanalytical portraits" of recent years, paintings that Picasso scholar Lydia Gasman referred to as "brilliant distillations of Picasso," to return to riotous color and large scale. His most recent paintings the artist dubs "humorous nightmares," and they do recall some of his earlier work that Donald Kuspit referred to as "madcap surrealist" in style. For these works he draws freely from his own styles and subjects throughout his 40-year career as well as from some of his favorite artists such as Picasso and Juan Gris. For example, he has painted his own personal version of Picasso's Three Musicians, as well as large still life paintings that reference Juan Gris, in addition to paintings which are reminiscent of some of his earlier work which allude to the magic mountains or magoté (in Zapatec) he encountered while on a sabbatical in Oaxaca, Mexico. The mountains that recur in these paintings, whether as the main subject, a vista through a window, or painting within a painting in a still life, also undoubtedly mirror some of the mountains and views around Charlottesville.
Select Solo Exhibitions
2009 Russ Warren: From Magic Mountain, Les Yeux du Monde, Charlottesville VA
Victoria Beck and James Newman, Buffalo NY