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Ken Whisson Essay

Ken Whisson says he has always enjoyed being “outside of the awful mainstream”, but it may be that he is about to redefine what is mainstream and what is marginal. Ken Whisson: As If at the Museum of Contemporary Art, is the most fascinating retrospective since the National Gallery of Australia’s George Lambert survey of 2007. That show brought a great, neglected talent back into focus, while the MCA exhibition compels us to think again about a painter who is often relegated to cult status.

This show suggests that when we look back on Australian art of the late twentieth century we are going to have to find a prominent place for Whisson. He can no longer be dismissed as eccentric or idiosyncratic – he is nothing less than a modern master.

There have been a number of smaller Whisson surveys, but nothing to match this comprehensive overview put together by Glenn Barkley and Lesley Harding. Rejecting the idea that retrospectives should be compact affairs, the curators have brought together 200 works, including paintings from the early 1940s to 2011, and a broad range of drawings.

The new MCA galleries reveal themselves to be ideally suited to a collection of small to medium-sized paintings, so different in style to the monstrous creations of many contemporary artists. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a trend, as I can’t recall an MCA show that has looked so good.

From the earliest works to the last, this display never becomes stale or predictable. There is an imaginative freedom that keeps us alert and engaged. The curators have allowed themselves a commensurate freedom, interrupting chronological order with thematic clusters including a series of ‘flag’ pictures; a set of works inspired by Amos Tutuola’s novel, The Palm Wine Drinkard; and the patchwork imagery of an unusual late series, From the Newspapers.


Ken Whisson, Books and Landscapes, 1987-94, Oil on canvas
Ken Whisson, Imaginary America, 1974-5, Oil on composition board, 80.7 x 114.6cm


Born in Lilydale in 1927, Whisson is a younger contemporary of artists such as Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker. He studied with the Cossack émigré, Danila Vassilieff, and immersed himself in the cultural and political ferment of the 1940s. His early pictures such as Man and Cow (c. 1958) and Sugar Workers’ Mess (c.1960) show affinities with that brand of expressive figuration championed by John and Sunday Read at Heide Park.

Yet even in his younger days, Whisson was his own man. Where Vassilieff would paint in a free and sketchy fashion, Whisson’s pictures are almost claustrophobic in his determination to cover every bit of the panel. His figures are already distorted – their heads twisted into awkward shapes as though prey to powerful, conflicting emotions. Although his style is relentlessly modern, Whisson’s subject matter has affinities with the working class preoccupations of the social realists. This reflects the political dimension that will remain a life-long feature of his art, albeit expressed in the most oblique manner.

Whisson would continue to paint as if he suffered from a horror vacui until 1977, when he relocated to Italy, settling in Perugia, where he remains to this day. He claims to love Italy for the art, the politics, and the Italian talent for relating to strangers.

With the move to Perugia Whisson stopped painting on board and turned to canvas. The change in the work was dramatic. Suddenly his pictures were full of light and space, often created by exposing the white primed support. Even his brushwork changed: the works of the early 1980s are covered in thin lines rather than flat, abutting planes of colour.

The seventies had been an exceptionally strong time for Whisson, and his pictures of those years are among the most treasured items in private collections. It was also during this decade he established his reputation as an artists’ artist. Rosalie Gascoigne who held her first exhibition of sculpture in 1974, owned Whisson’s And What Should I Do in Illyria?, painted in the same year. She sent the artist a short, enthusiastic note, saying: “It NEVER goes to sleep.”


Ken Whisson, Kitchen Table
Ken Whisson, And what Should I do in Illyria?, 1974, Oil on composition Board,82 x 107.5


This spontaneous response will strike a chord with Whisson’s admirers. There is something organic, almost vegetal about his works, which seem to keep changing over time. Everybody is dismissive at first acquaintance, but those who keep looking are seduced.

These are pictures that flaunt the conventions, taking chances beyond the ambitions of most artists. While they may look disarmingly clumsy, Whisson’s images take up residence somewhere in the back of the mind. With each viewing they become more complex, more engrossing. Finally we understand Whisson’s clumsiness as a mask of his sophistication. It is the complete antithesis of those highly skillful artists who use technique as way of dazzling an audience and disguising their own shallowness.

Once we have seen through technique a painting swiftly loses its interest, but on overcoming our bewilderment at Whisson’s cack-handedness we step into another dimension. In terms of both form and content he has forged his own visual language and his own pictorial logic.

There are insights to be gleaned from key pictures such as Kitchen Table (1982), which puts a table-top still life in front of a landscape, creating a continuum of private and public space, work and leisure. Whisson has said that he views the combination of abstract and figurative elements in a painting as akin to bringing together the subjective and objective in philosophy – “What thinks and what is thought, what sees and what is seen.”

One might go further and say his paintings represent an endless procession of questions and answers, or a pervasive skepticism about our social and cultural attitudes. Most important is to keep moving, which is the reason everything in a typical Whisson painting seems to be in a state of metamorphosis – melting or forming, changng from inanimate to animate. It is almost as though motifs are shown decomposing into component molecules, striving to unite with another kind of animal, vegetable or mineral.

If Whisson relies on his intuition rather than his intellect this entails a certain amount of working against himself, because the artist is an avid consumer of high-end fiction and philosophy. On a table at the MCA containing his favourite reading matter, one finds the works of Dostoevsky and Faulkner, Sartre and Husserl. It is fuel for a mind that has never stopped thinking about politics and the big questions in life.

By inclination Whisson is an anarchist, happy to engage critically with both Communism and Keynes. He believes that art has a political role, but not in a dogmatic, propagandistic way. Art is not a rule book or a manual, but an active involvement with life, a mode of inquiry that brings us closer to a more authentic vision of the world. Hence the sub-title of the show, which has two direct references: Immanuel Kant’s “May you live your life as if the maxim of your actions were to become universal law”; and the Surrealist declaration: “Let us live as if the world really exists.”

It’s surprising that no-one has mentioned Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return, which invites us to live every minute of our lives as if we would gladly have those moments repeated for all eternity.

Although Whisson is convinced civilisation is on the road to ruin, he cannot be despondent about this impending doom. His early paintings may be gloomy, but his mature works are upbeat and playful – filled with references to work and travel. The show contains dozens of images of cars, boats, planes, fields and factories. He paints people and animals, he tells stories. There is subtle eroticism that recurs at every stage.


Ken Whisson, Flags, 1976, Oil on composition board
Ken Whisson, Voodoo c. 1960, Oil on composition board


Another key painting is Disembarkation at Cythera (Idiot Wind) (1975), and the curators are right to single it out for attention. The title sends us to the Greek Islands, but the setting is most probably St. Kilda. We think of Watteau’s great Embarkation for Cythera (1717), and a Bob Dylan song from Blood on the Tracks. Watteau’s revellers are about to leave for the island of Aphrodite, their frivolous, pleasure-seeking lives standing as a permanent symbol of the decadence of the Ancien Régime. Yet Watteau was also a proto-existentialist, whose characters are cut off from God and society. They live in a bubble world of their own construction, where time is irrelevant. By contrast, Dylan’s song is one of his most cynical reflections on lost love. The singer looks back to the past and picks over the scars.

All of this flies through my mind as I look at Whisson’s painting, with its vista of boats and sea, its pale yellow-brown figures watching from the shore. Like those figures we have arrived at another stage of life’s journey. The past recedes, but lingers still. The future is as abstract as those blobs of floating colour that stand for clouds. The picture is a moment in time, but somehow outside of time. It is a memory, but also an evocation of a particular state of mind, as we stand suspended between past and present, shore and land. As in so many of Whisson’s paintings we find ourselves reaching for some intangible truth that slips inexorably from our grasp.



Ken Whisson: As If, Museum of Contemporary Art, September 28-Novemebr 25, 2012

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, October 6, 2012



Heide Museum, Melbourne, concludes 15 July.
Opens MCA Sydney, 28 September.

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NOTES ON KEN WHISSON (Is that a thin black camel?)

(In memory of D. G.)

1) “Some would argue that Whisson’s work is too much of an acquired taste to be classed as a promising investment. On the other hand, there are very few artists of his generation who are so highly regarded … By any reckoning Whisson is overdue for a major retrospective … Until we see his career in the form of a coherent overview he may never progress beyond the cult status that he currently enjoys.” — Art Collector magazine 2010

2) “I’m not mad on any of his work.” — overheard at “As If,”  June 2012

3) “Someday someone will discover him, but it won’t be the public.” — Interviewee, Maya Huxley documentary, 1973 (video on show)

4) “It would probably be better if people…dropped the use of the word (technique) altogether.” — Ken Whisson

Whisson’s art: difficult pleasures and ironies

You can literally see why Whisson’s work is unlikely to get popular. The picture above, Vegetative Man from 1967 is, I think, among his more appealing (!) images from that period, a bit of savagery that looks like it’s been tossed off in twenty minutes.

The catalog essay (by curators Glenn Barkley and Lesley Harding) discusses “a time when Australian artists were split between two distinct camps of figuration and abstraction” and how that dialectic allowed Whisson to “move phantom-like” between the two. They describe Vegetative Man as “a figure contemplating a multi-coloured geometric shape that could be read as an abstract Colourfield painting, typical of the prevailing style.”

Well, yes, but after 45 years, it still looks extraordinarily raw; one of the very reasons it may appeal to some painters now, as it suits the rough and tumble anti-finish that’s the very long tail from the neo-impressionism of the 1980s. That is to say, despite all Whisson’s distaste for the mainstream, he is looking totally hip. As well, there is the instinct he has for vivid colour — that rainbow wall set off by dun olives and greys; that palette is the rage in contemporary painting (see Del Kathryn Barton; James Morrison; AnastasiaKlose). Omg, intransigient Ken Whisson, grooving in the middle!

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4) “May you live your life as if the maxim of your actions were to be universal law.” — Immanuel Kant

5) “Let us live as if the world really exists.” — the Paris surrealists

6) “Mis-hit paintings have their own psychic charge, that are done just as if they were final statements.” — Ken Whisson

It’s only taste: A lighter, brighter Ken

In front of his (dancing, dazzling) Flag pictures from the late 1980s, we’re still in the phantom-boundaries of the dialectic, but leaning to abstraction in a much higher key. Look at the two pictures above. In white is the (sensational) Flag for My Bright but Terrible Childhood, 1979. In blue is another painting in the liminal zone between abstraction and figuration, equally bright in hues with a primary palette. The latter looks cruder, or more accessible — it’s easier to guess what the shapes are feinting at: sails on the a sea of blue. The white Flag is obscure.

To justify why I like it more I’d have to explain (spin a line on) how it’s superior in the formal terms of compositional structure and invention and finesse of colour. And yet, and yet — you see what you see, and even the great experts may quarrel over Matisse and Picasso, and anyone might prefer a Whiteley to a Streeton, or vice versa. In other words, it’s only an opinion. It’s only taste, which is really a set of filters acquired from a circumscribed group, that is, one’s inherited or chosen  tribe. By the way, the blue painting is, of course, by the other Ken, Mr Done.

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7) “Art is what happens at the end of the brush when it meets the canvas.” — Ken Whisson

8 ) “I enjoy painting very, very much. And I enjoy exhibiting, but I do not paint for exhibition ever.” — Ken Whisson

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Above: Tea Towel Hanging in the Bathroom Becomes Self Portrait. Tea Towel 1. 3/6/98, 4/6/98.

The Artist-hermit-saint

On the most recent of my three visits, a volunteer guide — I was her entire audience that day — told me that Ken Whisson lives in a small apartment in Perugia, Italy (resident since he was 50, he is now 84) painting there and storing his work in his bedroom before despatching them to his Australian galleries. He’s been doing this for years, like a hermit. An artist-hermit. An artist-saint, an artist-matyr, maybe. Like Ian Fairweather, who famously lived in a DIY shack on Bribie Island. Or Giorgio Morandi who, for 50 years, shared an apartment in Bologna with his three unmarried sisters, having to traverse their bedrooms to arrive at his own, in which he painted.

At the least, this biographical tidbit suggests dedication. It fits with his remarks about the mainstream — “the world is an awful mainstream” — his desire to not depend on conventional supports of any kind. Or to privilege theorising. (Nonetheless, Whisson is a big reader — the installation includes a room furnished with a pile of books from his reading list; he is fond of Marcuse and John Berger.)

The curatorial essay ends in describing Whisson as an artist’s artist. “He has become a kind of talisman for other artists, a testament to the proficiencies that come when living mindfully, working hard, remaining at a distance from the machinations of the art world and focusing solely on the act of making itself.” Artists are notorious for not agreeing with each other but perhaps figures like Whisson and Fairweather really do stand as touchstones for a purity of intent and an example of purpose.

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9) “I have no doubt whatsoever … that art is political, but perhaps it’s political of its very nature, and without any need to be self-consciously political.” — Ken Whisson

10) “The pictures are harder to like than the artist himself.” — Robert Nelson, The Age, 20 June 2012

Above: Motor Car, 1973

Awfuller and awfuller: Robert Nelson meets an inadequate swipe of the brush

In his review for Fairfax, Robert Nelson gives a good description of the distinctive Whisson manner: “The style couples compositional stability with neurotic agitation, a tense sketchiness that tears up the coherence proposed by the structure.”

For 530 words out of the 670 word review, Nelson manages to write usefully about the artist and the Australian context — “When he looks at the Australian landscape, he sees cars … Whisson was noticing them at a time when other painters could see nothing but pastoral hills and bush.” And pictorial mechanics and art history — “Like Fred Williams, who was also born in 1927, Whisson is intrigued by the tension of plane and plain, field as pictorial surface and field as paddock.”

Then he arrives at paragraph 13 (in a total of 16) where he finally voices his personal druthers. Firstly, diplomatically, he says, “The pictures are harder to like than the artist himself, who comes across as subtle and humorous.” And then he delivers the sword in paragraph 14: “For the most part, however, the pictures are hard on the eye, often thin in formal terms, with inadequate swipes of the brush on a canvas with equivocal spaces.”

If I cared enough I’d take issue with the phrases “hard on the eye,” (hard, like a pencil poke? whose eye?); “thin in formal terms” (a bald assertion for which any lecturer would insist on elaboration); “inadequate swipes of the brush;” “equivocal spaces”! Let’s hope Robert Nelson never gets sent to a classical Chinese painting show — they’d have to call the ambos quick smart, Nelson’d be flat on the floor in seconds from the abundance of “inadequate swipes of the brush” on scrolls of “equivocal spaces.” It sounds to me like a critic rationalising his dislike of, or his inability to like, the work — his feeling may be sincere, but the justification here is thin in critical terms. I’d say it’s rigor-challenged. Or, as Dylan might whine, “I don’t be-lieve you.”

Here is the superbly odd last paragraph: “Since that date (1983, referring to a picture), we’ve only had more sprawl, cars, and governments without exception have resolved to let Melbourne become awfuller and awfuller. Perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect pictures that grapple with this empty, obdurate car space to be beautiful in any sense.” (sic)

Of the 200 pictures listed in the catalog, I count (generously) 18 or 20 pictures that may have car/sprawl as their subject. I’m thinking of that wicked thing Clement Greenberg was supposed to have said about Robert Hughes: “He’s got a bad eye.” I don’t believe Nelson has a bad eye, but he is choosing to see what he sees. That’s not a hanging offence in a critic (as bad faith is), but is a severe handicap. Rigor-challenged.

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11)  “…being annoyed at not being recognised. But knowing … that’s something to be proud of. It means you’re outside of the awful mainstream.” — Ken Whisson

12) “Everybody wants to be Ken Whisson’s Captain Cook.” — Ray Hughes

13) “I’m discovered and forgotten and discovered and forgotten and it will go on for the rest of my life I imagine.” — Ken Whisson

Adjectives and Present Participles, 1974

IMHO: Learning to love, and not minding not liking, Whisson

After all these years of being a fan, I’m still trying to work out what attracts me to this “difficult” work of Whisson’s. I think anyone who paints, or likes to look at painting, can find a thrill in Whisson’s markmaking. The thrill comes from the risk — he paints without a safety net — there is very little overpainting or correction. Indeed, very like Chinese brush painting; but Whisson’s marks aren’t calligraphic, though maybe they are tele-graphic, more suggestive than descriptive. At its best it achieves the Zen effect of things coming together in exactly the right geometry, and the evidence of the paintmarks tell you at once of its abandon or effort. Whisson was expressionist, is surrealist, and is an action painter. Sometimes the actions just all fall into place, and you have to make a lot of mistakes to get there.

“To my mind it became, that one should never destroy a painting until a year afterwards, or better still two years afterward.” The guide told me that Whisson was well-known for editing — destroying — his pictures, his failures.

[Something I meant to say before, one of the most exciting aspects of Whisson’s pictures is how constantly contemporary they look. In the 60s, 70s and 80s, he was way ahead of the curve. Now he is merely right out in front. I think it’s something to do with his dramatic distortions, and the way the paint is applied in a seemingly casual manner, those “swipes of the brush” — there’s a hint of slacker (though of course that’s a retrospective term here), and the use of negative space — the “equivocal spaces.” A collector said something like: “He makes me feel like I’m in the 21st century.” I agree, he makes now look like the future.]

I find that I don’t like his figures much, especially the recent ones. (See Heide site for Group Photo with Big Bottle and Green Boat, 2010) I find them ugly, but that’s just me. And that’s okay in my book: Whisson doesn’t have to — and would never, anyway — paint to please an audience. It is the variety — much more than cars and sprawl, abstractions and “newspaper” collages — and the tremendous conviction of Whisson’s paintings which creates their salutary confrontation with the viewer. The artist stands and delivers. With a Whisson picture, you must react. With Whisson, you are always a live audience.

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Further thoughts (30/6/12)

On his figures: Whisson’s figures in the 70s — see Motor Car above — were angularly abstracted topped with the designs he called “faceshapes.” The more recent figures of the nineties and this century (here) are blobby tension-free masses. I much prefer the graphically funky early forms, their weirdness. And I like too the 60s figures, especially their distorted faces, as in Vegetative Man, above.

On his subjects: Whisson’s subject matter is the world; he will as likely make a picture out of domestic stuff like a teacup and vases and salt and pepper cellars and a book and spoon (below), as see a self-portrait in a tea towel (above) as try to visualise Adjectives and Present Participles (above, one of my favourite things).

On his consistency: His painterly moves are varied as you can see above, but at Heide there are two pictures hung one above the other, Recollections of a Train Journey in Northern Italy and Many Factories, Two Sheds and a Pale Motor Car. Seeing them the first time I assumed they had been painted in the same week: similar subject matter, palette and stylistics. Seeing them again I still couldn’t pick the earlier forom the later. Journey was painted in 1983, Many Factories in 1996. And Whisson keeps moving on.

Vertical Still Life, 8/7/06, 10/7/06, 9/8/07, 17/6/07

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