PRINT May 1991


ETYMOLOGY NO, ENTOMOLOGY YES! Right at the core of Ken Warneke’s art is a simple but crucial observation: human existence is no longer to be defined, rationalized, or excused by the complex constructs of our minds, but instead is most clearly made manifest by the multiple inanities of our bodies and beings. With deadpan assuredness this artist turns upside-down the grand humanist tradition that has dominated Western thought since the Renaissance. Humankind for Warneke stands no more atop the chain of being, and cannot be posited as the summa of the universe. Instead of individual integers endowed with unique and inalienable person-hood, we humans are for Warneke the denizens of a teeming hive, interchangeable units of larger social orders, victims, not rulers, of our place in the world. A reading of Warneke’s work over the past decade seems inexorably to point toward a single premise: instead of gods, we are bugs.

But implicit in that premise is no simple or petulantly negative value judgment. Warneke does not depict a form of devolution, with humankind simply less noble and proud a genus than it has usually defined itself. Instead, there’s a possibility of liberation in Warneke’s stoic recognition of what might be our true arthropodan being. His figures to date stand—sometimes on dozens of feet—at the crossroads of two of nature’s approaches to life, and he argues that it may be “speciesist” to overlook the alternative ways of being that crawl around our feet. There is much to be learned from what we hold most in contempt, and Warneke’s reversal of the hierarchies implicit in evolutionary Darwinism can offer up new zoological freedoms. Love your antennae, stroke your pod, serve the queen—the joys and freedoms of benign insecthood may just be an acquiescent recognition away.

Often in Warneke’s most recent paintings and drawings humans take on the actual physical attributes of insects, but in much of his work our return to the fascinating world of invertebrates is incorporated in an existential journey of uncovery. In 1986, Warneke began an ongoing series of smallish pictures—now nearly 60 in number—that quietly and patiently flay the aggregate inconsequential sequences of human living. The paintings, their size dictated by their small used frames, which Warneke finds in junk shops around Chicago, each depict a single figure painted in a winsome purplish monochrome set flat against a pristine white ground. The frame too is painted white. Most successful when displayed in groups of up to 20 or 30, these images shift the medieval concept of the labors of the months to a modern variant that offers up the tepid labors of the moths. Warneke assaults human being by rendering it in awful democracy, arguing that all our activities are interchangeable and therefore equally meaningless (or, for that matter, equally meaningful). In determined flat nonchalance, Warneke’s Everyman and Everywoman pointlessly go about their business: mundane daily behavior such as carrying boxes, sweeping, taking out the trash, sleeping, carrying suitcases, combing hair, or sitting, but also sculpting, vomiting into a toilet, standing at an easel, praying, taking aspirin, or hiding under a table.

None of these aspects of being is reckoned good or bad, none is presented as noble or affirming, nowhere is revelation or despair. These are just the actions of the workers and the drones, still retaining human form, but in substance paralleling the world view of their insect brothers and sisters. Individuality is never achieved by these purple shades. Unique personhood, a supposedly enhanced mode of existence, is exposed as just one more myth perpetuated by numbed tradition, a mitigating tale told and sanctified to preserve human order. Warneke’s work seems finally to argue that the dual state of humankind—made up of individuals, but always circumscribed within a social order—cannot at last be reconciled; the whole is not divided into its unique parts. Humans instead are demurely doomed to enact only the successive and mechanical motions of dulled existence, each as indistinct and as empty as the one before and the one to follow. The series counts every inexorable link in the human chain, and implies that they add up to nothing. The paintings finally become like a mantra, or like playing cards, all of the same value, perpetually to be shuffled into necessarily arbitrary sequences. A wall full of these purple pictures can serve as a wall of shame, and also as a charged, imagist, peculiarly Chicago variant of Allan McCollum’s blank painting surrogates, as another, differently powered sequencing of vacancy and irresolution.

And sex? Does it retain in Warneke’s world the cachet built around it in human society? Is it the physical manifestation of love, the romantic summit of interpersonal communication, the shared sweet balm that gives meaning to our existence, or is it instead just an episode of spastic hip-jerking, a surrender to our bestial selves, a craven pleasure-thieving we cannot control or channel? In a second group of works Warneke began in 1986, erotica becomes neurotica. In these drawings men and women poke, grasp, and slaver about each other’s bodies in a fury of aimlessness. No pleasure is derived here, nor is any true release given, achieved, or exchanged. Warneke’s figures, largely based on images culled from sex mags and porno catalogues, copulate in abject and lonely despair, simply fulfilling one more aspect of being, indifferently consummating one more ritual of life’s endless shaking dance. Their heads and their personas are as void of individuality as are their genitals, and they robotically respond to a call of nature they neither understand nor enhance. There is no logic or beauty or even degradation in their coital activity, but a vapid surrender to an inevitable physical contact. Warneke denies us even the vulgar thrill of pornography, instead examining in these calm drawings a kind of remorseless and methodical geometry of orifice and exudation. Some of the images contain dozens and dozens of figures joined in an aloof and absent daisy chain, creating an orgasmic carpet of carnal pattern. They are cold as ice.

Warneke’s perturbed figuration is a personal variation of aspects of imaging long a part of Chicago and Midwestern art. The motif of the figure under stress, of the permutations that the human form can be made to bear, has seen a continuous tradition there, dating back at least as far as Ivan Albright and carried on in a multitude of ways by subsequent artists such as Gertrude Abercrombie, Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, Leon Golub, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Robert Lostutter, Ed Paschke, and contemporaries of Warneke such as, among others, Jim Lutes and Mary Lou Zelazny. Chicago artists have never lost their faith in figuration; stubborn insistence on the human figure as bedrock imagery, capable of endless metaphoric employ, is part of the city’s continuing status as a center of disloyal opposition to many of the mainstreams of contemporary art.

In a series Warneke began in 1988 (he often employs long and sequentially extrapolated series, as if dutifully striving for each idea’s pictorial limit, draining its capacity for any further possible meaning or variation before moving on), he chronicles the Kafkaesque metamorphosis from humans exhibiting insectlike behavior to their complete genetic hybridization. Again sporting purple grisaille—purple never loses its fascination for Warneke, who sees in it the color of royalty and of Lenten penance, as well as the tone of bruised flesh—Warneke’s figures now become insects crowned with grandly oversized and impassive human heads. Locust-woman, spider-man, centipede-woman, worker-termite-man, cockroach-man, all are silhouetted against background outpourings of bizarre rococo design that in their lush excess set these pictures on edge. Rendered in teeth-grinding hot yellows and acid oranges, the backgrounds suggest a sort of tacky flocked wallpaper so painstakingly realized as to exhaust its viewer. There is almost palpable incongruity here, a confluence of visual data that determinedly refuses to add up to anything clear or straightforward.

The pictures nonetheless retain a dreamy and vacant quality. Does the comatose emptiness of the creatures lie in their heads, drawn from such vernacular sources as a Playboy playmate centerfold and an ad displaying a male Chippendale dancer? The very specific quality of portraiture in these heads is ultimately a cruel ruse, mocked by the collective sameness of their genus. To lemmings, each lemming is unique; meet the new bug, same as the old bug. At the core of this series is Warneke’s simultaneous amazement and disgust with the trap of being, humankind’s almost primal desire to make some soothing sense out of existence. Warneke sees no sense, just a stunned acquiescence in horror. This is a particularly nasty set of pictures, as consummate and cranky a rendition of existential bankruptcy as one could imagine. Both insect and human states eventually come to deflate each other, finally resulting in a sense of scrupulously groomed impotence. It is their bifurcated state that is at the heart of their dilemma, neither bug nor human but some central thing, specimens of evolutionary endgame.

In Warneke’s most recent paintings two of these series come careening together in uneasy harmony. The Tyranny of Everyday Life, 1990, reflects the artist’s ongoing cynicism in the face of what he observes as the endless mania of existence. A man stares out at us with brooding passivity, posed stiffly against that rocaille backdrop. His head surmounts a glistening pile of purple feces, which constitutes his body. This fetid reduction of humankind to effluvia finds itself fueled by a radiating network of yellow-greenish arteries and organs in the shapes of bottles, glasses, containers, and appliances, within which are resurrected a few of Warneke’s purple monochrome figures. This obsessive matrix of veining and interlocking cells has no apparent beginning or end, no purpose or result. It reads as a perverse but precise charting of the remorselessness of life. The cycle cannot and will not be broken, only derided, and Warneke coolly posits the cruel joke that is at the heart of the human comedy: humankind rises from the muck to fulfill its destiny, which is to make more muck.

Ken Warneke’s art is a thoughtful and considered declaration of defeat. Unfurling a vacant banner of surrender, he renders on it a world inhabited by creatures void of redeeming qualities, cyphers resolutely lacking any hope of salvation. No refuge in life, work, sex, art, no pride in yesterday, no belief in tomorrow. The gauntlet thrown in Warneke’s art falls squarely against any ameliorative values gained by recognizing the parameters of our dilemma. But the species he paints has long ago left things like guilt and sorrow behind, and in their wake has achieved permanence and indestructibility, and an almost benign acceptance of its place in the world. There’s a cozy peace deep within the hive, and Warneke’s art indicates that if we haven’t crawled there already, we might consider the trip.

James Yood teaches contemporary art theory at Northwestern University. He writes regularly for Artforum.