The first exhibition, entitled The Flesh to the Frame (Part I), will take place at Opera’s Mayfair premises, opening October 7th, and the Paris show – part two – will follow later in the month at the gallery’s Paris space, opening October 26th.
The London presentation – Whittaker’s first solo show with the gallery – is comprised of more than 40 large, medium and small-scale oil and acrylic works. While a number of these featured in the artist’s summer solo exhibition at the Fondazione Mudima, Milan, the majority have been created especially for these presentations.
Most of Whittaker’s paintings are based around an interpretation of the human head and its metaphysical core. These portraits often juggle duel states of inner and outer calm and conflict – offering a glimpse of strength and fragility, the conscious and subconscious, the masculine and the feminine. These opposites are arguably reinforced by the artist’s gender dysphoria, a condition where one’s physical body does not match their deeper identity. This personal struggle, which saw Whittaker ‘come out’ 9 years ago, is a condition he/she has learned to live with through the endeavour of expressing something bigger than oneself through painting.
One of the featured works, a triptych entitled The Lament (2016), is illustrative. In the central canvas, the viewer’s eye is drawn to two pastoral scenes inside painted oval, gold-rimmed frames. Closer inspection reveals these to be facsimiles of Constable’s The Hay Wain (1821), reproduced at fractionally different moments in time, suggested by no more than a change in the wind. In the background an unidentified city burns, while the face of Christ’s head wreathed in a crown of thorns stares heavenward. In the first and second canvases, the tension is heightened with images of shuffling hands and what appears to be Mary Magdalene’s challenging stare. As with many of Whittaker’s paintings, he then introduces an element of chaos, expressed with gestural and sometimes violent mark marking, overlaying and in some cases rendering invisible the representational elements of the works.
These same forces are evident in Flesh to the Frame, the Paranoia Diva, a single portrait work from 2017. An ominous note is struck by the blue/grey background – suggestive of a sky about to be ruptured by rainfall – that surrounds the outline of the head, rendered in ghostly washes. Here Whittaker introduces three overlapped cameos: one depicts a cathedral, perhaps Salisbury, painted as it would have looked three centuries ago; the other two are landscapes which break free of the frames and segue into dribbling layers of thick impasto paint, implying the uncontainable power of nature, both literally and existentially.
In an essay for the Fondazione Mudima presentation, the curator and writer Joseph Clarke observes that the differing techniques of Whittaker’s practice ‘denote conflict but also manifest a place where fusion and harmony exist.’ Inside this vortex, Whittaker creates a strange harmony, a world forged from his own imagination and memory but recognisable instantly to the viewer, too; unsettling, but comprehensible.
Both exhibitions will be accompanied by a catalogue with essays by Richard Davey and David Kim Whittaker.