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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Brett Whiteley

Lavender Bay, 1975-76, Brett Whiteley--as close to a self-portrait as he gets. 
Writers and critics take it as their sworn duty to categorize artists. I mean, what would we do to give structure and meaning to all the art which has been created down through the centuries if it were not organized in some way. Art historians, being historians, tend to go first for chronology, their most natural instinct. That works relatively well in dealing with ancient art--that which has been created up until the past couple hundred years. At that point, art begins to fragment into movements that are simultaneous and quite different, sometimes even opposite. Chronology alone is inadequate, so we give the movements names and categorize their artists accordingly. But starting mostly in the 20th century, even that practice begins to fall apart. There were just too many movements and too many important artists involved in them. So, when that fails, those who worry about such stuff tend to fall back on the artists' nationality. It's a horrible habit, if for no other reason that it evokes all manner of inaccurate ethnic, national, and even racial stereotypes. American artists do not all paint alike, or even share a common background. Even if the nation is relatively small and homogeneous, the ice upon which such writers skate can still become dangerously thin. England, for instance, is small, its people not nearly as diverse as those on the North American continent, yet the diversity of its art rivals that of any country on earth.

The Wall, 1956, Brett Whiteley--he was seventeen at the time.
Today I'm going to put on my skates and venture out onto the analogical "thin ice" of discussing an Australian artist--Brett Whiteley. Why? Because with an artist such as Whiteley, no other means of categorization least not any more aptly than the nationalistic term, Australian. Sure, he's mid-20th century--born in 1939, died in 1992. And, his teenage work bears traces of Abstract Expressionism, though he was literally "born too late" to be considered part of that movement. He's probably resent such a categorization in any case. By the same token, there's nothing Postmodern about his mostly figural and facial distortions, often going well beyond the grotesque. In short, Brett Whiteley fits in no traditional (or nontraditional) category except for the fact he was Australian. This is a first for me. I've never written about an Australian artist before. And if my guess is right, you've never read about an Australian artist before either.

Brett Whiteley's home studio/museum, Surry Hills, Australia
Where he painted...
Where he slept--the man lived in his warehouse studio.
If you want a self-portrait of Brett Whiteley, ignore his Lavender Bay (top). It's mostly about his studio and here, given Whiteley's style, the photos (above) are more telling. I suppose it's true that you can tell a lot about any artist by seeing his or her studio, but especially so in Whiteley's case. It's obvious he lived art. And short of a visit to his memorializing home/studio/gallery in a warehouse, open to the public in Surry Hills, Australia (an inner suburb of Sidney), the photos of his working and living space paint a picture of his mind, if not his face. 

The Olgas, 1985, Brett Whiteley--an Australian sexual landscape, goes for $3.5-million.
I don't know that there is anything distinctly Australian in Australian art (other than the landscape), but that's certainly the case with Whiteley's art, which makes any attempt to label him mostly an academic exercise. His 1985 The Olgas (above), is a rare exception (which may account for its record-setting price at auction). He's seldom non-representational but sometimes he comes close. As the photo of his easel indicates, he had a tendency to slop paint around. His paintings reflect this too, though it's never uncontrolled. He had a rancid sense of humor--warped and cunning. His time in New York during the late 1960s taught him to paint large, like an American. His time in London in the early 60s invested (some might say, infested) his work with a British irreverence that can be as charming as it is maddening. If I were to characterize his work as a whole, I'd call it: Salvador Dali on drugs.

Whiteley faces.
There is a Dali-esque surrealism, but one never flirting with believability--the druggie element. Dali distorted. Whiteley distorted distortions. His female nudes are cartoonishly voluptuous but never erotic even though bordering on the pornographic at times. And his faces...the man could capture a likeness as well as any portrait artist, but the person behind the face seems always more important than the eyes, nose, and mouth. The drugs I mentioned were not just a figurative reference. As the years passed, the appearance in paint of a drugged-out artist became all too literal. On June 15, 1992, Brett Whiteley was found dead in a hotel room of a heroin overdoes. He was 53.

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