Nick Whittle Artist


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

To Be A Man

Hands down, we can make two assumptions about Nick Whittle: he is unusually disciplined and somewhat squeamish! This, at least, is what one is led to believe by the ironic fact that the present solo-exhibition is the first ever, in Barbados, by an artist, whose work has featured in practically all significant international exhibitions of Barbadian art since 1996.

It would be untrue to say that Whittle is an easily accessible artist. On the contrary: he never seeks to please or accommodate the viewer, offers no gratuity. We can play along, but not without effort. The reward, however, is the discovery of one of the most significant – if also misunderstood - artists Barbados has produced, and of an oeuvre, which, surprisingly perhaps, is more subtle than provocative.

The latter statement will be contested by viewers, who do not see past the erect penis, that has become a staple symbol in Whittle’s iconography. What exactly it symbolizes has, apparently, been of inverse importance to its prominence. If indeed he is apprehensive about showing his work locally, it may result from often being rejected before being read: Whittle has, paradoxically, suffered as much from the difficulty in “branding” his work as from an overdose of it!

A more understandable challenge for viewers may, however, be the ambiguous relation between the artist and the work. The copious self-portraits are at times deceptive, and attempting to interpret Whittle, the man, through the work, and vice versa, is a tricky endeavour. It is clear than the figure we repeatedly encounter in the images resembles the artist, but also that he constantly tries on other identities: the “self” he exposes constantly alternates between the symbolic and the literal, the personal and the collective.

It was suggested, above, that Whittle is a product of Barbados. This is true in the sense that his subject-matter reflects his experience of being an Englishman living in the Caribbean. Yet, ultimately Whittle’s inquiry always regards the self in relation to the world, or the self in relation to itself, and had he chosen to live elsewhere, it seems plausible that the oeuvre still would have revolved around this fundamental question.

Much of Whittle’s work has come about in spurts or as outright series. For the purpose of this discussion, the oeuvre is viewed as a number of consecutive phases following on from the early works, which culminated in the early 80s, and which, in simplified terms, tended towards placid visions of a utopian unity - whether within the focused energies of the yogic female in Je t’aime (1983) and Te Amo,(1982) or in the fusion of two lovers in Kiss I (1983).

The first of phase of what we might refer to as the mature oeuvre, unfolds between 1989-91, and is marked by a dawning sense of division and isolation. The complementary couple from Kiss has vanished, left is the individual - brooding, masturbating, reaching out for the hand of an unseen other (From the Underworld (1991), Satyriasis (1989) and Psychic (1991)) - at once one man and every (hu)man, trapped forever in his own body and psyche. Here commences the piercing self-analysis, as well as the more general reflections on the issue of self and “otherness”, which since then has remained the oeuvre’s most central theme. It is, however, only with the series produced for the 1996 Santo Domingo biennial, that this theme is fully articulated. Full Fathom Five is thus an outright negotiation of the identity of the white male, the artist’s alter ego, who settles in the Caribbean.

The series reads like a sequel and starts with the hopeful sailor/artist crossing the sea towards his chosen island – a Caribbean Ithaka! Already in the second image, however, his facial features are obscured by waves and a phallic silhouette – even before his arrival, he is no longer seen as himself, but through the harrowing memory of colonial domination, his ancestors’ rape and conquest of new territories. Once landed in the island, his arms – raised as if preparing for an embrace - are amputated, his image completely dominated by his alleged legacy (referenced by the exaggerated phallus), his face reddened by shame. In the next frame, the still arm-less figure turns into a horned satyr – robbed of self-expression, vaguely comical: European, male, colonizer, clown. This, in turn, affords a complete metamorphosis as the colonizer, to which he has been reduced, turns into the colonized, perpetrator (male/light) into victim (female/dark). (The shell at once symbolizes the island, the colonized and the female). The final image shows an androgynous figure, both male and female, colonizer and colonized, Prospero merged with Caliban.

Philosophically, this theme lies in extension of the master/slave dialectic, which was articulated by Hegel and later adopted by the intelligentsia of the colonial Independence-struggle - especially Franz Fanon, who argued that in order to obtain the humanity he is denied, the slave must revolt against his oppressor. The expectations of the oppressed are, therefore, quite clear - but what about the oppressor, and what about the descendants of both? It is this dilemma Full Fathom Five addresses by exposing the “white predicament” in the post-colonial era. The artist refrains from establishing whether the figure’s transmutation is repentant, defensive or punitive, and we are left to decide for ourselves, whether the the original dialectic has been transcended in the final image.

It should be observed that the pairing off of the colonial subject and the female gender, through the use of a shared symbol can be a bit misleading. Whittle does not suggest, obviously, that all colonial subjects are female, but merely implies a shared history of subjugation. Meanwhile, it should be stressed that the gender-relationship (unlike that of colonizer/colonized) throughout the oeuvre generally is perceived as complementary, rather than hierarchic.

Time Remembered likewise describes a transformation: the artist’s features become less and less recognizable as they merge with other, emblematic identities – Africa’s enslaved, the female other (represented by the shell in the second image), a blind and seeing self, one living and one dead. Each version of this mask-like face seems to reflect a heightened consciousness, a psyche for which everything, including itself, is transparent, caught up in a paradoxical, dreamlike state of both clairvoyance and paralysis - yet one which at all times threatens to crackle, roll up, peel off, disintegrate.

The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan held that the self is constructed by language. Time Remembered reflects a similar idea of the self as a fluid and elusive entity – something that lies beyond perceptions, masks, alternating identities. Which tools, Whittle seems to ask, do we have to ascertain what and who we are, how do we recognize the self? How is it possible to be the subject and object of our own scrutiny at once? The wholeness of the self disappears in what Lacan called the “infinity of reflection”.

The works following immediately upon the 1996-submission are thematically related to it, though generally more poetic and less didactic. Common for the works produced in 1997/98 is a reinforced sense of solitude and fragmentation, for instance in Black Heart (1997), where the figure’s face is half-hidden, but his heart exposed, as well as in My Navelstring Buried Here (1997), where the title’s suggestion of rootedness is challenged by the figure, which seems divided from another self. Katabasis (1997) is even more ambiguous: the phallus remains a symbol of conquest and dominance and is now crowned with a map, which also covers the lower part of the figure’s sexless body. The map refers, on the one hand, to the colonial project and the “mapping” of the new world, on the other to the attempt at charting the unconscious (katabasis means “a trip to the underworld”), yet these references are oddly eclipsed by the disquieting, castrated, white figure, half covered by the map and outlined by a crust of coral – the invader an invaded island himself! In My Land (1998) the phallus is wedged into a landscape consisting of green fields, black cloth and a piece of cane (with connotations of slavery and cane-fields), and “inhabited” by a solitary shell – the phallus’ preordained female receptacle, the invaders’ colonial subject. Ithaka II (1998), on the other hand, seems to reverse the significance of the phallus – now an isolated self, resembling a lit candle or a radiant lighthouse, marooned on a small island, longingly emitting signals to other, passing globes in the distance: no threat of dominance here – the lasting impression is one of boundless, irreparable solitude.

Practically all the works so far discussed have gestured towards an underlying notion of duality - either explicitly expressed as sets of opposites (male/female, colonizer/colonized, land/sea, conscious/unconscious, self/other etc.) or implied as an absence, division or castration, if not, conversely, as the yearning for some form of fulfilment or unification. Early works like Te Amo (1982) may refer to a “wholeness”, but one which, notably, is external to the viewer/artist. In Ithaka I.I (1998), the mandala held up in front of the artist likewise indicates this coveted, unattainable unity, but again as an allusion to a gap which can never be closed.

In 2001 Whittle was once more selected to represent Barbados at the Santo Domingo Biennial. The three large collages delivered, Memories of Landscape I – III (2001), mark a decisive departure from the technique and scale of the previous oeuvre. Some iconographic elements are carried over, but placed in a new context. Here, the composition becomes a pattern structured by horizontal and vertical girders of Madras-fabric. Where the sea was a recurrent element in earlier works, the emphasis (and format) here is landscape. The imagery (consisting of drawings, prints, x-rays, photographs and cut-outs, sometimes of the artist’s previous works) show fragments of bones, shells, pebbles, landscapes, pottery-shards, maps, lettering, self-portraits, finger-prints, texts, and, as the only human figure other than the artist himself, the diminutive, but haunting head of a woman, always seen from the back. While each carefully selected fragment offers its own connotations, the totality is once more a reflection on the dynamic between England and the Caribbean, if, however, from a more personal point-of-view than before: while the Madras-weave (which originated as an Indian adaptation of the Scottish tartan) is palpable evidence of a British/colonial dynamic, the artist’s juxtaposition of private memories of Britain (green fields, blue and white china) with tokens of Barbados (shells, monkey-pots, patches of ocean-blue), is interspersed with self-portraits and icons (such as the woman’s head) whose meaning is unknowable to anyone but the artist. Some images are reversed from dark to light (or vice versa) – nothing is quite fixed, everything can re-appear elsewhere in the series, enlarged, reduced, inverted, the same. The works therefore have the character of an ongoing and personal adjustment of relationships and significance, and the duality we noted in former works, is here replaced with a new complexity of which the madras-weave becomes emblematic. In 2004 further five pieces were added to the Memories of Landscape series, and yet another body of work, employing a similar technique, was launched under the title Mindscape I – IV.

The Memories of Landscape – series was an intentional deviation from a fixed binary, iconographic structure towards “roomier”, less polemic, more open-ended and associative imagery (if still classicistic in structure). However, in 2006 Whittle performed an even more resolute volte-face with the Innerscape series (I-VI). Although it reverted to what seems to be Whittle’s most comfortable format (approx. 76 x 56 cms), the series had the unexpected forcefulness of a primal scream next to anything he had previously produced. The Innerscapes gave the impression of an altogether different sort of liberation to his candid references to genitalia. Not only did they let go of the carefully considered presentation in favor of a free-flowing, unedited and seemingly more spontaneous imagery, but there was a renewed – one might say romanticist – emphasis on drawing and mark-making as well as a number of uncharacteristically playful details, such as the kite-tails, which reach out directly to the viewer and the space. In this series we are transported into a stream of consciousness – swim up-stream with the artist to the moment before the world was split, into to the womb and the memory of our own conception - and back again to the twilight-zone of earliest childhood, to the conscious, reminiscing effort of the adult.

Whittle’s is an oeuvre, which essentially has revolved around one single theme, albeit an all-encompassing one: that of being in the world. But it is also one, which has been very deliberate in its determination to re-examine the familiar, to ask closely related questions in ever new ways. The Innerscapes’ conscious departure from the cerebral and argued towards a form of emotive channelling, found another outlet in the 12 hours-series from 2007. These works were produced as an experiment, in which the artist challenged himself, on specific dates, to produce a drawing, based on direct observation, in response to the thoughts and emotions experienced each hour. Assembled, the small drawings thus represent a particular day, like a visual diary. Hasty, but sensitive, the drawings depict human anatomy - face, hand, eye, penis – if not fossils, coral or shells, often with patterns resembling human organs or tissue. Although the series seems to scrutinize the relation between man and nature – we once emerged out of the sea, and will once again be fossils - its crucial emphasis is on perception, immediacy and essence. Through this insistence on the near and tangible Whittle eschews the dilemma of his earlier approach: the focus is no longer on locating the self, but on its manifestation in the perception, and representation, of the surroundings: perhaps you can’t think the self, or the world. But you can touch it, feel it and you can draw it.

In the preceding paragraphs, we have observed a constant oscillation in Whittle’s work between reason and feeling, between the internal and the external, element of romanticism and classicism.

The real significance – and what identifies Whittle as a quintessentially modern artist – is, however, their convergence, the fact that the oeuvre’s stance is both-and rather than either-or. The same can be said of the inquiry, which suffuses the oeuvre from beginning to end: what does it mean to be, how does the individual relate to the world, to himself, how does this impact on our moral and political obligations? Likewise modern is the expression of angst, division and irredeemable despair, the quest for transcendence, the artist’s inherently moral position. Unlike the archetypal modernist, however, Whittle does not have a romanticized idea of the artist as the holder of a particularly privileged position. Let us, for a moment repress the idea of him as a man, while instead stressing the idea of him as an artist. If we thus re-examine Whittle’s various guises throughout the oeuvre, the possibility opens up that it is precisely this status, as much as his identification of himself as a descendant of the white male/colonizer, that lies at the root of his anguish. It is no coincidence that Whittle, in Ithaka II, refers to Rilke: if the modern individual feels displaced from himself, the artist suffers this plight ten-fold - caught up in reflection, where others are caught up in life itself. The real question that confronts Whittle’s might, therefore, be how the artist can once again become a man.

Therese Hadchity, September 2008

Catalogue essay Whittle in Context 2008