By Terrington Calas
“The Swinging Pendulum”
Arthur Roger Gallery
New Orleans, LA
“Dreams from the bristles of the artist’s brush… I probe beyond the confines of the finite to create an infinity…Living dreams.” Arshile Gorky’s words, in 1942, at the start of his late, most eloquent, phase. The quote occurred to me during my initial visit to Edward Whiteman’s new exhibition of abstract pictographs (recently at Arthur Roger); it returned during my second. In paintings like The Nile and Indigenous 10 – indeed, in most of this new suite that leap into dreams is what I feel. In this instance, that means a certain air of suspended reverie and, at the same time, an envie for worlds apart. It is an aura quite unlike anything in Gorky’s art. And yet, formally, technically, there are distinct analogies. Whiteman is, beyond question, among the South’s two or three most significant painters in any mode. And the notion of his link, however remote, to the progenitor of American abstraction is an irresistible one.
To be sure, Gorky is a worthy forebear. Perhaps his decades old statement asserts an all-too-encompassing conclusion, but it was plainly a fitting one for a painter of his sensibilities – a painter devoted the high modernist ethos, but bent on an art of purely subjective materials. Gorky’s ultimate resolution, now mythic, was indeed a “dream” aesthetic. He fashioned a surrealist-abstract conflation that yielded a trove of fantastical images and symbols – a conjured iconography of the unconscious. And even now, from the eye-line of 2014, those images – biomorphic, sinister, at times erotic – continue to beguile.
This is partly because of their agelessness. More significant, they seem so absolutely fundamental. So fundamental to any era. They resonate for us with a sense of the primal. These are configurations one might envision on ancient walls, on resurrected scripts, on Middle Eastern textiles. In this connection, Gorky acknowledged pictorial sources in the village art of his Armenian heritage: “I owe my debt to our Armenian art. Its hybrids, its many opposites. The inventions of our folk imagination.” Related to this, arguably, is a defining hallmark of his imagery – the condensation of form. As in most folk and primitive idioms, he produced lean, epigrammatic motifs, not explicit representations. Beyond this, those motifs seem strangely animated; they reference life-world experience, encapsulate it, keenly underscore it. When you look at them, you perceive a human gesture or incident, or a phenomenon of nature. You feel a signaling of life’s crises. Somehow, in their simplicity, those motifs manage to radiate something poignant and transfixing.
For Whiteman, the notion of fundamental form verges on understatement. It is perhaps the very fulcrum of his art. At times, his enormous pictographs feel like primal hymns, casting an air of ungraspable history. Every facet of his work, including its physicality, suggests this. You sense it, most notably, in his approach to individual symbols. Like Gorky, he abridges them to simple essences – but more so. And they become classic and allusive signs. In earlier work, this implied a unique cultural fabrication, as if he, by artistic will, had established his own “village” heritage. A dream heritage. A culture with an imagined folk art he would mine and interpret for his own purposes. With such a strategy, Whiteman seemed less attuned to Gorky’s surrealist impulse and more to a kind of neo-symbolism. It was a flight of aesthetic fancy. And he submitted that fancy as a conduit to large human considerations.
That is still true in Whiteman’s new work. But now the cultural links are specific – Egypt, India, Native America – and from those traditions, he manages to formulate images that transcend obvious or glib aesthetic associations. These images exist in a hieratic stillness that suggests something more.
His extraordinary The Nile is an example. If this work is about cultural history in any way, it is about an interior, oneiric one. And that, it would seem, betokens another significance. On first encounter, you’re struck by its beauty – a sumptuous expanse of umbered color and ruggedly elegant glyphs. It then reads as a potent metaphorical emblem. The sense of Egypt is incontestably present and suitably generalized. But Whiteman has manipulated the formal and thematic elements in a way that overreaches any single culture. The painting consists of rows of glyphs, alternately “figural” and geometric. Initially, this suggests a measure of detachment, of intellectualizing. But the enunciation of form – wielded with a markedly sensitive calligraphic style – humanizes the whole. Whiteman’s shifting line-quality mitigates every shape, enlivens firm abstractness into a palpable energy. There are intimations both of struggle and celebration. The sense is a kind of timeless humanity. Figure-like undulations dance like a Matisse, but the diffident line scarcely describes them. It more or less insinuates them. The image seems less a dance than a universal sign of unremitting life.
There is, furthermore, the question of surface, a crucial component of Whiteman’s enterprise. His employ of “reconstructed” paper, which involves layers of collage and every manner of manipulation, shrewdly sports with the late-modernist notion of objecthood, the tangible autonomy of the artwork. (This alone is a compelling feature of everything he does.) In The Nile, it also results in a seductive, artfully punished surface – coarse, scumbled, and irregular – evocative of an ancient, implausibly-scaled palimpsest. This setting decisively impacts the humanized symbols. Mostly, they appear blunted or semi-effaced, embedded in a field of earthen pigment but also emerging from it – and retaining a patent grace. What Whiteman has created here is a Baudelairean Eden, but one that is toughened and occasionally dire. It is the site of a sturdy humanity, subject to peril, yet ultimately unassailable. The inference, perhaps, is a deep longing for the balanced reality that civilization could be. This fantasy terrain stands for it.
In other works – say, Egypt or Indigenous 10 – the terrain modulates, yet retains its singular, abstracted humanness. The chief distinction relates to pictorial syntax, Whiteman’s technical strong suit. And he takes risk after risk in this regard. He toys constantly with happenstance, tempts chaos. This is an approach to composition that salutes the contingencies and vagaries of the real world. Egypt, for instance, is almost anti-rhetorical. The painting is a sweep of terse ideograms – allusion-rich, but all the while flouting the very idea of design hierarchy. Its design meanders.
Still, the total image coheres. One reason, at least superficially, is the implicit re-utterance of motifs; there is a rhythmic constancy around the border of the format. Another reason has to do Whiteman’s chancy play on spatial illusion – a shallow-depth illusion reminiscent of cubism. His black-lined forms disport over a field that constantly recedes and advances, but only just. You perceive a vague pulsing. And the work’s rhythm intensifies. The result is a paean to classic all-over abstraction; abstraction that, despite its poise, feels unreined, perfectly matter-of-fact, perfectly natural and keenly apposite for this reflection on a dynamic ancient culture.
Indigenous 10 goes farther. It fairly repudiates conventional poise. It establishes its own. This is done with the expressive force of specific shapes. Again, there is no spatial hierarchy. Nor is there an appreciable rhythm or flow. Each element seems arbitrarily placed, with little regard for consonance. And yet, the piece feels sound. In this instance, Whiteman does not marshal space; he creates forms that command it. There is a certain robustness in the demeanor of these forms. They look isolated, even while comprising a larger motif. More important, they are strikingly idiosyncratic, nature-based but wildly adjusted, made new. Whiteman has a long-standing fascination with such forms – remnants derived from the mundane flotsam we all tend to overlook. In Indigenous 10, he invests them with an animated, rough-hewn eloquence. And a manifest robustness. You sense animal life, plant life, human life – all recast as universal emblems. And each emblem has a cogent presence. The consequence is something of a compositional skirmish. And no let-up. Promptly, this ambit of potency confers a rightness on the design. Nothing more is needed. Pictorial structure, in its standard import, becomes irrelevant.
This note on structure and style is not to banalize Whiteman’s achievement. He is not, by any means, locked into the old pieties of pure aestheticism – good design for good design. No. But his formal gifts provide an irresistible lure. The temptation is to melt before so much adept facture. In fact, however, it functions as a gratifying lead-in to the subjective dimension of his work.
That includes, above all, a deeply romantic impulse. Whiteman’s art plumbs the imagination. Indeed, he is a connoisseur of the imagination and of its peculiar flights. He seems to savor such flights. Any artist of his sensibility might well embark on small journeys of discovery, but he is like a conjurer of unearthed domains. The primary condition of his art is the poetically constructed voyage. Each painting registers as a self-contained voyage, the pictorial embodiment of Baudelaire’s “fever which grips us in moments of chill distress, that nostalgia for some land we have never seen . .. a land that resemble you, where everything is sumptuous . . . authentic . . . where life if sweet to breathe.”
Whiteman’s pictographs are staggering reveries, imagined Edens. It is not impossible to see them as metaphorical elusions of contemporaneity – as pursuits of a solacing world, pursuits of a plateau where today’s anxieties are calmed. If this were so, his work would be an apt antidote to most current vestiges of politically charged art. The feel of these works, however, is more intimate – this, despite their august physicality. Whiteman’s construction of vicarious regions is a visual lyric, not unlike every dreamer’s Cythera; and its implied aim is to rapt viewers in contemplation. Dreams are inevitable.