KEN WHISSON: AS IF
Heide Museum, Melbourne, concludes 15 July.
Opens MCA Sydney, 28 September.
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NOTES ON KEN WHISSON (Is that a thin black camel?)
(In memory of D. G.)
1) “Some would argue that Whisson’s work is too much of an acquired taste to be classed as a promising investment. On the other hand, there are very few artists of his generation who are so highly regarded … By any reckoning Whisson is overdue for a major retrospective … Until we see his career in the form of a coherent overview he may never progress beyond the cult status that he currently enjoys.” — Art Collector magazine 2010
2) “I’m not mad on any of his work.” — overheard at “As If,” June 2012
3) “Someday someone will discover him, but it won’t be the public.” — Interviewee, Maya Huxley documentary, 1973 (video on show)
4) “It would probably be better if people…dropped the use of the word (technique) altogether.” — Ken Whisson
Whisson’s art: difficult pleasures and ironies
You can literally see why Whisson’s work is unlikely to get popular. The picture above, Vegetative Man from 1967 is, I think, among his more appealing (!) images from that period, a bit of savagery that looks like it’s been tossed off in twenty minutes.
The catalog essay (by curators Glenn Barkley and Lesley Harding) discusses “a time when Australian artists were split between two distinct camps of figuration and abstraction” and how that dialectic allowed Whisson to “move phantom-like” between the two. They describe Vegetative Man as “a figure contemplating a multi-coloured geometric shape that could be read as an abstract Colourfield painting, typical of the prevailing style.”
Well, yes, but after 45 years, it still looks extraordinarily raw; one of the very reasons it may appeal to some painters now, as it suits the rough and tumble anti-finish that’s the very long tail from the neo-impressionism of the 1980s. That is to say, despite all Whisson’s distaste for the mainstream, he is looking totally hip. As well, there is the instinct he has for vivid colour — that rainbow wall set off by dun olives and greys; that palette is the rage in contemporary painting (see Del Kathryn Barton; James Morrison; Anastasia Klose). Omg, intransigient Ken Whisson, grooving in the middle!
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4) “May you live your life as if the maxim of your actions were to be universal law.” — Immanuel Kant
5) “Let us live as if the world really exists.” — the Paris surrealists
6) “Mis-hit paintings have their own psychic charge, that are done just as if they were final statements.” — Ken Whisson
It’s only taste: A lighter, brighter Ken
In front of his (dancing, dazzling) Flag pictures from the late 1980s, we’re still in the phantom-boundaries of the dialectic, but leaning to abstraction in a much higher key. Look at the two pictures above. In white is the (sensational) Flag for My Bright but Terrible Childhood, 1979. In blue is another painting in the liminal zone between abstraction and figuration, equally bright in hues with a primary palette. The latter looks cruder, or more accessible — it’s easier to guess what the shapes are feinting at: sails on the a sea of blue. The white Flag is obscure.
To justify why I like it more I’d have to explain (spin a line on) how it’s superior in the formal terms of compositional structure and invention and finesse of colour. And yet, and yet — you see what you see, and even the great experts may quarrel over Matisse and Picasso, and anyone might prefer a Whiteley to a Streeton, or vice versa. In other words, it’s only an opinion. It’s only taste, which is really a set of filters acquired from a circumscribed group, that is, one’s inherited or chosen tribe. By the way, the blue painting is, of course, by the other Ken, Mr Done.
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7) “Art is what happens at the end of the brush when it meets the canvas.” — Ken Whisson
8 ) “I enjoy painting very, very much. And I enjoy exhibiting, but I do not paint for exhibition ever.” — Ken Whisson
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Above: Tea Towel Hanging in the Bathroom Becomes Self Portrait. Tea Towel 1. 3/6/98, 4/6/98.
On the most recent of my three visits, a volunteer guide — I was her entire audience that day — told me that Ken Whisson lives in a small apartment in Perugia, Italy (resident since he was 50, he is now 84) painting there and storing his work in his bedroom before despatching them to his Australian galleries. He’s been doing this for years, like a hermit. An artist-hermit. An artist-saint, an artist-matyr, maybe. Like Ian Fairweather, who famously lived in a DIY shack on Bribie Island. Or Giorgio Morandi who, for 50 years, shared an apartment in Bologna with his three unmarried sisters, having to traverse their bedrooms to arrive at his own, in which he painted.
At the least, this biographical tidbit suggests dedication. It fits with his remarks about the mainstream — “the world is an awful mainstream” — his desire to not depend on conventional supports of any kind. Or to privilege theorising. (Nonetheless, Whisson is a big reader — the installation includes a room furnished with a pile of books from his reading list; he is fond of Marcuse and John Berger.)
The curatorial essay ends in describing Whisson as an artist’s artist. “He has become a kind of talisman for other artists, a testament to the proficiencies that come when living mindfully, working hard, remaining at a distance from the machinations of the art world and focusing solely on the act of making itself.” Artists are notorious for not agreeing with each other but perhaps figures like Whisson and Fairweather really do stand as touchstones for a purity of intent and an example of purpose.
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9) “I have no doubt whatsoever … that art is political, but perhaps it’s political of its very nature, and without any need to be self-consciously political.” — Ken Whisson
10) “The pictures are harder to like than the artist himself.” — Robert Nelson, The Age, 20 June 2012
Above: Motor Car, 1973
Awfuller and awfuller: Robert Nelson meets an inadequate swipe of the brush
In his review for Fairfax, Robert Nelson gives a good description of the distinctive Whisson manner: “The style couples compositional stability with neurotic agitation, a tense sketchiness that tears up the coherence proposed by the structure.”
For 530 words out of the 670 word review, Nelson manages to write usefully about the artist and the Australian context — “When he looks at the Australian landscape, he sees cars … Whisson was noticing them at a time when other painters could see nothing but pastoral hills and bush.” And pictorial mechanics and art history — “Like Fred Williams, who was also born in 1927, Whisson is intrigued by the tension of plane and plain, field as pictorial surface and field as paddock.”
Then he arrives at paragraph 13 (in a total of 16) where he finally voices his personal druthers. Firstly, diplomatically, he says, “The pictures are harder to like than the artist himself, who comes across as subtle and humorous.” And then he delivers the sword in paragraph 14: “For the most part, however, the pictures are hard on the eye, often thin in formal terms, with inadequate swipes of the brush on a canvas with equivocal spaces.”
If I cared enough I’d take issue with the phrases “hard on the eye,” (hard, like a pencil poke? whose eye?); “thin in formal terms” (a bald assertion for which any lecturer would insist on elaboration); “inadequate swipes of the brush;” “equivocal spaces”! Let’s hope Robert Nelson never gets sent to a classical Chinese painting show — they’d have to call the ambos quick smart, Nelson’d be flat on the floor in seconds from the abundance of “inadequate swipes of the brush” on scrolls of “equivocal spaces.” It sounds to me like a critic rationalising his dislike of, or his inability to like, the work — his feeling may be sincere, but the justification here is thin in critical terms. I’d say it’s rigor-challenged. Or, as Dylan might whine, “I don’t be-lieve you.”
Here is the superbly odd last paragraph: “Since that date (1983, referring to a picture), we’ve only had more sprawl, cars, and governments without exception have resolved to let Melbourne become awfuller and awfuller. Perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect pictures that grapple with this empty, obdurate car space to be beautiful in any sense.” (sic)
Of the 200 pictures listed in the catalog, I count (generously) 18 or 20 pictures that may have car/sprawl as their subject. I’m thinking of that wicked thing Clement Greenberg was supposed to have said about Robert Hughes: “He’s got a bad eye.” I don’t believe Nelson has a bad eye, but he is choosing to see what he sees. That’s not a hanging offence in a critic (as bad faith is), but is a severe handicap. Rigor-challenged.
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11) “…being annoyed at not being recognised. But knowing … that’s something to be proud of. It means you’re outside of the awful mainstream.” — Ken Whisson
12) “Everybody wants to be Ken Whisson’s Captain Cook.” — Ray Hughes
13) “I’m discovered and forgotten and discovered and forgotten and it will go on for the rest of my life I imagine.” — Ken Whisson
Adjectives and Present Participles, 1974
IMHO: Learning to love, and not minding not liking, Whisson
After all these years of being a fan, I’m still trying to work out what attracts me to this “difficult” work of Whisson’s. I think anyone who paints, or likes to look at painting, can find a thrill in Whisson’s markmaking. The thrill comes from the risk — he paints without a safety net — there is very little overpainting or correction. Indeed, very like Chinese brush painting; but Whisson’s marks aren’t calligraphic, though maybe they are tele-graphic, more suggestive than descriptive. At its best it achieves the Zen effect of things coming together in exactly the right geometry, and the evidence of the paintmarks tell you at once of its abandon or effort. Whisson was expressionist, is surrealist, and is an action painter. Sometimes the actions just all fall into place, and you have to make a lot of mistakes to get there.
“To my mind it became, that one should never destroy a painting until a year afterwards, or better still two years afterward.” The guide told me that Whisson was well-known for editing — destroying — his pictures, his failures.
[Something I meant to say before, one of the most exciting aspects of Whisson's pictures is how constantly contemporary they look. In the 60s, 70s and 80s, he was way ahead of the curve. Now he is merely right out in front. I think it's something to do with his dramatic distortions, and the way the paint is applied in a seemingly casual manner, those "swipes of the brush" -- there's a hint of slacker (though of course that's a retrospective term here), and the use of negative space -- the "equivocal spaces." A collector said something like: "He makes me feel like I'm in the 21st century." I agree, he makes now look like the future.]
I find that I don’t like his figures much, especially the recent ones. (See Heide site for Group Photo with Big Bottle and Green Boat, 2010) I find them ugly, but that’s just me. And that’s okay in my book: Whisson doesn’t have to — and would never, anyway — paint to please an audience. It is the variety — much more than cars and sprawl, abstractions and “newspaper” collages — and the tremendous conviction of Whisson’s paintings which creates their salutary confrontation with the viewer. The artist stands and delivers. With a Whisson picture, you must react. With Whisson, you are always a live audience.
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Further thoughts (30/6/12)
On his figures: Whisson’s figures in the 70s — see Motor Car above — were angularly abstracted topped with the designs he called “faceshapes.” The more recent figures of the nineties and this century (here) are blobby tension-free masses. I much prefer the graphically funky early forms, their weirdness. And I like too the 60s figures, especially their distorted faces, as in Vegetative Man, above.
On his subjects: Whisson’s subject matter is the world; he will as likely make a picture out of domestic stuff like a teacup and vases and salt and pepper cellars and a book and spoon (below), as see a self-portrait in a tea towel (above) as try to visualise Adjectives and Present Participles (above, one of my favourite things).
On his consistency: His painterly moves are varied as you can see above, but at Heide there are two pictures hung one above the other, Recollections of a Train Journey in Northern Italy and Many Factories, Two Sheds and a Pale Motor Car. Seeing them the first time I assumed they had been painted in the same week: similar subject matter, palette and stylistics. Seeing them again I still couldn’t pick the earlier forom the later. Journey was painted in 1983, Many Factories in 1996. And Whisson keeps moving on.
Vertical Still Life, 8/7/06, 10/7/06, 9/8/07, 17/6/07