DIANE WHITEHOUSE: "ROSE LAKE" AND OTHER PAINTINGS
[First published for a 2000 Winnipeg Art Gallery Diane Whitehouse retrospective catalogue, 41-43. The exhibition was curated by Sigrid Dahle.]
I met Diane Whitehouse for the first time a couple of years ago when we served together on a five person visual arts jury. (Details about such deliberations are kept secret, but I think I can make the following story public without betraying a confidence.) Because we were the only painters, our job was to dispel the looks of blank incomprehension which settled over our colleagues' faces whenever painting came up on the slide screen. Even within the world of visual art, many people find it difficult to evaluate paintings.
There are innumerable technical ways to make art, of course, and so perhaps it wasn't so strange that a familiarity with painting can no longer be assumed of even highly educated artists. Perhaps, too, the non-painters deferred to us out of a Canadian sense of courtesy. In any case, the experience has made me think that a much more general discussion of painting than usual is required in catalogues such as this one.
Diane Whitehouse works in a certain tradition of "high art," or "modernist" or "painterly" painting, a tradition which is dismissed by some as being remote from contemporary culture. The baggage of almost one hundred years of critical writing about modernist painting can also leave viewers flummoxed. No wonder people are confused.
So I should begin at the beginning. First off, Whitehouse's work must be viewed directly, that is, it must be seen in the flesh so that its colour, scale and imagery are seen and felt in relation to one's body. That is how the work was made, and that is how the work should be viewed. (Some art does not seem require such a close engagement of the senses, but even that work, I would argue, must actually be seen before a judgment about how subtly it must be viewed can be made. For example, should I trust someone about what an Andy Warhol Brillo Box really looks like? Can I really know from a reproduction?)
When I ask you to devote some time to viewing Whitehouse's paintings, I know that for many the viewing of painting --or anything--is too demanding. What it requires is a lingering, patient eye. Television shoots out video segments that flit by almost too quickly to be seen, but a painting must be allowed to slowly unfold before a viewer. Forget video as you slowly take in a Whitehouse painting. Scan the work. Judge its size in relation to your size. Try to read its imagery. Walk the length of it. Look at it from various angles. Trace your responses. Free associate.
Slow viewing was once commonplace among art lovers, but many contemporary viewers--even sophisticated ones-- now stop at the frame of a painting, or even at a label, and go no further. After all, didn't artists such as Frank Stella and Daniel Buren (for different reasons) long ago expose the framing edge of a painting as the ideological horizon at which a viewer should stop looking? Haven't a generation of critics condemned slow viewing as a species of reaction and conservatism? The importance of actually seeing a painting before judging it cannot be overemphasized. A painting must not be looked through or around before it is looked directly at. If a viewer believes, to paraphrase a famous dictum, that before a painting is a war horse, a garden, or a scantily-clad woman, it just illustrates some theoretical text, why look at all?
Looking inside the framing edge of a painting in order to puzzle out its ambiguities--especially a painting which tends to abstraction--has been considered for years in some circles to be a waste of time. If every painting style has been theoretically accepted through a successive series of stylistic changes this century, so one argument goes, what is the point of actually attempting to view new paintings as if they were indeed new? Jaded sensibilities, world-weary seen-it-all cynicism, and nay-saying for its own sake pervade the world of contemporary art.
In a typical Whitehouse painting, large areas appear to be one-off applications of paint--this can look a bit deceptive, since on close inspection it is clear that Whitehouse often paints over parts of a picture in white gesso so that they appear to be "blank" (if no ridges of paint are visible under the new paint, one can be fooled). Many other areas of canvas are reworked and overpainted in various ways, but the final look is spontaneous, as if only one layer of paint exists. Drips of paint run vertically down canvasses as if to orient the viewer's body to proper viewing of the surface. The paintings are looked at frontally as one would stand before a real landscape. Charcoal or graphite marks run over and under paint, or float freely. Sometimes a contour is suggested by a graphite line and then immediately contradicted by a swath of colour which buries part of it.
Landscape and sky are two of the most common "defaults" the eye uses when viewing an abstract painting, even if the surface has been geometrically ordered so as to exclude such references. Like other skilled painters, Whitehouse works with these perceptual defaults. She uses close-value colour and whites which suggest the undulations of hills or clouds. Her drawing will often sneak up, so to speak, on some recognizable form like a house or a pipe, and then just as suddenly veer off into a coagulated sluice of paint. A bit of collage in "Rose Lake," for example, suggests a branch. The artist's mental processes are made concrete as a mark or a colour is considered for a moment and then changed almost in mid-application. Such decisions, made intuitively, are traced by a viewer intuitively as s/he looks at the residue of artist's mark-making instincts. (We can imagine Whitehouse saying as she paints : " OK, this passage looks like this one over here, so that won't do.." or "I need a passage which rhymes with that one over there..." etc.)
The white patches and drips and sudden turns and twists record the artist's improvisation of thought. This tradition is closely identified with Jackson Pollock and Abstract Expressionism, but goes back at least as far as Cezanne, and, in terms of preliminary drawings, it can be followed deep into art history. But, again, why improvise if every painting style since Cezanne has already been entered into the culture of painting? The answer is that such assertions are far too general, and that in believing such statements, you may not be looking carefully enough at Whitehouse or Cezanne. Let me ask you this, and I want you to answer honestly: have you ever seen a painting which looks like a Whitehouse painting? (Be specific about which artist you believe paints like her--and I mean exactly like her.) In deliberations about the hopelessness of making a new paintings in a world of simulacra and repetition, viewers must consider the possibility that Whitehouse may not paint exactly like anyone else ever painted. In any case, a Whitehouse painting cannot be reduced to a dry exercise in the categorization or the genealogy of painting. One way out of this particular postmodern critical cul-de-sac is to examine things closely--materially and historically--as if they are what they often literally are, that is, new things in the world, or at least new things in a viewer's phenomenological world.