By Chris Waddington
If the term “works on paper” conjures images of intimately scaled art objects — from postage stamps to origami sculptures—then it’s time for you to visit Edward Whiteman’s splendid new installation of wall-sized mixed media drawings at Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St.
The Louisiana artist has broken new ground in this show, adding the female figure to his usual repertoire of pictographic abstractions. Whiteman returned to this most traditional of artistic subjects while convalescing from an injury that, kept him from working on large pieces. The results cast a fresh light on the older work, while highlighting the flexibility of the artist and his highly personal ways of working with paper.
In “Seated Figure 3,” a 1994 mixed media piece on his own, hand-made paper, Whiteman’s scribbled line seems to rise out of the stained, nubbly surface of the paper. In fact, the finished product really is organic to the paper, a series of drawings on translucent paper laid one atop the other in a palimpsest of energetic, neon-hued lines that show the figure in changing poses. Remarkably, Whiteman’s slow, deeply considered version of the collage process manages to capture the kinetic qualities of time lapse photography, without foregoing the suggestion of weight and volume that gives these figures the monumental poise of female deities.
The truth is, Whiteman’s women are as emblematic as his pictographs. In most pieces, he crops the heads of his figures, focusing on the sculptural torque of trunk and limbs as they push against the rectangular confines of the paper. In “Figure Bending Over,” this tendency takes Whiteman to the verge of abstraction, and the results are a kind of epic physicality – a hymn to female athleticism bound up in a figure that could be a brutish cousin of the swimmers and other female creatures who inhabit the late cut-outs of Henri Matisse.
By contrast, the exhibit’s least successful work is “Seated Figure 2.” Its crudely cartooned face encourages a psychological reading that runs counter to the mythic mood of Whiteman’s best pieces.
From emblematic figures to abstract emblems, Whiteman’s show seems all of a piece. The cut-out, abstract shapes of “Stepping Stones” translate the sprung energy of his figures into simple gestures: from the splaying angularity of the work’s shaped border to the decisive calligraphy if its symbolic alphabet. Yet these marks, half hidden by a white scrim, still manage the substantiality of stones.
Even more substantial are pieces such as “Green Wall” and “Ancient Wall.” Built to the scale of the gallery’s lofty spaces, these works have an architectural presence that recalls the monumentality of glyph-covered Mayan temples, with surfaces that appear eroded by time and partly obscured by lichenous accumulations of pigment and paper. As in the best architecture, Whiteman’s designs lend the eye from form to form in a dynamic play of line, color and texture, complementing that visual play with an arrangement that also partakes of the linearity of text. It’s work that invites one to read, as much as to look; to ponder deeper mysteries than the pleasures of design. In deciphering Whiteman’s abstract characters, one discovers tale that can’t be reduced to words, but does much to suggest a lost past of heroic certainties.