Monday, February 27, 2012

Lillian Warren's View from the Windshield

by Robert Boyd

installation view

The Pearl Fincher Museum displayed a sense of humor about itself in putting up Drive-By Landscape, an exhibit by Lillian Warren. Warren's paintings of traffic and multi-panel paintings of landscapes and city views as seen from the point-of-view of a moving car are an ironic comment on this suburban museum. Located deep in the heart of Spring, the Pearl Fincher is 27 miles away from the MFAH. Furthermore, it's well within its neighborhood (and far from any freeway), so unless you are from the area, you might need your GPS to find it. It's location is deep, deep suburbia, the land where people have to drive to get anywhere.

Traffic 19
Lillian Warren, Traffic 19, acrylic on mylar, 36 x 48 inches, 2011

Consequently, when you see a painting like Traffic 26, it's easy to imagine I-45 going into town from Spring at 7 am. The frustrating crawl of the commute, devoid of context--I imagine the drivers chatting on the phone or eating or putting on makeup. It's not too dangerous to do these activities as 5 mph. Henry David Thoreau couldn't have imagined this scene when he wrote that "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." But it comes to mind when I look at Warren's Traffic series.

Traffic 26
 Lillian Warren, Traffic 26, acrylic on mylar, 40 x 30 inches, 2011

But what also comes to mind is her technique. These paintings look like watercolors. You can see where the paint pooled or leaked into other wet areas. It has the appearance of wet-on-wet watercolor painting. But watercolor painting depends on the absorbancy of the paper. Warren is painting on mylar, which is completely non-absorbant. My assumption (which surely may be wrong) is that she is using a spray bottle to wet the surface of the mylar, then painting with highly watered-down acrylics. The effect is hazy and shows the artist's hand at work. This hand-made quality of the painting is consistent throughout the work shown in this exhibit.

Lillian Warren, Interchange April 19, 6:55 pm, acrylic on canvas, 6 panels, 62 x 23 inches, 2008

About half the paintings in the show are the ghostly traffic paintings. The other half are these multi-panel landscapes like Interchange April 19, 6:55 pm.The landscapes are acrylic on canvas, and they have a soft, painterly look. I think her approach to painting is influenced by Edward Hopper, and her subject matter as well seems like an updating of Hopper's house pictures and city -scapes. The impression the viewer gets is that Warren took a series of photos while driving by a specific location and that these were the basis for the multiple images of the same landscape. The specificity of the time in the titles reinforces this.

A137 - April 01, 4:31 pm
Lillian Warren, A137 - April 01, 4:31pm, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 45", 2007

Painting the world from the point of view of the car is an important thing to do because we see the world that way. Particularly the world outside our offices, our schools, our homes. If as fuel becomes more expensive, driving becomes more of a luxury, works of art like this will remind us of both the freedom and the blandness of driving. The landscape is less important here than the sense of movement, of passing by.

I want to close on a note that is not particularly relevant to the artwork. Like lots of artists (if not most), Lillian Warren has a day job. Unlike most artists, she is an executive with an MBA working for a small strategy consultancy called Portfolio Decisions. (She was also board president for Diverse Works for many years.) I'm always intrigued by artists who exist partly in the world of business. The most famous example is probably Charles Ives, the great experimental American composer. In addition to his startling music, he ran Ives & Myrick, an insurance agency that was a pioneer in estate planning early in the last century. (Ives & Myrick was absorbed by Mutual of New York.)

For the past 150 years or so, we have had a notion of the artist as an outsider. He (or she) was bohemian and lived outside the class structure. We expected artists to be wildmen, to be anti-bourgeous, even when they became successful. Consequently, the notion of an artist who is also a businessman (and not in the Damien Hirst sense of being a successful self-promoter) is, well, shocking. But as I think about it, I think Warren's business career possibly does affect her art, especially if she is getting up every morning and commuting to the office.


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