Ken Whisson says he has always enjoyed being “outside of the awful mainstream”, but it may be that he is about to redefine what is mainstream and what is marginal. Ken Whisson: As If at the Museum of Contemporary Art, is the most fascinating retrospective since the National Gallery of Australia’s George Lambert survey of 2007. That show brought a great, neglected talent back into focus, while the MCA exhibition compels us to think again about a painter who is often relegated to cult status.
This show suggests that when we look back on Australian art of the late twentieth century we are going to have to find a prominent place for Whisson. He can no longer be dismissed as eccentric or idiosyncratic – he is nothing less than a modern master.
There have been a number of smaller Whisson surveys, but nothing to match this comprehensive overview put together by Glenn Barkley and Lesley Harding. Rejecting the idea that retrospectives should be compact affairs, the curators have brought together 200 works, including paintings from the early 1940s to 2011, and a broad range of drawings.
The new MCA galleries reveal themselves to be ideally suited to a collection of small to medium-sized paintings, so different in style to the monstrous creations of many contemporary artists. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a trend, as I can’t recall an MCA show that has looked so good.
From the earliest works to the last, this display never becomes stale or predictable. There is an imaginative freedom that keeps us alert and engaged. The curators have allowed themselves a commensurate freedom, interrupting chronological order with thematic clusters including a series of ‘flag’ pictures; a set of works inspired by Amos Tutuola’s novel, The Palm Wine Drinkard; and the patchwork imagery of an unusual late series, From the Newspapers.
Born in Lilydale in 1927, Whisson is a younger contemporary of artists such as Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker. He studied with the Cossack émigré, Danila Vassilieff, and immersed himself in the cultural and political ferment of the 1940s. His early pictures such as Man and Cow (c. 1958) and Sugar Workers’ Mess (c.1960) show affinities with that brand of expressive figuration championed by John and Sunday Read at Heide Park.
Yet even in his younger days, Whisson was his own man. Where Vassilieff would paint in a free and sketchy fashion, Whisson’s pictures are almost claustrophobic in his determination to cover every bit of the panel. His figures are already distorted – their heads twisted into awkward shapes as though prey to powerful, conflicting emotions. Although his style is relentlessly modern, Whisson’s subject matter has affinities with the working class preoccupations of the social realists. This reflects the political dimension that will remain a life-long feature of his art, albeit expressed in the most oblique manner.
Whisson would continue to paint as if he suffered from a horror vacui until 1977, when he relocated to Italy, settling in Perugia, where he remains to this day. He claims to love Italy for the art, the politics, and the Italian talent for relating to strangers.
With the move to Perugia Whisson stopped painting on board and turned to canvas. The change in the work was dramatic. Suddenly his pictures were full of light and space, often created by exposing the white primed support. Even his brushwork changed: the works of the early 1980s are covered in thin lines rather than flat, abutting planes of colour.
The seventies had been an exceptionally strong time for Whisson, and his pictures of those years are among the most treasured items in private collections. It was also during this decade he established his reputation as an artists’ artist. Rosalie Gascoigne who held her first exhibition of sculpture in 1974, owned Whisson’s And What Should I Do in Illyria?, painted in the same year. She sent the artist a short, enthusiastic note, saying: “It NEVER goes to sleep.”
This spontaneous response will strike a chord with Whisson’s admirers. There is something organic, almost vegetal about his works, which seem to keep changing over time. Everybody is dismissive at first acquaintance, but those who keep looking are seduced.
These are pictures that flaunt the conventions, taking chances beyond the ambitions of most artists. While they may look disarmingly clumsy, Whisson’s images take up residence somewhere in the back of the mind. With each viewing they become more complex, more engrossing. Finally we understand Whisson’s clumsiness as a mask of his sophistication. It is the complete antithesis of those highly skillful artists who use technique as way of dazzling an audience and disguising their own shallowness.
Once we have seen through technique a painting swiftly loses its interest, but on overcoming our bewilderment at Whisson’s cack-handedness we step into another dimension. In terms of both form and content he has forged his own visual language and his own pictorial logic.
There are insights to be gleaned from key pictures such as Kitchen Table (1982), which puts a table-top still life in front of a landscape, creating a continuum of private and public space, work and leisure. Whisson has said that he views the combination of abstract and figurative elements in a painting as akin to bringing together the subjective and objective in philosophy – “What thinks and what is thought, what sees and what is seen.”
One might go further and say his paintings represent an endless procession of questions and answers, or a pervasive skepticism about our social and cultural attitudes. Most important is to keep moving, which is the reason everything in a typical Whisson painting seems to be in a state of metamorphosis – melting or forming, changng from inanimate to animate. It is almost as though motifs are shown decomposing into component molecules, striving to unite with another kind of animal, vegetable or mineral.
If Whisson relies on his intuition rather than his intellect this entails a certain amount of working against himself, because the artist is an avid consumer of high-end fiction and philosophy. On a table at the MCA containing his favourite reading matter, one finds the works of Dostoevsky and Faulkner, Sartre and Husserl. It is fuel for a mind that has never stopped thinking about politics and the big questions in life.
By inclination Whisson is an anarchist, happy to engage critically with both Communism and Keynes. He believes that art has a political role, but not in a dogmatic, propagandistic way. Art is not a rule book or a manual, but an active involvement with life, a mode of inquiry that brings us closer to a more authentic vision of the world. Hence the sub-title of the show, which has two direct references: Immanuel Kant’s “May you live your life as if the maxim of your actions were to become universal law”; and the Surrealist declaration: “Let us live as if the world really exists.”
It’s surprising that no-one has mentioned Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return, which invites us to live every minute of our lives as if we would gladly have those moments repeated for all eternity.
Although Whisson is convinced civilisation is on the road to ruin, he cannot be despondent about this impending doom. His early paintings may be gloomy, but his mature works are upbeat and playful – filled with references to work and travel. The show contains dozens of images of cars, boats, planes, fields and factories. He paints people and animals, he tells stories. There is subtle eroticism that recurs at every stage.
Another key painting is Disembarkation at Cythera (Idiot Wind) (1975), and the curators are right to single it out for attention. The title sends us to the Greek Islands, but the setting is most probably St. Kilda. We think of Watteau’s great Embarkation for Cythera (1717), and a Bob Dylan song from Blood on the Tracks. Watteau’s revellers are about to leave for the island of Aphrodite, their frivolous, pleasure-seeking lives standing as a permanent symbol of the decadence of the Ancien Régime. Yet Watteau was also a proto-existentialist, whose characters are cut off from God and society. They live in a bubble world of their own construction, where time is irrelevant. By contrast, Dylan’s song is one of his most cynical reflections on lost love. The singer looks back to the past and picks over the scars.
All of this flies through my mind as I look at Whisson’s painting, with its vista of boats and sea, its pale yellow-brown figures watching from the shore. Like those figures we have arrived at another stage of life’s journey. The past recedes, but lingers still. The future is as abstract as those blobs of floating colour that stand for clouds. The picture is a moment in time, but somehow outside of time. It is a memory, but also an evocation of a particular state of mind, as we stand suspended between past and present, shore and land. As in so many of Whisson’s paintings we find ourselves reaching for some intangible truth that slips inexorably from our grasp.
Ken Whisson: As If, Museum of Contemporary Art, September 28-Novemebr 25, 2012
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, October 6, 2012