The two artists, who are native Texans, met as students at the University of New Mexico in 1971, where they forged a friendship based on similar experiences and outlooks. Rejecting the abstraction then in vogue, they hankered instead for art that, as Warren puts it, showed the “touch of man.” Following graduation, Haddaway remained in Albuquerque. Warren moved east and the two lost touch. After a painting career that included teaching at Davidson College in North Carolina, Warren married Les Yeux du Monde director Lyn Warren, and settled in Charlottesville. Warren and Haddaway reconnected a couple of years ago, and realized that despite being separated by time and distance, they had been pursuing remarkably similar tracks all along.
“I chose ‘Surrealities’ as the title,” says Lyn Warren. “Because both Russ and Ed are interested in depicting imaginary worlds that evoke deeper truths. They value chance, humor, dream, and inner realities over external ones, and in similar fashion to the original surrealists of the 1920s, they favor the irrational over the solely rational, opting for a magical, dream-like, or humorous alternative.”
The surrealists were reacting to World War I and the instability and turmoil that followed. Finding their reality untenable, they rejected it, turning inward to their subconscious for inspiration. Warren and Haddaway came of age in a similarly chaotic time, at the height of the Vietnam War. Their work also rejects reality even as it retains a profound connection to its Southwestern surroundings.
Haddaway resists having his work labeled as “childlike.” It’s a tall order, given the bright colors, fanciful creatures, exuberant gumbo of shapes and underlying humor that permeates the work. But for Haddaway they are the creatures and objects that inhabit his imagination and visit his dreams. Thinking of them within the context of New Mexico, one can begin to see associations. In Native American mythology it wouldn’t be unusual for a man to be in conversation with a wolf as in “Meeting Mr. Wolf,” or for something like “An Even Larger and More Important Animal” to exist. The hand festooning the animal’s tail is both an ancient symbol and a humorous salute to the viewer.
In Haddaway’s larger works, the scale and color command attention, but he is able to sustain the interest in smaller works like “Click Clack Moon Metaphor” and “Wee House in the Forest.” A series of oxidized pieces, which seem made from organic matter, strike a subtler note. Haddaway’s monotypes are really appealing with their sophisticated palette and commanding, almost brutish gestures. The abbreviated images he produces are witty, edgily charming, and, yes, evoke Picasso.
You can tell that Warren revels in painting. The richness of the color, the texture, the energy, all convey a marked sensuality. Warren uses interactive acrylic paint to achieve a quality similar to the effect of oil, whisking the paint vigorously before he uses it. This creates bubbles that pop when applied, adding depth and texture to the work.
Warren’s recurring iconography has great personal meaning. There’s his dog Zeke, hit by a car shortly before his best friend was killed in a car crash that is both an homage to the adored pet and a stand-in for the friend. Guitars (Warren is a talented player) and other stringed instruments are represented, along with apples and half a watermelon.
Picasso and Cubism, in particular, are major influences. Warren is drawn to the fracturing of space that makes several views of an object visible at once, and the colorful flatness, simple shapes and use of dots that pervade his work are hallmarks of synthetic cubism. Take for instance “Still Life with Curtains,” a dynamic composition of abstract shapes with an arrangement of objects in front. The guitar, watermelon, and apples are all there, along with Zeke, curled up under the table. Here the dots not only add visual interest, they also veer into narrative, representing stars in the sky and watermelon seeds.
“The Ready Jester” reveals Warren’s eye for composition and color. The masks are Mexican, not African, with Day of the Dead connotations, and the turquoise, yellow, and orange evoke a southern border aesthetic. Horses and cows, a cat, and perhaps Zeke, are jumbled together to form a semblance of “Guernica” without the horror. On the left side, the background is a solid, smooth opaque, on the right, Warren introduces red and allows the brushstrokes to show.
A welcome seasonal respite full of joyful, eye-popping work, “Surrealities” also comes with a delightful backstory that speaks to the endurance of friendship and the power of personal convictions.
“Surrealities: The Art of Ed Haddaway and Russ Warren” is on view at Les Yeux du Monde through March 10.