Ken Whisson: As If

The art of Ken Whisson is understated yet momentous. By rejecting classification of any particular movement, Whisson deliberately avoids being in the spotlight. Instead he focuses on the core essence of making art, of creating work that is raw and honest – a rarely seen approach in today’s art world. With a career that spans more than sixty years, he is one of Australia’s most influential living painters.

Whisson leads a non-conformist life, evidenced in his art. Stylistically, his paintings disregard formulaic techniques and traditional conventions of composition. He succeeds in being simultaneously abstract and figurative, even within a single painting. Combining tight and loose line work within both solid and fluid spatial dimensions, his paintings portray experience or memory rather than direct representation. His relaxed and expressive line work leads viewers through multiple perspectives of time and space, quite differently to other painters of his time.

These contradictions are unified by themes and subject matter that persist through Whisson’s practice. Portraying an honest view of his visible world, his paintings render industrial, suburban and natural landscape, figures and personalities and mechanics of travel and transport of his immediate surroundings. Cars, planes and boats are recurring motifs and express an uncertainty in between familiar grounds.

The paintings incorporate an atypical notion of time passing. Scenes are expressed as though a mapping of time or memory. In some cases different perspectives are drawn over one another; in others, he assembles separate images in the one canvas, indicating a narrative or sequence of events. These disjointed perspectives blend into one and conjure a sense of experience, allowing the viewer to fleetingly encounter his experienced relationships to people and places, both physically and psychologically.

Commonly depicted ‘faceshapes’, as in Boat and Faceshapes (1974), are one of Whisson’s transformative motifs. In more abstract pieces, such as Near the Reservior or Turin and Gdansk (10/10/80, 4/3/81), these shapes change from faces to objects to symbols, and consequentially the paintings, too, change meaning over time. In some cases, this duration of time is reflected in their creation – with months or years passing between working on the piece.

Abstract symbols appear again with concern to political agendas. Using both visual elements and the words of his titles, Whisson incorporates a broader view of global, political events through his own perspective. In the From the Newspapers series, made between 1998 and 2006, although generally opposed to mass media, he refers to it in a way which portrays evolving technology and its cultural and personal ramifications, by giving us only enough detail to fill the rest of the narrative with our own beliefs.

‘As If’, curated by Glenn Barkley and Lesley Harding and shown at both Heidi Museum and the MCA, is an important exhibition showcasing the art and life of one of Australia’s most significant and prolific painters. Whisson bridges the gap between abstraction and the figurative and in doing so, manages to capture the space between what is thought and what is seen, and express this in a way that we translate in our own terms – an incredible feat for an artist.

Museum of Contemporary Art
September 28 to November 25, 2012

The Palm-Wine Drinkard, 5/8/02, 19/2/03, oil on linen, 119.5 x 80cm

Traveller’s Tale, 1982, oil on canvas, 79.7 x 119.5cm

Post-abstract Jeu d’Esprit, 2/3/10,  20/12/10, oil on linen, 111 x 120cm

Courtesy the artist, Watters Gallery, Sydney;
James and Jacqui Erskine Collection, Sydney;
Newcastle Art Gallery, NSW; and Robin Greer Collection, Brisbane.