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





A Willing Suspension of Disbelief

-to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Biographia Literaria, 1817).

In the last work Nick Whittle made for this exhibition, there is one image among many. It is a photograph of the artist himself. Naked; eyes closed; arms outstretched; he floats in a shallow pool of green-tinged sea. Weightless and unguarded. Light reflects off the surface of the water creating a fractured pattern that emanates from the artist’s head. He is both suspended and immersed within the sea; his facial features, his breasts rise above its surface like islands. This is the artist that I know, and yet as I have never seen him before.

During the last two years, Nick Whittle has developed a series of works that incorporate many of the images and vocabulary familiar from his earlier production. Shells and coral, hearts and phalluses, self- portraits and maps all recur. But the presentation has changed. Previously they were collaged together, combined and overlapping, often woven in and through one another. In the most recent work, images have been extracted and isolated as singular pictographs, each presented as part of a vertical multi-paneled, unfolding strip that sometimes exceeds the limitations of the wall and slips precariously into the viewer’s space.

The willing suspension of disbelief is an aesthetic theory coined by the romanticist poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, intended to characterize the audience’s relationship or reaction to a work of art. Arguably an essential element of any work of art, it refers to our willingness to experience the premises of a work and the propositions of an artist, excusing or ignoring the limitations of the chosen medium to replicate or translate lived experience. Paring down his images for more immediate accessibility, and reconstructing the overall format to break past notions of frames and borders, Whittle attempts, like any good romantic, to seduce his viewer to surrender in an act of poetic faith.

The shape of a heart, the contour of a neck, the setting sun, the rising tide, the eroticized forms of nature…..

Whittle’s art has always spoken openly about desire and frailty. Combined with self-portraiture, it exposes a vulnerable self-analysis, an opening up as a deliberate attempt to connect, not just with a viewer or an audience, but with a wider universal humanism. Whittle has repeatedly assumed the risk of alienating that viewer – ‘have I revealed too much?’ – as the price of his unsated quest. Stuart Hall has described identity formation – and particularly diasporic identity - as a ‘production’ which is never complete, always in process.1 That process of transience and multiplicity resides at the core of Whittle’s investigation.

The vertical hangings which predominate in the most recent work recall the ‘kite tales’ which Whittle devised for the Innerscapes series of 2006. In these large collages of monoprints, drawings, textiles and found objects, Whittle’s dreaming head often occupies the lower quadrant, surveying the assemblage of materials and iconography. The colour and vibrancy of these compositions contrasts with the deliberate simplification of the subsequent work. But it is the ‘kite tails’, the strips of burlap trailing down to the floor that established two things that proved important for the later development. They provide a ground or support for individual drawings and prints pinned onto the fabric. And they anchor the work to the ground. Whittle has attempted through this device to literally connect with his viewer, to provide a ‘bridge’ is his terms – a conduit between the art and the spectator.

His personal searching is inevitably linked to geography and geology; his identity seeks rootedness in the security of place, and is problematized by transience. No place is more sacred to the artist than Consett Bay, located on the rugged east coast of Barbados. In Consett Walk (2006), Whittle established the format of placing photographs at the top and bottom of the vertical compositions. Intended as a metonymic replication of experience, the uppermost photograph presents a view into the distance seen by the traveler; the photograph at the bottom presents the view at our feet. The artist attempts to recreate the sensation of ‘being’ in this place as well as ‘seeing’ it, literally inviting us to ‘walk in his shoes’. The fragments of shell and china depicted in the simple monoprints are the souvenirs of the journey, those material fragments, those signifiers of transient experiences and fleeting contentment.

What brings you to a place? What compels you to return? Like a pilgrimage. To the edge, to the shore, to the brink.

Nine Steps at Consett (1 and 2) continues this investigation. Images repeat like a recurring dream. Things close and far, positive and negative – a system of complementarity is established. The unfolding zig-zagged format of the works suggests many things: a map, a fold-out book, photographs in a wallet, a narrative, a house of cards. There is a clear path, a progression with a beginning and an end, although with no clear indication which is which. As a result the movement is ongoing – up and down –with the continual unfolding of meaning.

Whittle’s work has long had a diaristic quality. Images were typically executed quickly, recording particular experiences and states of mind. Linked to the diaristic format is the deliberate marking and measuring of time, stages and steps. The Twelve Hours series documents the sensations and experiences of a specific day: 31st July; 4th August; August 11th. For each one, twelve monoprints, supposedly produced one each hour, are superimposed in a grid-like pattern on the pages of a newspaper. The stark simplification of the format establishes the juxtaposition of dualities: black and white; text and image; geometric and organic; personal versus public. It provides the arena within which the artist’s obsessive reformulation and re-articulation of identity is performed.

This series of 2006/2007 marked the transition into the simplified pictographic language that has characterized Whittle’s most recent work. The reduced colour, and the regularity of the composition reinforce his deliberate turn to a basic, simplified language. He found that the monoprint, with its immediate, if not always predictable results, was well suited to these aims. Formally the inclusion of photographs has served to re-introduce colour into the newer works. But more than that, Whittle’s photographs are his personal attempt to record transitory moments - the ‘keepsakes’ of fleeting and poignant experiences.

South-North is a smaller, simpler statement than the earlier vertical compositions. The screen of casuarina trees against a tropical sunrise at the top of the work is juxtaposed with the image of branches blanketed in snow at the bottom. Between these photographic brackets, depictions of phallic imagery, the dreaming face, a heart, embody the experience of existing within a moment whose very ephemeralness is palpable.

Seven Days is the most complex of the new works. Composed of seven strips of varying lengths, the work takes its title from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Aus den sieben Tagen” (From the Seven Days). Stockhausen (1928-2007) was a controversial avant-garde German composer known for his work in electronic compositions and dada-inspired “intuitive music”. “Aus den sieben Tagen” is a series of fifteen text-compositions written in May 1968. Responding to the traumatic dissolution of his marriage, the composer embarked on a hunger strike with the intention of committing suicide. It was at that point that he came across by chance the work of Indian philosopher and poet Sri Aurobindo whose ideas he found to be in harmony with his own. Of particular significance was Aurobindo’s emphasis on the transitional, transformational nature of man in the process of spiritual evolution. Stockhausen continued his fasting in the following days but now as a means to transcendental illumination. It was in this state that he was inspired to compose this work, a series of short texts providing performers with brief instructions resulting in sound-making, some of which included the admonition to commence with a period of fasting and other deprivations.

What Whittle’s work perhaps takes from Stockhausen is the experience of loss as a source for creative production. But also a willingness to embrace chance happenings, or more than that, to construct spaces in which the inevitably uncontrollable can in some way be made knowable, if not completely comprehensible.

Whittle’s work combines seven vertical strips of images as a record of a condensed period of time, resulting here in a more dynamic and complex narrative. The artist inserts more photographs including the floating self-portrait. Another photo reveals a woman, seen from behind; she is captured in the moment of taking a photograph, seemingly unaware that she herself is the subject of Whittle’s lens. Still other shots capture an orange sun as it touches the horizon; traces of melting snow on a grassy field; ripples across the surface of the water; clouds. The fleeting impermanence of momentary states is belied through the act of being ‘captured’ by the photograph or documented in the drawing.

The seven mirrors inserted into the strips provide another kind of fleeting impermanence and another invocation to the viewer to become immersed in the composition. The viewer who steps in front of the work, steps into the work, his own image momentarily incorporated into the overall construction. Mirrors have long been associated with themes of vanity, sorcery, self-discovery and dreams. Their surfaces, like the surface of the water, act as a portal into a parallel if inverted realm. With the new format combining multiple vertical strips of vary lengths, the reading of the work is constantly shifting. Relationships between images compel the viewer to read the narrative no longer just vertically but now horizontally and diagonally, in an intuitive and improvisational rather than directed manner. It inspires contemplation. The work speaks, not as a unified image, but rather it is concerned with the relationship of parts. Not the reconstruction of a lived experience in chronological order but rather the fragments of experience as they are remembered and dreamt.

Several artists within the Caribbean region have assembled grids of independent images into larger works – which perhaps reflects a diasporic transience, or a post-colonial ordering / restructuring of hybrid influences. Christopher Cozier’s Tropical Night (2006-2008) is a mutable, infinitely variable arrangement of ink and watercolour drawings suspended in a deliberately temporary format from pushpins. Silhouettes of heads, images of water, and reproductions of maps repeat and are often superimposed by the artist’s own note-taking, reinforcing the diaristic nature of the work. Cozier has expressed a distrust of the narrative process and its intention to impose rationality and structure onto lived experience. The informal nature of the drawings which Cozier has referred to as ‘small modest daily gestures’ conveys the more intuitive, uncensored process of recording. The fluidity of the work in terms of its mutable possibilities (as well as the medium and much of the imagery) allows seemingly infinite combinations in a stream of consciousness mining of relations and associations. In its capacity to be endlessly reconfigured, the notion of centre and periphery becomes moot / mute.

As Arjun Appadurai has observed, in the contemporary world the dominant tension between center and periphery has been replaced by a global pattern of flows and resistances.2

Ras Ishi Butcher’s on-going series entitled Secret Diary (Diario Secreto) originated in 2001 with large canvases with images of individual ‘pages’ arranged on the surface. In Diario Secreto Tres, reproductions of his own previous works are inserted amongst famous images from art history, all rendered in different styles and media. It is a quieter, more muted field than Cozier’s. Most poignant is the abundance of blank pages and open spaces, suggesting loss, absence, and dispersal rather than concealment. The secrets are contained in the images themselves, their associations and cross-references. While borders are incised into the surface of the composition, there is no centre. Images are fixed in place, literally nailed down to the support, but the asymmetrical arrangement and preponderance of empty spaces creates a sensation of restlessness and visual wandering. In later works, the gridded format is more concretely established by symmetrical rows of separate canvases. Movement now occurs in the reading of the images, through the discovery of reflections and complementarities.

Two decades ago Dominican artist Tony Capellan had begun constructing grids of canvases each with its own simplified ideogram. In Mitos del Caribe (Myths of the Caribbean) (1990) the images appear pre-columbian, both mythical and mystical. This contrasts with the lines of yellow text running across the bottom row of black imageless canvases like an LED screen, asking the viewer, just what is this thing called ‘Caribbean art’. Capellan probematizes the tendency, starting with Uruguayan artist Joaquin Torres-Garcia, to mine and primitivize the indigenous visual vocabularies of the Americas in constructing an alternative modernist language for the ‘South’. Torres-Garcia nevertheless pioneered the expressive possibilities of the ideogram, isolated as a sign, and narrative through its various reconfigurations with other signs. Understanding the power of graphic understatement, his Inverted Map (1936) - a simple diagram of the South American continent rotated with the southern most tip now facing north - became a manifesto for Latin American artists agitating for a reconfiguring and repositioning from a previously under-voiced perspective. Irit Rogoff points out that geography has always been a form of positioned spectatorship. Names such as the Middle East, or the West Indies are viewed from positions – in this instance, of colonial power.3 Efforts to dismantle power structures require collaborative initiatives to imagine new systems of visualization.

Whittle’s own South-North conveys some of the vertigo / disorientation associated with trying to record and make sense of individual experience as mediated through changes in place. In Nick’s work what is emphasized as compared to the others discussed above is the primacy of the deliberate, physical and therefore immutable connections and chains of associations along a single axis. The verticality of Whittle’s work conveys the experience of the contemporary diaspora which is not aimless wandering, nor a final homeland but instead often necessitates an ongoing back and forth of obligations and affiliations between two end-points.

Writing about cultural identity and diaspora, Stuart Hall speaks of locating oneself at “the in-between of different cultures.” The unmended folds that create the volume within Whittle’s suspended pieces, those horizontal hills and valleys, are the in-between spaces, those areas of transition. Finish art critic Otso Kantokorpi has written that Whittle’s strips of ‘kite tails’ could also be interpreted as roots, asking “Can a man fly and root himself at the same time?”4 Perhaps a response lies in Paul Gilroy’s argument that within a diasporic culture, ‘roots’ are better conceptualized by their homonym “routes”, stressing the movement between and through spaces and the state of being trans-national.5

Nick Mirzoeff describes the act of mining the environment, history and the subconscious for signs as a ‘diasporic strategy.’ He argues that while the notion of nation has been central to Western visual culture, “diaspora cannot be seen in any traditional sense and it certainly cannot be represented from the viewpoint of one-point perspective.”6 The dynamic, multi directional and multi dimensional readings required by a work such as Whittle’s Seven Days reflects that experience of cross-cultural transience that Mirzoeff has identified.

For Coleridge, the importance of art was in its ability to reconcile the external and internal, sameness and difference. But the goal of such a reconciliation was not homogeneity. Coleridge emphasized the principle of “multeity in unity” or “that in which the many, still seen as many, becomes one.” While Whittle’s assemblages of images reflect a multiplicity, they deliberately resist a fixed and unified finality. Perhaps Whittle then is the diasporic romantic, mining, documenting and continually reconfiguring the visual signs of experience, believing still in the potential of poetic faith.

 

By Allison Thompson

Catalogue essay Whittle in Context 2008


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1 Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” in Nicholas Mirzoeff, ed., Diaspora and Visual Culture: Representing Africans and Jews, (London: Routledge, 2000).
2Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996, as cited in Mirzoeff, 4.
3Irit Rogoff, Terra Infirma: Geography’s Visual Culture (London: Routledge, 2000), 11.
4Otso Kantokorpi, The Third Culture Exhibition (Finland: Cable Factory Helsinki, 2000).
5Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).
6Mirzoeff, 2.