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Richard Whitten’s Archive of Impossibilities

For the exhibition “Wunderkabinett” at the Bannister Gallery, Providence, RI 2014


John Yau


By titling his exhibition, Wunderkabinett, Richard Whitten provides a context in which viewers might consider his work. A Wunderkabinett is a cabinet or room of curiosities or wonders - an encyclopedic collection of objects whose categorical boundaries have yet to be fixed. Such a collection was thought of as a memory theater or microcosm of a particular world. While the word Wunderkabinett evokes the kind of collecting we associate with the Renaissance – and the period when science had not yet been separated into fact and fiction, the real and the mythic – I think it would be a mistake to see Whitten’s work with only that rubric in mind, especially if it suggests that his work is old fashioned. 


It seems to me that Whitten could also be described as a contemporary archival artist. According to the art historian, Hal Foster, in his essay “The Archival Impulse” (2004), an archival artist is someone who “make[s] historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present. To this end [archival artists] elaborate on the found image, object, and favor the installation format.” 


Whitten’s exhibition certainly strikes me as archival, but, as I have come to expect from this artist, with a twist. Technically speaking, Whitten’s works are hybrids, both sculptural objects and paintings – flat, eccentrically shaped things that fall into one of two categories: paintings in which the ornate shape is synonymous with an imaginary object, usually a game board; and others where it is synonymous with an architectural detail, often derived from the Baroque or Rococo periods. In the latter category, he introduces illusionism to evoke a space that contains what might be called his “curiosities.” 


In this exhibition, the artist has included the studies for curiosities depicted in the paintings, but the difference is that the studies are sculptural objects constructed by the artist, such as his Study Model for Augenblick (2012) and Study Model for Cacchia (2012). In these constructions, we see something that will turn when a human intervenes. Otherwise, the object is still – something waiting for human intervention. 


The artist has also included in his Wunderkabinett a selection of actual mechanical toys, many of which are more than one hundred years old, and which also wait for human intervention to fulfill their function. And this mechanical movement — suggested in the paintings by gears, wheels and pulleys – early scientific achievements – echoes the movement of our eye as we scrutinize the spaces the artist depicts, focusing and refocusing on the objects and surfaces he articulates within them. 



In the catalogue accompanying his exhibition, Passageways, at Beard Gallery, Watson Fine Arts, at Wheaton College, Massachusetts (2009), Whitten made this statement:


I have frequently been struck by the fact that, even in the largest paintings, architectural space, when portrayed, is actually much smaller than it is in reality and in how the viewer perceives. In contrast, things that are small can successfully be portrayed to be much larger than they are. This conundrum–this juggler’s balance has, for me, become a fount of ideas–a source of creativity.


While writers have often focused on the mysterious architectural spaces found in many of Whitten’s works, I want to call attention to his emphasis on “conundrum.”  I feel that the tensions between large and small, between stillness and movement, between the physical body and sight, between fact and fiction, is what informs every aspect of Whitten’s work, beginning with the thing itself – the uniquely shaped panels which the artist meticulously constructs, and on which he paints. 


By underscoring the actuality of the thing that we are looking at, and by suggesting in a variety of ways that the open altar-piece or architectural niche is real, Whitten is able to convey the possibility that we are looking at (and into) a literal object (a portal or passageway) in which other “real” things can seen, a façade, a child’s toy, a scientific device, or a dirigible. In this regard, Whitten shares something with such trompe l’oeil masters as the American painter John F. Peto (1854 – 1907) and the French painter, illustrator and set designer, Pierre Roy (1880 – 1950). Like them, Whitten makes paintings in which the divisions between image and object, and between sight and touch, are deliberately undermined.  


In Whitten’s work, we seem to be peering into a carefully framed portal whose interior dimensions appear much larger than the container. This state of looking is comparable to what Gaston Bachelard described in The Poetics of Space (1969) as “travel[ing] to the land of Motionless Childhood, motionless the way all Immemorial things are.” Since we cannot intervene and make the “things” in the painting move, it is the focusing and refocusing of our attention that enlivens them. By evoking the separation between body and sight and, ultimately, the mind, Whitten engages with a fundamental philosophical question: How do we know what we know? 


More than being about the things seen, Whitten’s hybrids are about the relationship between seeing and things, how our minds organize what we see. What might it mean to engage with a highly elaborated, self-contained realm such as this– a world that is both present and absent in many different ways? What might we learn about seeing by scrutinizing paintings in which, for all their exactitude, contradictions and misalignments of all kinds abound? 


Derived from one of his carefully worked-out drawings, the overall shape of the support might evoke an altarpiece, an architectural niche, or a game board. By painting on a distinct shape, whose surface and structure he enhances through pattern and a painted architectural “frame,” Whitten invites viewers to imagine that there is real-life counterpart to the painting’s frame and “window,” which is not true. This is the magic of Whitten’s hybrids; he seems to want to make something that is simultaneously real and fictional, actual and made-up. 


In order to achieve his conundrums, Whitten must choreograph a variety of details, from the ornamental patterns and trompe l’oeil “labels” to a deep recessive space lit by multiple light sources, none of which are visible – something that the work shares with Giorgio de Chirico’s “Metaphysical” period. In doing so, he frames the complex relationship between the physical body and the mind’s eye. He also defines vision as a means of reflecting upon one’s fleeting presence in time. We can see into Whitten’s deep recessive spaces, but we cannot physically enter them. The seemingly vast domains that his meticulously framed portals open onto are animated by a variety of contradictions – a place where illusions of all kinds are made to collide. 


Despite what one might initially think, Whitten’s paintings are not about inducing us to contemplate a strange realm, an impossible elsewhere – though they have that quality - but about seeing ourselves see. In the ominous stillness of Whitten’s pictorial domain – or what I earlier referred to as the land of Motionless Childhood – one sees all sorts of things meant to turn or stay afloat. The defiance of gravity, which he often evokes by depicting striped toy balls attached to the ornamental surfaces, calls to the mind the childhood fascination with flying and other impossible physical feats, while the implied movement of the toys ensconced within the niches and portals further underscore our early curiosity about movement. 


At the same time, these views evoke a deeper theme running through the work: the relationship between memory and mortality; between the actual and the imaginary; between the physical body’s limitations and the flights of the eye. This, I think, is the beauty and pain of Lethe, where the dollhouse-like façade evokes a childhood that cannot be reached, while the closed door suggests the destination towards which we are always headed. Certainly the painting’s title, which is name of the river of forgetfulness in Hades, the Greek underworld, adds to our understanding. We are both forgetting and headed towards being forgotten.  


In Thaumatrope (2010), Whitten depicts a toy made of four circular discs, each of which features the cartoon face of either a cat or a mouse. A thaumatrope is a Victorian toy, which is regarded to be a precursor to movies, particularly animation. It is made of one or more discs containing a picture on each side. When you spin the unit fast enough, the images on the opposite sides of the disc appear to combine into a single image, an illusion known as the “persistence of vision.” Presumably, when the discs in Whitten’s Thaumatrope are set in motion fast enough, the cat and mouse become a single entity. However, before going further with this line of thinking, I do want to point out that the viewer takes it on faith that there is ether a cat or a mouse on the opposite or unseen side of the discs: we see only one side of each, two of the front and one of the back.


Whitten is asking us to take that leap as well as question it. How much faith can we place in what we see if seeing is not to be trusted?  This seems to me one of the fundamental questions animating Whitten’s paintings. In the painting Zeppelin (2013), the artist articulates his preoccupation with the potential for motion and the defiance of gravity, with drawers we cannot see into, immense spaces we cannot plumb, wheels meant to be turned. 


In establishing a world that we literally stand outside of and look into, where what we see appears as a very small part of something far larger and unknowable, Whitten seems to be making an analogy with our current understanding of the universe. As the half-open and closed drawers in Lethe imply, there are things in front of us that remain hidden. At the same time, in counterpoint to this state of unknowing, Whitten has assembled his archive of mechanical objects which move and, in some cases, produce illusions. There is both a sense of wonder and dread in these works.  


In Lethe, we are likely to ask, what is on the other side of the closed door, which is partially in shadow?  By framing questions about our passage through time, while acknowledging our desire to resist the inevitable pull towards chaos by remembering and memorializing, Whitten raises the question of what it means to see, as well as what seeing means. And finally, amidst the stillness of his painstakingly rendered domains, the artist invites us to see into and visually move about in a space we cannot physically enter. In doing so, we give this indifferent world a spark of life. 

John Yau


New York

April 2014

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