By Roger Green
Few people confronting Edward Whiteman’s “reconstructed” paper-and-canvas sculptures for the first time would suspect that they were inspired by New Orleans.
The stony-looking relief pieces are irregularly contoured collages, combining torn sheets of creased and stained paper with fragments of rumpled canvas, also stained and in addition painted with bold hieroglyphic markings, usually in red. What connections could these venerable even archeological-locking sculptures possibly have with New Orleans?
For one thing, says the artist, the richly creased texture of the paper was directly inspired by local plants, specifically “elephant’s ears,” growing in the artist’s backyard. For Whiteman, who moved here from New York in 1973, New Orleans’ semi-tropical vegetation was a revelation. He was particularly fascinated by the wrinkled texture of dead elephant’s ears, which he tries to reproduce in his art.
The intriguing hieroglyphs that appear in his sculptures also imitate elements in the local environment. On long walks by the railroad tracks parallel to Tchoupitoulas Street, Whiteman collects rusted pieces of debris, like hinges, coils, crushed cans and automobile parts. It is from the configurations of these objects — not from the study of ancient pictographs — that the artist develops what he calls the “signs and symbols” in his sculptures.
A laborious process
The creation of original artworks from these local sources of inspiration is for Whiteman a long and laborious task.
To prepare his paper — large sheets of brown “Basemgwerk” paper, imported from Germany — he first wets and crumples it, then flattens and vigorously pounds it on the floor. He stains each manipulated sheet of paper with diluted black paint laid on in thin glazes, then lets it dry outside on clotheslines. Since the drying process takes less than three hours in July or August, he normally creates large quantities of paper during the summer.
Meanwhile, he hangs the objects he picked up along the railroad tracks all over the white walls of his studio. Starkly silhouetted against those walls, the objects reveal intriguing linear configurations in many cases. Whiteman often makes contour drawings of the object on tracing paper, then overlays to or more sheets of the paper to create new forms.
He paints the signs and symbols on pieces of canvas using an oil stick. Later, he wets and wrinkles the canvas, then spoons and dryly brushes paint in various colors onto the linear signs. The process produces what the artist calls a “fungus texture,” causing the canvas to look “ancient and weatherbeaten.”
Having produced a stockpile of symbols and signs, he pins them to a studio wall in a composition that will change as he lives with it for a period of weeks or months. When at last he is satisfied with a composition, he connects the painted pieces of canvas with torn sheets of the manipulated paper, using gallons of white glue in the process. Often, he will repaint the laboriously assembled piece to make it look more weatherbeaten.
Years of striving
Whiteman’s sculptures have in recent years found many enthusiastic fans in New Orleans and other cities. His distinctive creations are included in many private collections and may also be seen at the Inter-Continental Hotel and the Pan-American Life Center here. The sculptor, then, seems to have discovered a gratifyingly marketable means of expression. However, achieving this goal required many years of false starts and striving.
Born in Buffalo, N.Y., Whiteman studied commercial art at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery School, where as a first-year student he discovered “serious” painting. He was particularly impressed, indeed “floored,” he says, by two Morris Graves paintings at the museum. He also became friendly with Abstract Expressionist painter Lawrence Calcagno and sculptor Calvin Harian.
Harlan, who was then leaving Buffalo to teach at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette, persuaded Whiteman to continue his studies there. Whiteman enrolled at USL, but lasted only three months. ‘I just couldn’t go to school anymore,” he recalls. However, he remained in Lafayette for a year and a half, continuing to paint on his own.
From Lafayette, he moved to the Cornwall region of England, where for six months he painted spirited abstract seascapes, in a mental state he describes as “obsessed.” From England, he moved to New York for eight years, struggling to continue his art in conditions he calls stimulating but squalid. “For years I was totally unconscious,” he says about his commitment to painting, bolstered by endless cups of black coffee and cigarettes. Finally, he suffered a breakdown and entered Jungian analysis.
The aim of the analysis, he says, was to integrate the intellectual and emotional, the male and female sides, of his personality. The treatment continued for one year, and had a profound effect on his art.
At the time, he was creating mixed-media drawings, usually vertical in format, portraying organic-looking shapes inspired by illustrations in vintage medical texts. The influence of the analysis, he says, began to show in his drawings’ split compositions, which often were dark below, signifying unconsciousness, and light above, indicating consciousness.
The therapy was also intended to help him develop a strong personality. Seeking to define himself in the world, he took a job teaching arts and crafts at a community center in Harlem. He also became interested in the physicality of found objects, and in the rigorously structured Cubist art of Picasso and Braque. Finally, his own work became more physical, under the influence of Fernand Leger and Jean Dubuffet.
No Jungian symbols
Whiteman began to create abstract still lifes with exaggeratedly heavy black outlines.
These paintings later became wooden relief sculptures, constructed of layered elements cut out with an electric saw. Originally square in format, the sculpted still lifes eventually became free-form.
In this respect, the New York still lifes prefigured the artist current sculptures. However, the new works’ signs and symbols are mostly intended to have visual interest; they have little if any connection to Jung and his teachings, the artist says.
For a number of reasons, including that both he and his, wife were mugged and that their studio/apartment was destroyed by fire, Whiteman decided to leave New York. He chose to resettle in New Orleans because his wife had family ties and friends here; among latter was a former instructor from USL, painter-print maker Robert Gordy.
In New Orleans, Whitman developed his current style of art, which he says he will continue for the foreseeable future. “It takes a long time to do anything really well,” he says, “and I see no need to do anything drastically different now.”