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Richard Whitten’s Exhibition “Wunderkammer”

at the Anderson Gallery, Bridgewater, MA


Judith Tolnick


Richard Whitten has had a long-term fascination with Victoriana. He lives in an historic, late 19th-century Arts & Crafts styled house in Rhode Island. The house’s curvilinear dark moldings, marquetry and overall interior decor, continuously outfitted and re-outfitted by him with collections of mechanical objects, metal discs, levers and pulleys both purposeful and purposeless, perfectly complement his painting sensibility.


The house has become a Wunderkammer, an extended “wonder room” lovingly assembled over time. The practice of the Wunderkammer can be traced to the ‘Age of Discovery’ where returning explorers would assemble wonders and intellectual curiosities for presentation to their patrons. This fascination with collecting the compelling, the strange, the uncatalogued, the unknown specimens of natural history, ethnography, and more - has found its way into the contemporary notion of the museum. Yet for Whitten, the wonder rooms he seems to devise naturally are idiosyncratic, emotional, and rich in multiple personal meanings. Whitten artfully arranges found and flea market objects in original Victorian glass-front wall cases in his home, eventually, using invented versions of selected objects to perform as actors in his pictorial constructs. The shaped, still-life oil on wood paintings are surely autobiographical, yet exist for the viewers as amazingly aesthetic, and at the same time playful rather than didactic theatres.


Whitten’s domestic environment is of a piece with his painting. His engaging persona always tempered by a sly sense of humor is never absent. 


The exterior of a newly built carriage house adjacent to Whitten’s conforms to the neighborhood architectural style. Within the structure, however, one discovers another world, Whitten’s majestic studio. He has designed a fascinating theatre in which he is the decided protagonist. On the second floor, a covered pool table is the most prominent object. Striped billiard balls, acquired like the various vintage wooden pool cues, apart from the table itself, in typical additive, collector fashion; intrigue the artist endlessly. Lamps overhang the table, and Van Gogh’s well-known Night Café is coyly referenced. 


Whitten completed an undergraduate degree in Economics and Mathematics at Yale with Honors, after which he stayed on to study painting before completing his Painting MFA across the country at the University of California at Davis. He has, of course, since become a long-term, dedicated professor of studio art.


The most prominent part of the studio’s ground-floor is a massive wooden easel fastened to the wall, an invention or better, contraption designed by the artist to support his variously shaped panels while being painted. The remarkable device reiterates his love of wood, the handcrafted, and the constructed. On a practical level, its pulley-driven counterweight system, based on sailing technology, allows Whitten to lift and lower hundred plus pound paintings, some as large as 8 x 15 feet.


Whitten’s project of painting and the complementary Wunderkammer that is his home are manifest in the Bridgewater exhibition which might be subtitled “The Gameful Process of Richard Whitten.” Here I amplify his comment, “My paintings are, in some ways, very serious toys.” Together, the fourteen works on view elucidate his strategic process of making a painting: through drawn and printed studies and miniature three-dimensional studies. Obscure, antiquarian or foreign language titles make tongue-in-cheek references, for example, to an optical toy, devised for Thaumatrope, in Greek a “wonder-trope,” or a mini-planetarium model for Orrery, a mechanical model of the solar system, or two very animated propellers for Augenblick, in German, the blink of an eye. In the imagery of his paintings, as he is in his studio, Whitten is everywhere the player, both cat and mouse.


As exhibition viewers will learn, he toys with vision, and on the way, adopts codes of early animation, including flipbooks. He emphatically shapes his paintings, getting at the all-important meaning of representation, letting us “in” to pictorial space as curious voyeurs through the keyhole shaped or otherwise cropped view. This exciting exhibition allows us “in” also to grasp phases in the artistic process, witnessing decisions and changes from preparatory studies to completed work. In Augenblick, we can admire the amusing model of twin striped dirigibles “pushed” by rotating propellers. The freestanding table model, set off by an intricate base, is a subject that eventually generates a painting. The painting enshrines the airships in an elaborate, coloristically beautiful setting that emulates the Renaissance, bridging centuries in an incongruous meeting of sacred and vernacular. This is one longstanding side of Whitten—the re-constituting of an object in an architecturally complex setting to enlarge and deepen awareness of the representational side of painting. Elsewhere, in Orrery, for example, the circular shape of the panel provides a visually active counter-motion to the animated pursuit of the central cat-and-mouse flip images. This movement was not present from inception in the graphite study made three years before, nor realized fully even in the most recent model. Nevertheless, all finally comes together in the painted work.


In this installation, Whitten’s love of mechanical objects and masterful use of

trompe l’oeil or “fool the eye” gamesmanship is revealed to be a starting point and a continuing reference for his painting. The exhibition is designed to show the inter-related workings of this painter’s vision across media, that ultimately lead to the astonishing oil on wood panels.


The process Whitten goes through to make an image and the domestic and studio environments that inform him are what the Bridgewater installation showcases. A small selection of Whitten’s own domestic furniture is brought into the installation, emphasizing the domestic environment but also the pictorial scale, level and perspective shifts the artist favors. It is, however, the space in the paintings, the viewing space, that is, finally, that which engrosses us and transports us.


On its short axis, on entering and departing the Anderson Gallery, one initially and lastly confronts the six-foot high, oil and gold leaf painting, Lethe, the sole work shown without preparatory study materials. Named for a river in Hades from which, it is poetically written, those in purgatory drink to forget their past, Lethe bespeaks a kind of transportation into oblivion. Getting lost in the intricacies of the painting, we are shown a kind of emptied astronomer/geometer/philosopher’s study with a prominently closed door to another room, a suspended globe, and in the immediate foreground, in powerful trompe l’oeil, a scroll seemingly made available for us in a drawer opened for our access. What are the meanings of these confounding juxtapositions, invitations to enter and partake and then to be permitted in only so far? Simultaneously playful and serious, Whitten’s image stops us in our tracks and we are led to engage with it, to question it, and to deliberate on answers suggested by its arresting surface and spatial geometries. Whitten offers the unfurled scroll at the bottom as a clue, prominently postulating an initial drawing from which it all started…


Judith Tolnick Champa




March 2, 2013

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