“Whiteman’s Iconic Paper Works,” Dana Standish

By Dana Standish

Image caption: Whiteman’s technique involves repeated and stubborn manipulation of his paper. He crinkles it, bends, folds and manipulates it. The result is paper that has its own typography, so that paint applied to the surface asserts itself in space as well as in two dimensions.

Ed Whiteman decided at age 17, that he wanted to be a painter, a decision that he describes as “very immediate.” It came to him in a flash one day when he was a commercial art student in upstate New York as he was looking through a book of paintings by the Zen- influenced Morris Graves. “It mirrored perfectly my experience with nature,” says Whiteman. “Up to that point I wasn’t aware there was such a thing as fine art or painting. When I saw Graves’ work I said ‘I can do that.’ In the next year and a half I painted more blind bird paintings than you could shake a stick at.”

You won’t see any “blind bird” paintings at the Arthur Roger Gallery, nor will you see any of Whiteman’s subsequent phases — the requisite figurative, still-life, or abstract periods. What you will see is the mature expression of an artist who has found a voice that is uniquely his own in works that are intransigently self-assured. This show as a whole is solid as a rock; Whiteman must be prolific indeed, judging by the number of fine works in the show and taking into account the process of selection that invariably accompanies the assembling of works for an exhibit.

Whiteman’s paintings on treated paper are large, iconic, unframed works that are nailed directly to the wall. They are monumental in vision as well as size. Each maintains its integrity as an individual while making not the slightest threat to break from the group.

They are related in technique and symbolism but they command their own attention, even when viewed as a group, a rare feat.

Whiteman’s technique involves repeated and stubborn manipulation of his paper. The paper is soaked in gesso and water and allowed to dry; while the paper is drying Whiteman crinkles it, bends, folds, and mutilates it. This process is repeated several times. The result is paper that has its own topography, so that paint applied to it asserts itself in space as well as in two dimensions. Frequently Whiteman will use the collage technique to apply one piece of paper to the other. Paint is applied with spoons or sticks as well as with brushes, to create pattern and texture. The crinkling and working of the paper gives the works an appearance of age, like old skins or brittle maps.

“Paper has significance for me,” says Whiteman, “because you use it from childhood on. Poems and love letters are written on it. You can’t do that sort of thing with canvas or masonite. Also paper is flexible, you can manipulate it rip it, make it more sculptural. Everything enters the creative process.”

Whiteman grew up on a farm in upstate New York. Through his paintings he tries to show the relationship between nature and technology. “Cradle” is a large I-shaped piece with a bold vertical running the length of the work from top to bottom, pastel pink and blue at the top, black and white in the middle, becoming vivid pink and blue at the bottom. This vertical strip is outlined on each side by a vivid blue line. The middle section consists of four horizontal bands of black grass-like tangles, long and blowing in the wind, gracefully dancing and weaving; each of these sections is separated, compartmentalized into its own world by horizontal orange stripes that suggest an edge, the meeting of grass and sidewalk, of nature and man-made geometry. At the top and bottom of the work is a thick black arc sweeping boldly from one side to the other, with legs that extend to the body of the work to anchor the arcs to the work and to join the top and bottom to the middle section. The edges are uneven, the bands of color slope, there are no straight lines, the arcs are not smooth. Yet the composition is flawless, tension created and resolved within the piece, balance created with seeming effortlessness.

Whiteman has proved, with this show, to be an artist capable not only of making diverse yet related works bill of imbuing those works with a sense of themselves.

“The older I get the more I believe that art is a steady process of eliminating what you don’t like in your work. The feeling I have now is that ‘this is my work’ I’ve worked long enough to arrive at a point where there’s not any other direction I’m tempted to go in.” What we see in this show are the mature works of one of our best painters.