Beings to Behold and Stories to Tell: Kit Warren’s Pictorial Worlds
by Paul D’Agostino
Ravishing and lush, meticulously minimal, and bustling fervidly with dazzling details that lure viewers deep into spheres of shimmery luminosity, Kit Warren’s recent suites of works, gathered at the Zillman Art Museum for her solo exhibition, Altered States and Other Stories, chart a subtly divergent yet thoroughly fresh new trajectory in the artist’s ever moving, morphing painterly expressions. Her most unique pictorial world, itself now in a slightly ‘altered state’, appears at once readily recognizable and wholly different, a wondrous realm that’s yet to be explored.
The thrust of Warren’s exhibition is furnished primarily by two large bodies of work produced in the past few years, grouped as Altered States and Continental Drift. In these series, in ways both curiously ambiguous and contextually unmistakable, the artist’s loosely intended, implicit visual references are many and various, ranging from cartographic and geological, symbolic and meta-cultural, organic and extraterrestrial, to astral, primordial, interstellar, immemorial. Within Warren’s always evolving oeuvre, these new works also evidence, to an extent, a degree of chromatic reserve. To an extent, they demonstrate relative economy of form. And to an extent, they affirm the painter’s current interest in examining the optical prospects of incorporating painstakingly executed, gradually accumulative, self-generative passages of intermittently pattern-yielding marks into now open, now restrictive compositional expanses of harmoniously restive asymmetry. This latter extent might seem to convolute rather simple matters. Yet in light of Warren’s elegant convergences of meticulousness and minimalism, intricacies and spareness, and swirling movement and becalmed stasis, such a sense of complex simplicity is indicative of the dexterous dynamic that makes these brilliant new paintings so arresting.
An element of that dynamic might be associated with Warren’s background in graphic design, informational science, and data mapping. To this end, one relatively earlier painting, Elective Affinities, becomes a clever inclusion in the exhibition. Albeit something of a formal outlier with respect to the show’s main bodies of work, this piece – inspired by the artist’s enthusiastic reading of the eponymous novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a classic narrative regarding the chemical underpinnings of human reason, relationships, and intimacies – furnishes an expansive visual index from which the essentials of the newer series can be distilled. In this sense, Elective Affinities manifests as a seminal image. While other works are generally on single panels or individual sheets of paper, rendered in palettes limited to three or four colors, and resist overt geometric precisions, this one, executed on four equivalently sized square panels arranged into quadrants, is markedly differentiable in all such ways. The quadrants converge such that their borders create physical, visible graphic axes, along which four large circles touch at tangents. The circles are further conjoined by a fifth large circle that appears, by consequence of convergence, atop them. This then creates a sixth form in the central, quite positively charged negative space: a four-pointed asterisk that scans as a glittering composite graph of exponential equations. In terms of palette, the four panels share the same base color of deep blue. They’re also similarly covered, in lace-like manner, with profuse diffusions of Warren’s deft, delicately dot-like marks – which themselves tend to create lively arrays of smaller forms – in two different metallic colors common to all four panels, as well as in the red, green, and slightly dissimilar hues of greenish blue that are specific to the dot patterning atop each large blue circle. Even beyond all the structural and compositional symmetries and near-symmetries described here, many others begin to appear as these variably mesmerizing elements merge and cohere, encouraging viewers to indulge in locating the endless types of visual counterpoints and harmonies that make this now essentially rational, now astonishingly complex piece such a luxuriant and captivating balancing act to behold. To be sure, gazing upon it at length will, on point and in place, hold you.
Rather than hold you in place, however, the paintings in Warren’s more recent bodies of work will shift you about, move you, and even while gripping your gaze, somehow still hold you in sway. Compared to Elective Affinities, the artist’s Altered States and Continental Drift series show her composing her surfaces similarly, indeed with similar materials and formal elements alike, but in some ways more simply, and in many ways leaving them quite differently settled, more asymmetrically balanced, and significantly less staid. Her palette is of similar chromatic sorts, by and large, yet more limited on a per-piece basis, and generally involves more mixes of various media, including bright acrylics, rich raw pigments, buttery matte vinyl emulsions, and luminous silica implements, which collectively yield much more vibrant blues and punchier reds, as well as vivid ranges of deep crimson, creamy pink, juicy violet, striking turquoise, and brilliant vermillion. These more saturated or intense colors tend to also create more heightened contrasts with Warren’s curving, swirling, and interactively shapely metallic details in gold, bronze, and silver that course through, along, and around these lush surfaces, dotting in and dashing about as they veritably churn themselves out. Unlike in Elective Affinities, the forms these colors fill in and take on are anything but perfectly circular, axially rectilinear, or otherwise geometrically precise. In their stead, rather, are underlying and overlapping forms that are more strangely curvy, curly, softly jagged, and bulbous. To wit, in their irregular, unpredictably shaped spans, stretches, and sprawls, the artist’s now very curiously informal forms are emblematic of things that are ‘altered’ and still ‘altering’, of masses that have ‘drifted’ and continue ‘drifting’.
It’s easy to imagine how a depiction of something that still seems to be actively evolving, as opposed to already evolved, might lure viewers deep into spheres of interaction. Such is the case with Warren’s new series. Looking back momentarily at Elective Affinities, and with the artist’s more recent compositional foci and relative formal loosening or streamlining in mind, we might locate, in the former, the inchoate essences of what could give way to the latter. In other words, a considered look at the large circles of Elective Affinities might lead us to see them as atmospheres gyrating with generative materials, or even as biologically active petri dishes. If so, we might then zoom in on them as if looking at them through a telescope, magnifying glass, or microscope – or zoom in even closer by drawing droplets of samples from them, depositing them on slides, and homing in on those. When glimpsed at such a microscopic level, what might’ve previously appeared relatively further formed, more composed, or less stirring at the macro level might now appear incipient and vivacious. Although the earlier painting is not necessarily, of course, the source material for the newer pieces, this type of closer focus in general does seem to be at play in the artist’s more limited palettes and heightened formal looseness. In Altered States (run away), for instance, Warren’s duet of background registers, in a beaming reddish orange and deep burgundy, create a large, irregular, irregularly centered, amoeba-like form that seems to be moving swiftly from left to right. The manifold dots and metallic details that intercede selectively within and across these surfaces take up this same movement in some areas, and slow it down in others. The near patterns these details create also begin to look like analogously shapely, even figurative embellishments on a precious tapestry, or like variable organisms coming into being. In deep blue, bright striated green, and metallic gold and bronze, Altered States (pangaea) works in similar ways, as seemingly self-propagating details atop the ‘landmass’ create bands, bridges, bunches, and bundles of ostensibly ecosystemic activity, while drifts and dusts of the same filter out into the green ‘waters’ all around. With slightly divergent palettes, and featuring differently dispersed, variably more robust or intricate details, Continental Drift (chaos theory) and Continental Drift (wicked witch) imply relatedly ‘land-bound’ or ‘waterborne’ trappings of life, molecular stirrings, tissue-tending proteins, and potentially boundless concatenations of becoming.
To be sure, not all of Warren’s convergences of curious surface forms and bedazzlements of generative details must be read as registrations of catalyzed chemistries and burgeoning organic entities. In light of the title of Altered States (tower of babel), for example – a sure nod to the artist’s enduring interest in language and text – the central details creating odd-circular and ovoid forms might register as a great commotion of myriad packets and patches of verbiage, with the squarish, structure-suggestive, border-making, building-like shapes skirting the edges of the picture plane thus becoming, as linguistic consequence, fuller expressions, grammatical rules, societal strictures, historical documents, or fantastic folk narratives. The bright silver details in Altered States (Dark Shadows), meanwhile, scattering and clustering abundantly throughout an almost creamily satin black surface, look a lot like explosive proliferations of stardusts and gaseous matters condensing into galaxies, with formally free-form, constellational patterns individuating themselves into definition therefrom. A relatedly astral-suggestive piece is Continental Drift (stellar splash), in which the sumptuously curvilinear interplays of large dots of vibrant turquoise and punchy spots of bronze bursts, arcing and looping within a slightly wispy gateway of nocturnal blue, might indicate a dramatically magnified zooming in on, or zooming out from, the galaxy or galaxies we believe to know, revealing altogether novel – novel to us, at least – levels of intergalactic harmonics and cosmic sonorousness. If so, this piece resonates in confluent concert with Altered States (lost in space).
Kit Warren’s pictorial worlds in Altered States and Other Stories furnish limitless treasures of visuals to behold and forms of knowledge to consider, contemplate, and unfold. Whether life-like or life-forming, life-affirming or life-broadening, or mind-bending if not mind-blowing, the artist’s greater and lesser complexities of compositional confluences and simplicities, and her swirling spheres of dazzling optics and amalgamated mysteries, offer viewers much to gaze upon closely and ponder well beyond – and a bounty of lustrous settings for spinning and retelling imaginative stories of their own.
— Paul D’Agostino, PhD is an artist, writer, curator, and translator.