The only thoughts in which we truly believe are conceived not in the mind, but in the body: a statement I trust remains faithful to the work of artist David Whittaker since his diagnosis of Gender Dysphoria.
Whittaker’s work has often been described as treading a tight rope between an internal state of calm and conflict — two emotions of which manifest very physically, escaping the ambiguity of many other abstract sensations. One of the many treasures of artistic expression is in the way it is used to explore the subconscious and one’s identity, a pursuit that has a priority for David in his growth as an artist from a self-taught highly creative child until today.
“I can remember doing my art when I was a very, very young child. I had a massive collection of bird drawings which I displayed all over my bedroom walls. But I think it all started when I saw a print that my parents owned by John Constable, it was of the Hay Wain. Something about that print made me very aware of art and technique. So when I left school, I started to mess around with oils and other kinds of mediums, just to play around with them for myself. A lot of it was self taught and my skills were developed from a very basic level. I did go on to develop my work from looking at books, taking on suggestions from others on looking into the work of certain artists, and visiting galleries with friends. On one visit in particular, I can remember a fuse being struck by the image of Graham Sutherland’s Crucifixion.”
“Something about the way that Graham Sutherland had painted it really appealed to me. He left the path of very traditional areas that artists at the time had been stuck in for a long while, and it really struck a cord for me.” A brief mental revert to the image recalls the raw claw-like hands, the protruding ribcage the deformed shins of Christ hung, a depiction many have interpreted as Sutherland’s attempt to capture an alternative truth- a trait I have also always very much associated with Whittaker. And while some are called to the arts by way of a detour, for David, it was always innate “It was purely because I had to make art. It was in my blood.”
Though the themes have remained fairly consistent, David explains his work has evolved in approach. “My work is now built around families of work, or bodies of work as they’re called. Certain families of work inspire other families of work. I have lots of different idea-areas that I dip into now and then while working with different mediums, but they all look at the human form. The ideas behind my work have continued to stem from the human form for a long time now.” Though the human form may not always be synonymous with words like “powerful,” “balanced,” and “alluring,” Whittaker’s portrayal refers viewers to a visual language that brings this insight to mind. His aesthetic delicacy borders on the poetic but is never plainly pleasing. His ability to shift from one medium to the next without getting lost in translation, is admirable.
Whittaker’s canvases often tell a story of unveiling and unmasking. The inspection evident in the recurring human heads and the portals to which they open begs the question of whether David casts himself as the embodiment of these openings, or whether he is peering ruefully into his own future. And his opinion on these heads having been interpreted s as self portraits? “I’m fine with that.” He tells me. “Someone did ask me a while ago ‘do you not think that they’re all just self portraits?’ In fact they used the word tortured. So tortured self portraits. It might be so, there is in every picture a mirror reflection of me.”
“But there is also a surge of all the energy in the living and the environment that surrounds me.” He explains. “We’re so bombarded by news and music and a constant rain of information, especially in the modern world.” He cites the external as just as much of an influence as the internal. “Theres a kind of marriage going on with the calm, and the very violent chaotic. But often it starts with words with me. I wouldn’t call it writing, but there is definitely a fuel in all the odd notes I make for titles. Titles often fuel the whole energy of my creative process.”
One of the most difficult tasks within the creative process of an artist lies in the conclusion of a filled canvas, at what point within the process of painting does one begin to feel like the piece is complete? “You always somehow know when to stop and when to pull away. I do feel I am lucky in the respect that I can just stop, and pull away, just at the right time. But even after, you’re always living with a burden of what you’ve created because you now know there is something existing in the world that has been born from you. There is nothing you can do but watch it and observe it.”
“Some pieces I find myself very excited about because I know they will fuel something else. But others, I almost have to make peace with and let be. They are what they are, but maybe their next brother or sister might be a little bit stronger. You’re always pushing yourself as hard as you can.
This is the first instance in which David has referred tenderly to the families of work as brother and sister. A point during our conversation that causes me to divert from my previously planned questions. The soft use of light and delicate colour palette bring an uncanny sense of premature nostalgia to his images, I begin to wonder if personal history marks a point in his practice. “I think it’s come and gone for quite a long time now with the gender conflict. Maybe I wasn’t really aware of it in the past, but now I am very aware of it.”
“It’s deeply comforting to feel like I understand myself. I didn’t before, and I didn’t know how to. But it’s been a journey, I can’t look back because the journey needs to carry on.”
“Many artists hit their prime form in their 50’s or 60’s, so in a way, my engines are still warming and I’m still testing them. But I think the future holds some very promising possibilities for what I’m trying to investigate with my work based on my journey. I’m searching for something really beautiful, something powerful and moving that goes beyond the photo, beyond the film and beyond the video.”
“I think the people who engage with my work really do love it. It tugs on strings that live very deep within certain individuals and from that place they learn something new. I find that women get very emotional around my work. They often cry, especially when visiting the studio and meeting me in person. They see pain, maybe in me, maybe in my work – and they feel not pity, but empathy. They pick up on a distress that’s innately feminine. It’s not important for me to feel understood in the world we live in today. As long as I am happy in myself and with my journey then that’s all that matters. You can’t entertain it any other way, you have to follow your truest path, no matter how rocky it may be. If people understand, then they understand, and if they don’t, well they don’t. And that’s it.”
David Whittaker’s solo exhibition Glimpse presented by Beautiful Crime opens from April 15th at Gallery Different 14 Percy Street, London W1T 1DR.
David Whittaker was speaking exclusively with Arts Editor Luciana Garbarni. – @LucPierra