Ken Warneke

Dart Gallery

This show was dominated by the artist’s near floor-to-ceiling installation of 21 small, framed paintings on one wall, paintings which seemed to chronicle the rather aimless activities of modern life. In image after image, male figures, rendered in a lavender grisaille on a pristine white ground, are shown going about their business with a determined nonchalance that, in the unrelieved aggregate, becomes a kind of despair. Some perform daily chores—sweeping, carrying boxes, combing hair, mowing, carrying bags of garbage—while others sit on toilets, take showers, pray, commit suicide, sculpt, paint, vomit, handle money, or chain-smoke. All life is seen as the same, all human activity interchangeable: existence without priority. Scale is also handled in a random manner, determined solely by the preexisting frames Warneke finds in Chicago resale shops. None of the pictures bears the traces of being any more carefully painted than any other; indeed, the paint-handling throughout is rather indifferent, and in the ultimate act of egalitarianism, all the pieces are priced the same.

These paintings share something with medieval or Renaissance images that depict the labors of the months, but have a decidedly different emphasis. Where the older works linked human existence to time and place, positing a harmonic or causal relationship between humankind and nature, Warneke’s paintings feature protagonists who seem content to shuffle along in a powerless condition of stasis. Placing an image of a man standing at his easel next to one of a man vomiting into a toilet may seem rather heavy-handed, but Warneke sees a oneness—and an attendant meaninglessness—in all activity. In a touching act of abjuration, Everyman here meets the lowest common denominator, and the mundane meets the sublime only to find they are both the same.

The vagaries and absurdities of human activity provide an inexhaustible treasure trove for Warneke. In their sensitivity to the innocuous, in their patterning of despair, and in their subtle and ironic sense of humor, these paintings read as a peculiarly local variation on Allan McCollum’s surrogates. Of more recent vintage is a sequence of five larger paintings depicting insects (a cockroach, worker termite, spider, locust, and centipede) with oversized human heads gazing directly at the viewer. These bugs—also painted in lavender grisaille—are displayed against a highly repetitive and decorative patterned background, a kind of tacky velvet brocade on a white ground.

There is a delightful incongruity here, a confluence of visual data that is difficult to reconcile. The elements don’t seem to add up: decorative background, carefully articulated and repugnant insects, and impassive human heads (a few of these latter are recognizable portraits; one is of the rock star Prince). The podlike bodies of the insects may provide a clue, as they have more than a vague vaginal articulation, but the convergence of data here finally leads to a carefully evoked, almost disingenuous air of unease. Here, vacancy lies not in the figures’ actions, but in their very existence, in Warneke’s summoning them forth. This strange and vexing zone between the attractive and the repulsive, between meaning and vacuity, is occupied by images fraught with possibilities that are mercilessly denied.

James Yood