Velázquez to Picasso: Russ Warren channels Spain in the Blue Ridge

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Local artist Russ Warren’s exhibit at Les Yeux du Monde pays homage to Spanish masters with paintings like “El Perro de la Infanta." Photo: Eric Kelley Photography Local artist Russ Warren’s exhibit at Les Yeux du Monde pays homage to Spanish masters with paintings like “El Perro de la Infanta.” Photo: Eric Kelley Photography

The landscape around my Charlottesville home is remarkably like that of Oaxaca, Mexico,” muses Charlottesville-based artist Russ Warren. It has “a spirituality emanating from the atmosphere and the mountainous landscape that seems magical.”

To be honest, despite having spent much of my life in the Blue Ridge Mountains, this is not a comparison I’ve heard before. However, Warren employs this juxtaposition as a way to explore the styles of Mexican folk artists and Spanish Masters alike. This month, an exhibit at Les Yeux du Monde—the gallery run by his wife, Lyn Bolen Warren—showcases a selection of these recent works.

Two of Warren’s large paintings—“La Infanta I” and “La Infanta II”—form a thematic core for the show. Each was inspired by 17th century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez’s portraits of La Infanta Margarita Teresa. Though, it’s more accurate to say that Warren’s “La Infanta” series was influenced by Picasso’s reinterpretations of Velázquez’s paintings—inspiration once removed.

“Picasso, no doubt, has been my biggest influence and he, in turn, was influenced by Velázquez, so I see my own versions of their themes as an extension of that lineage,” Warren says. “I make the works my own by emphasizing what interests me.” This is perhaps most clearly evident in the recurring backlit figure in a doorway, referenced in both the Velázquez and Picasso versions of “Las Meninas” as well as many of Warren’s paintings since the 1980s.

In curating the exhibit, Lyn Bolen Warren says she decided to focus on the Spain theme with Zaragoza and Warren’s other two paintings based on Velázquez’s and Picasso’s “Las Meninas” as the main attractions.

The titular work in the exhibit, “Zaragoza,” is a large triptych that greets one immediately upon entering the gallery. The piece is named after the city near Francisco Goya’s birthplace in Spain, but Warren explains that it was inspired by “images of Zapotecan magotes [indigenous burial mounds in Oaxaca] and layering, to deal with hidden images and memories.” The layering provides a frenetic energy in the piece and it’s easy to imagine the wild movements of Warren’s hand as it dashed across the canvas. Graffiti-like tags and Mexican Día de los Muertos-style skulls sketched with livestock markers coalesce across the lower two-thirds of the scene, filling in below the horizon line, where solid sky-like stretches fill above. Visually, the work complements much of the style and colors in the “La Infanta” paintings in a way that suggests a cohesive story between the three. However, Warren insists there is no narrative. “I prefer ambiguity,” he says. “I like leaving things open-ended so the viewer can insert their own meanings and scenarios.”

Given the large scale of these three paintings, they would be equally at home as a public mural as they are in the white box of the gallery. “I’ve always worked large,” he explains. “Lately I’m making these multi-panel paintings because they allow me to work big in a small studio.”

For now, though, the closest his work comes to public art is a large painting that hangs in the dining room of Martha Jefferson Hospital. “I’m told that [it] evokes a lot of responses, and this is exactly what I am after,” he says. “I enjoy the psychological relationship between the viewer and a large painting in a public space.” That being said, the rest of the Les Yeux du Monde exhibit is comprised of smaller works, but ones that are no less visually interesting or layered.

Indeed, texture is a noteworthy part of Warren’s work in this exhibit—and much of his catalog—whether it’s glass bead gel in Anything Helps, collaged newspaper in “El Perro de la Infanta,” or the jump-rope in “La Infanta I” that’s a real cord of rope glued to the canvas, dangling down. Unusual mediums also find their way into various works.

“The livestock markers are new for me,” Warren says. “I love their phosphorescent colors and the loose oil vehicle in them makes them more painterly in a gestural immediate way.” These provide the distinctive tag-like quality to many of the paintings, evoking the marker pens used by graffiti artists. It’s a look and feel that Warren likes. A lot. In fact, by his count, he completed over 100 livestock marker paintings in 2014 in addition to three large, multi-panel paintings. “It was quite a year. I don’t see myself slowing down,” he says, describing his latest project, a large triptych entitled “Medina” after a lake in Texas. “I turned to subterranean themes after I finished my ‘La Infanta’ series,” he says.

When he’s not painting, Warren still finds time to lead artist critique classes, write poetry and play music. One of the next things on his agenda is playing alongside his brother and sister-in-law at the Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, Virginia this August.

“Zaragoza” will remain on display at Les Yeux du Monde through June 7, with a closing reception from 3-5pm that day. A lunch with the artist will be held at noon on May 20 (reservations are required; $15). For more details, visit lesyeuxdumonde.com.