Nick Whittle Artist




Texts

The Journey

To Be A Man

To Fly and To Root

A Willing Suspension of Disbelief

Whittle's Graphic Work

Nick Whittle's Graphic Prints and Poetry

Caliban's Metamorphosis





The Journey

In the Art of Nick Whittle, the Artist has always tried to present very honest work, unaffected by trends and sale-ability. He examines his life and through his art tries to make sense of his universe. Essentially his work is about ideas. Nothing is taken for granted. He takes risks in his processes and techniques, but he does not descend into sterile pathways where aesthetic considerations are immaterial. The aesthetics of his work has always been very important.

Experimentation knows no bounds. He constantly strives to find new ways and means to get his ideas across. We can see different fabrics, fine wire mesh, cane seating, pastels gouache, rattan cane, handmade papers, metallic papers, magazine cut-outs utilized in varying ways throughout his oeuvre. He works in a series, such as Dunloe Mirror. The ingenuity of the collages from the 1970’s are built on in the work of the 21st century, such as the ‘Innerscape’ series.

Barbadian Art pioneer Golde White voiced her concerns as early as 1965 with the unwillingness by the majority of Barbadian artists to try non-traditional approaches: “We are lacking the courage to try and break away from representational styles of art. With the perfection of colour photography it is time Art found some greater depth”1

Nick Whittle expressed a similar view “Merely to paint a chattel house, a street vendor, Careenage, landscape and seascape is not enough to make the work Barbadian. Writers and musicians are not content to repeat what has been written or composed forty years ago, nor are they just concerned with describing something before them – it is the way they do it. It is the difference between a cook and a chef. They continue to forge ahead to discover new forms of expression for their ideas and contribute to the development of the national consciousness.”2

The Journey is an oft-repeated theme in the work of Nick Whittle. The politics of geography and experience is central to his work. Even the diarist’s process which he adopts in his work represents an inner journey.

There are references in his work, both in the form of quotations and in concepts, to his interest in writers such as Camus, Rilke, Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Shakespeare and the Bible. In 1998, he began seriously writing poetry and fulfilled a long-held dream of learning to play the piano.

“Ideally, I'd like to be the eternal novice, for then only the surprises would be endless.”3

These activities have not only been a source of great joy but his writing, music and art have supported each other. In his early paintings texts were included by other writers, but in more contemporary works, some of his own writing is present.

He has in an Artist’s Statement of 1998 admitted to finding more inspiration from writers and musicians from Captain Beefheart to Lord Kitchener to Beethoven than other visual artists.

“In reality, a person can only have a single focus, but the imagination can venture down all possible paths. I see maps, recurrent symbols such as the heart, the phallus, the sun and the shell as a metaphor for my journey in life. I use colour and pattern to evoke aspects and periods of my life.” (Nick Whittle Artist’s Statement 2007)

Despite being misunderstood for much of his career in Barbados, Whittle continues to produce extremely strong work unimpeded by self-censorship. He was naïve enough to think his audience would not simply dismiss his work as pornography, but search for the deeper meaning which was there. The phallus at times symbolizes the colonizer, raping the land and its people. It can symbolize the artist himself in his masculinity. It is the Linga-Yoni of Indian spirituality, the Kundalini, the snake rising, a symbol of spiritual power. It can at times represent the “ecstatic”, not just in a sexual way, but in the broader sense of the Greek “ekstases”4.

The nude self-portraits are another means of stripping himself bare physically to get to psychological truths. In the work of Rembrandt, Freida Kahlo, Kokoschka, Picasso and many others the self-portrait has been an external tool for looking inward. Contemporary artists such as Juergen Teller, Tracey Emin and Jenny Saville has nude self-portraits in their oeuvre. It is not through vanity, but as a means of examining one’s life and self. Whittle is no exception. In his work the self-portrait is often present, sometimes obscured or even as a mask.

In this exhibition, we can see themes and processes recurring as the Artist’s work develops. Although the scale of Whittle’s work has never consistently returned to the size of the billboards of his university years, he has succeeded in achieving as great an impact with series such as Innerscape and 12 Hours where individual works create a whole.

Pop Art changed the way we define art. The billboards Nick Whittle produced at Newcastle were possibly the least personal works he would ever produce. He took actual billboards bought from the advertisers which were 14 feet high and 48 feet wide and transposed them into the studio or Gallery space. The predecessor to the billboard advertisements were recreations of sections of underpasses in the old part of the city, which were usually not literal, but captured the spirit of the place. These would sometimes show small sections of billboard advertisement. This led to a train timetable, which was handwritten in chalk. The advertisement billboards followed: Hepworth5 (1976), Captain Morgan’s Rum and Guinness stout. Sections of the Guinness stout billboards will appear as grainy green sections of the English landscape in Memories of Landscape and others in the “madras series. The culmination of this process was the billboard size William Morris wallpapers. The actual rectangle was wallpapered and suspended in the studio to be viewed from both sides.

This was Whittle relating to “place”, location, which was to continue to be important to his work when he moved to a very different place, Barbados. The work in England is about urban life. The only people in it are the figures in the ads, sometimes headless, like the Man in the Hepworth suit.

Newcastle to Barbados

Nick Whittle was born in Birmingham in the English Midlands. It was one of the British cities, like Cardiff, Liverpool and London, which became home to a large number of immigrants from the former colonies just after the war. Having been born in the early Fifties, Whittle grew up in a very racially mixed city.

As a child he had problems with his eyes and had to undergo corrective surgery. Who knows if this led an already extremely curious little boy to observe the world even more closely. Highly influential in his artistic and intellectual development was his admission to Moseley Road School of Art. This was one of a handful of secondary schools in Britain established to cater to the artistically gifted students, who were subject to an admissions exam at the age of eleven. In addition to the typical school curriculum, the students were exposed to a wider range of Art options that most students would not encounter until university.

This experience was invaluable in developing the creativity of the students and honing their technical and analytical skills. They were exposed to the public art collections in the Midlands and London, as well as visiting artists. Nick Whittle the schoolboy would have been familiar with the work of Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland, Ben Nicholson, Samuel Palmer and the many examples of the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to be seen in Birmingham at the Barber Institute, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the stained glass windows by Sir Edward Burne-Jones in St Philip’s Cathedral.

Although stylistically, he has nothing in common with the Pre-Raphaelites, their eroticism and particularly the use of water as an all-enveloping symbol of passionate surrender may have influenced his thinking. Throughout his life he has been attracted to water: the river in Newcastle and the canals of Birmingham to the sea at Conset Bay. Water is everywhere in his work since the late 1970’s. In Newcastle, he loved to walk along the Quayside and over the swing bridge to reflect, just as he would walk along the shore at Conset Bay and the then swing bridge in Bridgetown.

From his childhood, he read widely, listened to a wide cross-section of music and loved drama, both as film and live performances. There would often be school trips to Stratford-on-Avon to see the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as contemporary works. And of course to museums and galleries in London, where he was so deeply affected by the Rothko Room at the Tate Gallery in Pimlico that it became the subject for an art historical study. His interest in Photography grew as he discovered the work of Man Ray and Bill Brandt, but he eventually refused a place on a photography course to enroll in the Art Foundation course at Manchester Polytechnic.

In the Hatton Gallery in the Fine Art Department at Newcastle, Kurt Schwitters’ masterpiece, the Merzbarn was embedded in the wall of a corridor where the students often met to have a coffee break.

Whittle was fascinated by the concept of the Merzbarn, which hastened the development and the broadening of the mixed media process in his work. It was not simply the juxtapositioning of everyday objects and more traditional materials, but the integration of art into the immediate environment, which would lead to his billboards and wallpaper series of the seventies and the Conset Walk of 2008.

The British Pop artist Richard Hamilton was a lecturer in Painting at Newcastle when he initiated the installation of the Merzbarn at the Hatton in 1965. Although he was no longer at the University by the time Whittle arrived in 1973 after a Foundation year at Manchester Polytechnic, Richard Hamilton’s influence could still be felt quite a bit in the Department. The billboards grew out of the same thread which links the Impressionists capturing a moment to the Pop artists transporting the trappings of a consumer society into the museum.

While at Newcastle, Whittle married fellow Art student Janice Barker, who was a Black Barbadian. They were extremely supportive of each other’s work and she has provided the most consistent feedback on his work. This marriage would eventually lead to his relocation to Barbados. His relationship with Janice heightened an established interest in African Art, music and literature and the Black experience in general.

This relationship was celebrated in his work with the presence of Black Female Figures, as well as greater eroticism and evidence of an exploration of the spiritual. He revered the Eternal Feminine through the interpretation of the Biblical’ Song of Solomon’.

“Who is this that looks out like the dawn,

Beautiful as the moon, bright as the sun,

Majestic as the starry heavens?…” (Song of Solomon)

This quotation from the Song of Songs was the theme of a series of billboard-sized works in mixed media. They each had this quotation in either yellow or blue in stenciled lettering. In some cases the quotation was in Latin. The same quotation is often included as a typed label at the foot of a series of small collages, the X series.

The lines quoted above from ‘The Song of Songs’ have been interpreted in several works; sometimes with the quotation in Latin.

This series is technically a precursor to the Landscape series. The older works were always shown as vignettes, not part of a larger whole as would happen later. It is a collage combining photography, printmaking and pages of magazines. This is derived from the X and Y chromosomes: female and male. The music scores visually replace the maps which would not appear until the later work.

As a result of his wife’s sense of isolation, he suggested they leave Newcastle and move to Barbados. This decision was made without his ever having visited the Caribbean; it was a leap of faith.

The Colonial Legacy

“This is not my land
Is not my skin
My white skin
Not from st john
Nor strathclyde or
Of lamming’s Belleville
But my skin is white
All the same”

(Excerpt from ‘My Land’ by Nick Whittle)

Having settled in Barbados in 1979, Whittle was “intoxicated by the colour, the brightness of things”6. He was very much absorbed in his new family and the delight of having children. He immediately became involved in the local art scene exhibiting at the Barbados Arts Council and Dayrells Gallery most frequently. He loved teaching art and passing on his enthusiasm for the subject to his students at the Barbados Community College, Parkinson Memorial School and Queen’s College.

Simultaneously with his delight at being in Barbados, he began to realize that others saw him as “A White Person” rather than simply himself, as an individual. He is shocked that he is immediately burdened with the colonial legacy. In a predominantly white society, race is almost never associated with whiteness, as

“whiteness is the denied norm against which all ‘others’ are measured.”7

“Arguing that whiteness is something which is seen from outside and white people avoid knowing themselves ‘internally’ as it were – as white.”8(Wendy Brady and Michelle Carey: ‘Talking up Whiteness: A Black and White Dialogue’)

Whittle very directly addresses the issue of himself as a white Englishman in post-colonial Barbados very frankly in Full Fathom Five. The title is taken from ‘The Tempest’ where colonialism is a central theme. The Artist is seen as Prospero the colonizer while he sees himself as Caliban the Other, an Outsider in society.

Having married a Black Barbadian, he was living, socialising and working predominantly with Black people. He was never part of an expatriate social milieu. He was very active in the local artistic community, which had always been multi-racial.

In Full Fathom Five, we see the artist at the beginning in a portrait of his face only in a pencil drawing, surrounded by the waves of the sea. As the series continues, he becomes increasingly engulfed by the water; his face practically disappears and a faint specter of a penis appears, almost as a divining rod. His identity is being lost. Progressively the Artist as colonizer with a menacing phallus, almost like a warrior’s spear, appears from the water onto the beach. He is transforming into a Greco-Roman statue with his face red with shame for the rape of the people and the land. In the background is a lone Maypole tree on the beach. As art historian Therese Hadchity says “…finding himself vilified and his embrace of his new environment amputated”. The backgrounds are like picture perfect tropical postcards in flat graphic colour schemes. Eventually the phallus becomes a helmet conch shell and the Artist appears as a stereotypical black minstrel until the final image where his two sides masculine – feminine, black – white combine into a whole.

Colonialism is on one level an issue of land ownership. It is about a territorial imperative and the subjugation of one group by another sometimes along racial lines.

“This
Is not my land
Is not my island
My white skin
Tarnished with dishonour
For ever washing
Washing and washing
Out damn spot”

(My Land, Nick Whittle)

The theme of land and belonging continues in the Ithaka works. Ithaka was the home of Ulysses to which he is returning after the Trojan War. The journey allows him to find himself. This journey is the subject of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’. It is also the title of more than one painting and a number of prints by Whittle. Ithaka 1.1 was part of Barbados’ submission to the Sixth International Biennial in Cuenca, Ecuador in 1998. It is Whittle’s first foray into working on a monumental scale since leaving Newcastle.

“If you set out in search of Ithaka
Pray that your journey be long,
Full of adventure, full of awakenings.
Do not fear the monsters of old…
You will not meet them in your travels
If your thoughts are exalted and remain high,
If authentic passions stir your mind, body and spirit.
You will not encounter fearful monsters
If you do not carry them within your soul,
If your soul does not set them up in front of you.

(Ithaka, Constantine Peter Cavafy)

The Artist is Ulysses coming across the sea. The seashore forms part of his body. There is a huge hand holding a “medal” of a spiral/maze. This may symbolize the search for home to replace the compass that conventional sailors would use.

The moon is made of brain coral, which may be found all over Barbados. There are detailed drawings of a mahogany pod and the heart, which may be seen as female genitalia.

Ithaka 1.11 is also a large piece designed as a companion piece to Ithaka 1.1. There even more elements in this that would reappear in the “Conset” works of 2007/08. It is as if the artist is dreaming this entire scene. He is seen lying in profile at the bottom right with his eyes closed. Below the portrait is a pink heart with the poem Ithaka by Cavafy handwritten on the bottom left.

Out of this rises a phallus with the shaft covered in a map of a part of Barbados where the Artist has lived. The maps used are always ordinance survey maps. The head is created from a helmet conch, which is part of Whittle’s iconography.

To the left of the shaft is a drawing of the rocky beach at Conset Bay, which would later appear in photographs (black and white as well as colour) in Landscapes of Memory and Conset Walk.

In the top right is the whorled shape, the spiral, the maze emerging from the black sky. There are two smaller “moons”, on one of them is the palm of a right hand exposed. Is it to tell the future of the sleeping artist? The fish symbol of the early Christian Church is enclosed by a mandarola. It floats on the black sky in the typical colour scheme of parts of West Africa, burnt sienna and ultramarine.

The painting Ancestor (1997), which is the same period is a very significant, but less personal work. It has the same elegance of composition as works such as Je t’aime. The composition is built up along a diagonal of land and sea. The right side bears a simplified image of bands of blue and cream representing the sea, just a very calm sea. On the left are bands of colour and pattern in earth tones. On the bottom left are monoprints of Amerindian sculptures, the evidence of the first Barbadians. Above that and behind the monkey pot are floorboards represented by brown stripes. The Monkey Pot which is the traditional water container is made of a map of the Chalky Mount area, which is the home of all the potteries, where objects such as the Monkey Pot have been produced for generations.

The Caliban’s Memory, Memories of Landscape and the Mindscape series try to reconcile this attachment, but at the same time there is a sense of disassociation from both Barbados and England. Whittle would sometimes quote Howard Hodgkin’s response when asked what it was like to be a painter in England “it's like working in enemy territory”; the same could be said for the more innovative artists in Barbados.

UNDER THE MOON 1985 Although he loves Barbados and contributes a great deal to the development of art in Barbados through exhibiting his paintings which he continues to do despite a sometimes hostile reaction to the nudity and what some see as a very “carnal” element in his work, he cannot help but to be hurt by the virulence of the attacks.

Keith Jarrett, a musician whom Whittle very much admires expressed the loneliness the creative person might feel: “... there is one thing l know well – that l feel very alone. It's the price you pay if you want to be yourself. And don't believe l don't suffer for it, but it seems to me that l have nothing to say to the majority of people and it's perhaps that which makes me feel timid.”9

He loved sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm for the creative process with his students in a career in Art education of over twenty years. He used the model of his own art education at Moseley Road School of Art in his teaching. He is in turn greatly loved by his students, many of whom went onto careers in the arts, as painters, sculptors, graphic designers, fashion designers, teachers and architects.

In preparing a student for her Advanced level University of Cambridge Art examinations, Whittle came up with the idea of creating a composition based on the madras fabric for the student, who was biracial to present the connecting elements of her family tree. He would develop this concept later in his own work in the Memory series. It was also precipitated by a trip to St Lucia and Dominica in 1984.

Indian Madras is a yarn-dyed, plain weave plaid fabric hand woven in India predominantly for export. It developed from Queen Victoria’s love of the Scottish tartan. The madras is used all over the world and is part of the national dress of several Caribbean islands, such as St Lucia and Dominica. It is also used widely by the Kalabari people who live and work on the Niger delta of southern Nigeria. In the late fifteenth century when the European traders arrived in West Africa, the Kalabari gained access to cloth from England and the madras from India. It was used by the Kalabari as a trade currency and for dress. The Indian madras came to signify social status and material success to individual Kalabari traders. Even today when a person of substance dies, their collection of madras are decoratively folded on the bed where the body is laid out for viewing.

These mixed media works from the early 2000’s are as if the artist’s life is laid out in his search for a place of belonging. After a period of acute depression, the bright colours of the madras suggest a more positive outlook. For the first time, there is the presence of a White woman in his work with the inclusion of the back of a female head possibly from an antique engraving. In Caliban’s Memory series, she symbolizes England in the negative aspects of its colonial history. Her presence is in one painting combined with the word “Eve”.

This more cheerful colour scheme represents also a new life, with a new Eve. These works came after his separation and eventual divorce from his wife and the beginning of his relationship with Finnish art historian Taava Koskinnen.

In ‘Caribbean Art’, Veerle Poupeye10 has pointed out that

“Maps are of particular interest as definitions of the historical and cultural space of the region. They are commonly used as symbols of identity and can also be regarded as diagrams of the power structures that have dominated the region…”

Maps started to appear in Whittle’s work in the late 90’s. They are always maps of places in Barbados where he has lived or hold some significance for him. Aesthetically they create a subtle pattern discretely positioned. Mindscapes, Landscapes of Memory, Innerscape and later the 12 Hours as well as Nine Steps at Conset are all stream of consciousness works. The choice of the term ‘Landscape/Mindscape/Innerscape’ is very signification. So many things are going on as you are in a Landscape. You admire the view. You think of associations with that spot in your or your family’s life. Where is it leading to? Would a representational view have told us so much? Figurative landscapes also relate to nostalgia as well as an aesthetic appreciation of what is before you.

At the end of all these titles is “-scape”. Could be also an “escape”? Landscape of Memory are layers of a life. Mindscape and Innerscape are journeys in thought with the excess baggage of our lives that never leaves us in the form of the kite tail or fallen clothesline of images in Innerscape. The baggage is not secured but temporary, by a tiny clothespin, so it can be removed or fall off at any time.

Conset Bay

The Whittles discovered Conset Bay in 1998 when they first rented a beautiful beach house there for a holiday. It was from the beginning a case of love at first sight. The Artist had a sense of belonging. Several prints and a large body of work from 2007 have been about the Conset Bay experience.

As opposed to creating scenic views of the place, he has created a more vivid experience of being there as seen through his eyes. This approach began with the 12 Hours 31st July 2007, 12 Hours 4th August 2007 and 12 Hours 11th August 2007. These monoprint images are of thoughts and things the Artist saw during a walk along the Conset Bay beach during twelve hours on those dates. We the viewer, as well as the artist, see faces in stones and all sorts of dual images. It has enjoyed a far greater public appeal than some earlier works. The images are laid out as a patchwork with each rectangle surrounded by pages from the ‘Guardian Weekly’ of the 1980’s. This work was created as part of Barbados’ representation at the VI Salon de Dibujo de Santo Domingo in 2007. This has led to 9 Steps at Conset, Conset Walk and Aus den Sieben Tagen of 2008.

In ‘Aus den Sieben Tagen’, which takes its name from a work by the composer Stockhausen, it is interesting that in the monoprinting process the drawing is achieved by working in reverse on the back of the paper and the mirrors in the piece would also work in reverse. It draws the viewer in through reflections.

What is the appeal of Conset Bay? It is the sense of being surrounded by Nature, unspoilt by the presence of hotels and tourists, its isolation. It is the sea at low tide; the gifts it gives of sea fans, conch shells, abandoned shoes, coral, driftwood. As the Bay is sheltered by trees, you have a sense of being alone in a beautiful universe with only the sound of the trees, the waves and the occasional boat engine. It is the ultimate in a peaceful existence.

This is conveyed in the simple and uncluttered approach of these works. There is a purity about them that captures the feel of being in a very tranquil place. The photograph of the Artist floating in the water, which is part of ‘Aus den sieben Tagen’ sums this up.

Conclusion

Superficially French seventeenth century artist Nicolas Poussin would seem to be an unlikely favourite for Whittle. Like many artists before him, the appeal of the lyricism and beauty in Poussin’s work combined with the symbolism and intellectual content resonated with Whittle. Visiting the Poussin exhibition at the Metropolitan in New York in 2008, Whittle’s love of drawing was reinforced by viewing the Poussin drawings. He visited this exhibition, ‘Poussin and Nature’, on more than one occasion. Poussin had been the artist he most revered from the 1970’s. Masterpieces such as ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ has affected many profoundly in the midst of a tide of installations, performance art, the thrill of the new.

What makes Nick Whittle’s work extraordinary is that he is always true to himself and constantly works at finding new and original ways to transmit his ideas about life without ever resorting to “redoing” another artist, whose work may have influenced his own. Painter and critic Colin Cina could have been speaking of the work of Nick Whittle when he wrote

“Only those painters who have had the insight to sense their painting concept as an analogy for life itself, surpassing observation and decoration, are using the full potential of the language of painting”11

In 1987, Whittle articulated the type of work he did not want to produce 12 in an article in the ‘Nation’ newspaper, ‘Art in 1987: A Personal View’:

“Are we witnessing the watering down of art into something that offers the consumer a sense of security? This is the type of Art, that because its form is already deep in our subconscious it puts us at ease. This is true “commodity art”: the pop jingle; background music in department stores and supermarkets that bathe us into a comfortable mood whilst in a fully controlled environment with no windows to view the real world….. This type of Art is merely one of distraction in helping us with the passing of time.”

This exhibition is not a retrospective, but a means of placing the work in context of earlier work and experiences. English painter Duncan Newton said in 1978 what is still true of Whittle today:

“These paintings are for those who are hungry for life. If you haven’t the stomach for them, there are no compensations; no tasty morsels for connoisseurs…Whittle is singing a lone song, but he has the guts to sing it strongly and publicly….(the work of Nick Whittle) restates the constant value of art – that being deeply embedded in life, it results from a compulsion to create in a world that is always dying of documentation, analysis and tactile intrigue. They both present an essential alternative to the political and scientific wallpaper that passes for art today.”13

JANICE WHITTLE

Curator, Queen’s Park Gallery

National Cultural Foundation, Barbados

October 2008

_______________________

1Whittle, Nick, The Golde White Retrospective: Criticism and Caribbean Art, BANJA No 2 1988, National Cultural Foundation, Barbados.
2Ibid.
3 Carr, Ian: ‘Keith Jarrett: the Man and his Music' Grafton Books/Harper Collins 1991
4From Britannica.com: “in mysticism, the experience of an inner vision of God or of one’s relation to or union with the divine. “
5The Hepworth suits billboard was installed at the Robert Self Gallery in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in 1976 while he was still a student.
6Sandiford, Robert: Interview with Nick Whittle ‘Nation SunShine ‘ magazine Feb. 21st 1999
7Cuthbert, Denis, et al, Aboriginal Identity, Culture and Art.
8Brady, Wendy and Carey, Michelle: ‘Talking Up Whiteness: A Black and White Dialogue’ in Cuthbert, Denis et al, Aboriginal Identity, Culture and Art.
9Carr, Ian: ‘Keith Jarrett: the Man and his Music' Grafton Books/Harper Collins 1991
10Poupeye, Veerle: ‘Caribbean Art’ 1998 Thames and Hudson Ltd., London
11Cina, Colin: ‘Edwin Easydorchik: Eight Painted Passions’ Sunderland Art Gallery June 16th – Aug. 6th 1978, catalogue introduction
12Whittle, Nick: ‘Art in 1987: A Personal View’ ‘Nation’ newspaper,
13Newton, Duncan: ‘‘Edwin Easydorchik: Eight Painted Passions’ Sunderland Art Gallery June 16th – Aug. 6th 1978,Nick Whittle: One Year Out Hatton Gallery 6th July – 26th July 1978’ Review