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Robert Enright

Esther Warkov: Paintings and Drawings
Thomas Gallery, Winnipeg, April 1983

Arts Manitoba, Vol.2 #4, September 1983


Esther Warkov hadn't drawn for six years prior to beginning the 20 drawings that   formed the bulk of her exhibition at the Thomas Gallery in April. Her decision to work in the medium Ingres called the 'probity of art' was a revealing apostasy, one which underlined the peculiar strengths and weaknesses of her art. By probity Ingres meant something like integrity or honesty; he saw drawing as a measure of an artist's talent and commitment. I think Warkov would agree. Previously, she had used drawing as a prelude to painting, but now she thinks of it as a discrete and unique medium of expression.

The drawings tell us three things: that Warkov is an imaginative illustrator, that she is continuing to develop a private brand of surrealism and that she has been looking closely at the work of other Manitoba artists, particularly Don Proch and Ivan Eyre.

I don't mean to imply anything slavishly imitative in this recognition, only that Proch re-affirmed her intuition that drawing works best when it is meticulous, while Eyre offered new ways to use transformation as a method and a subject for art-making. In all of Warkov's drawings, one state of existence changes into another: bare tree branches become bird's feet ( Didi-Lilo, no. 2); a soldier's hat changes into a sexual cornucopia ( The UnofficialDreams of A French Palace Guard), or into a galleon of destruction (New Beginnings).

These transformations are often clever and occasionally unpleasant; in Tear ofthe Hog, a boar's head emerges grotesquely from a male face. The effect is unsettling, as if a diversionary masquerade were about to turn serious. There are, as well, drawings that have a political dimension, as in The Burdenof Broken Dreams, in which a transfixed American Indian carries about his cultural inheritance in the form of a collection of bones and skulls. These ancestral remnants are rendered in delicate pastels, as if James Ensor had visited an Indian reserve and adopted a wickedly soft palette. Despite the deftness of touch and the pleasing choice of colours, the intention and ultimate effect of these drawings seem ironic. All of Warkov's soft militarism and fantastic transformations do little to mask a sensibility that is, for the most part, uneasy with the shape assumed by the twentieth century.

The most hopeful message to emerge from Warkov's disturbing images is the possibility that change is a source of regeneration and that art is its vehicle. The largest of eight paintings in the exhibition, originally called Masked Mozart, and now called Dreams of a Distant Summer, is concerned with this art of making change. (The painting made more than change in another way; it was purchased in June for $12,000 by the Winnipeg Art Gallery, where interested viewers can see it on display.)

While Dreams began simply as one painting in her CAMERA series, it has become Warkov's most significant work since A Doll's Room. The earlier work was about memory, with its delightful menagerie compartmentalized in a child's reminiscence; Dreams is about the capacity of art to remake the world. Everything in the painting is caught in the act of becoming something else; the thigh of the Mozartian figure transforms into a caribou, the camera obscura assumes the texture of elegant marble, the landscape curls into the languorous forms of a woman. These handsome mutations usually work, but when they don't, they're like bad puns. In Dreams, for example, a pubescent, female angel towers above the landscape in the sky as if Goya was out to secure an advertising contract for Coutts-Hallmark. This lump of dubious taste is especially unfortunate when placed against the pale, white bride who levitates in the painting like a statue of sleeping desire.

That the same artist conceived and executed both of these figures is astonishing; Warkov is the only artist I know who unintentionally includes kitsch and splendid painting in the same work.

One final caveat. Warkov insists upon the drawings' two-dimensionality; they have little illusion of perspective and, in this sense, read like illustrations. I can't tell whether this effect is an achievement or a deficiency. In the best drawings, the question doesn't come up, but when it does, it casts a troubling shadow over Warkov's principality of strange delights.

Arts Manitoba, Vol.2 #4, September 1983


Text: © Robert Enright. All rights reserved.

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