Warren Isensee – Artist Spotlight
“Symmetry invokes spirituality.”
Warren Isensee in a conversation with the author, September 2018
“Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”
Matthew 7:14 (KJV)
When considering the work of abstract artist Warren Isensee, one’s first inclination is to study the formal properties of his pristine surfaces, compartmental order, flat patterning, saturated color and of course, straight lines. Isensee’s straight and narrow path is that of a linear, geometric minimalism, but one that he has been molded, not sliced. His work is assured (he uses a ruled line to set his patterns in place), but a straight edge does not rule over them (they are free of taped edges except for along the sides). His brush marks are guided by these colored pencil lines, but Isensee eventually removes them from his ground with the help of a very personal, human eraser; a lick of saliva on a Q –Tip. It is the incidental that allows his work to possess the warmth of being manmade as opposed to the chill of being manufactured.
Isensee’s work has softness at its edges and at its core. It feels human no matter how ordered, controlled or opaque. The eye captures these subtle hints of humanity in the imperfection of Isensee’s touch. The handmade surfaces allow his high key palette the space to relax and breathe, but it is the shallow breath of modest paint; thin and smoothly blended in layers which are delicately placed rather than thrust at the surface; carrying more thought than emotion.
In contrast, it is the places virtually free of his touch where the work begins to resonate with a spiritual light; the repetition of trapped negative spaces the result of bends, not corners. Isensee’s shapes are firm but pliable; bent tubing that encourages movement rather than the stops and starts of ninety degrees. The rounded edges keep the eye moving across his surfaces as the eye follows the actions of the hand. These axes of absence confer the direction of a suggested pathway both into looking and thinking. The result is a faith; one based on a belief in the unpainted and unseen.
The work emits an ethereal, unearthly glow across the surface feeling as if they were made by a material more than just paint or colored pencil. They hint at a palette one might find in a Fra Angelico, a fact that is amplified when Isensee’s formats appear to mirror the design of the altarpiece as in Sunshine Souvenir (2011). The aura and hum of the color juxtapositions are weighed down by the pull of gravity at the painting’s bottom. Forward travel is welcomed by a concentric square that leads one back to the glow of a doorway. The shift in shape from square to rectangle goes virtually unnoticed at first, as the hope instilled by faith gives way to visible fact. Side panels open up and spread like wings against the surface of the picture plane. To enter this painted surface you must rise up both figuratively and spiritually.
Isensee paints clean, simple forms free of the echo of ornamental decoration. He had plans to be an architect while attending the University of Oklahoma as an undergraduate. The plans were eventually thwarted by mathematics, but the essence of an architectural influence becomes a visible footprint when you consider his compositions as floor plans constructed of units of color. In Les Halles (2012), a central, nested square simultaneously recedes (diagonal lines from its four corners) and advances (vibration of color and light) while miraculously morphing yet again into a rectangular “I (for an eye)” of white light. The square is surrounded by four skinny coplanar, interlocking post and lintel units –shaped rectangles that rotate and pivot around its perimeter. Flat space and perspectival space are engaged in an optical tug of war, where Isensee creates enough visual confusion to frustrate any mathematician.
While Isensee’s work is connected to the tradition of brush and canvas, pencil and paper, he also realized that to live in today’s backlit, blue light age his paint would have to do more than just sit idly on a surface. His color expands and contracts with a pulse all its own and has as much in common with the incandescence of a fluorescent light sculpture by Dan Flavin or the glow of a James Turrell wall piece as it does with paintings by Piet Mondrian or Frank Stella. Yet all these artists share one thing in common; each realized as Isensee does now, that light, the stuff of painting, was no longer a prisoner of a capped tube (unless of course that tube could be made of glass, cut into honeycomb aluminum or cut out of a wall with suspended, unfiltered natural light flowing forth from an ever-changing environment).
For all of their formal fireworks, Isensee’s work also possesses a wry sense of humor. In Deep Shit (2018), four quatrefoils are symmetrically stamped in place with bulbous black lines inside a square canvas. These black squares are then pinched at each corner; a maneuver that softens the forms like kneading dough. Isensee then squeezes the three primary colors into negative spaces shaped like spigot handles; heavenly blue windows or eyes located at the center of each shape. The whole has the feel of the doors of a baptistery, but one that opens onto a carnival of souls.
In the tour de force, Body and Soul (2007), the craftsmanship of each unit encourages our meditation but they are never static. Isensee’s pipe organ forms rise and fall creating an overall composition that collects like a series of injected model parts hanging from the channels of a sprue. The work appears symmetrical – a balanced, grounded life – but the longer one studies it (and the artist) the less likely one is to trust that inclination. For Isensee can both embrace and reject symmetry with the delicate stroke of a steady hand. But if the gates of heaven were lined with neon – and our bodies walked with a straight gate, I would image this is how our souls would be encouraged to enter.