Whiting Tennis empathizes with his surroundings. His propensity for cataloging objects rendered soft by neglect and disuse engages him in the generative process of translating their representation into personal, shareable projections. Like Don Quixote, Whiting peoples his singular cosmos with characters born of interplay between inert materials and his imagination.
A show of these works presents a storehouse of material that refers directly to its points of origin: backyards, gardens, alleyways and outer-urban roadside landscapes. Each work also belongs to a narrative in which it is cast as a protagonist bearing the malaise of stigmatized personhood.
Often camouflaged at the world’s margins, the objects under Whiting’s scrutiny are easy to miss. He tells an anecdote about stopping short on a walk through the city to converse with a tin can. It has been crushed, stepped on. “You and Me,” he quips. Veering onto the shoulder of a stretch of highway, Whiting bounds out to an abandoned piggyback trailer about a hundred yards from the road. His gestures suggest a person-to-person introduction. Attentive to the trailer’s space without rescinding familiarity, he complements its originating influence. For Whiting, roads are paved hallways that traverse whole museums of significance: from tin cans to trailers, from bunkers to barns. (It can be unnerving as a passenger.)
Spare building materials compose his sculptures: reclaimed plywood, weathered shake and shingle, canvas, tarp, steel wire and string, nails and rivets. More or less human in scale, Whiting assembles structurally complex, balanced contraptions that border on architecture but function instead as unassuming morphological presences. Their hue is essentially uniform, as weather-beaten rural and suburban improvisation goes; in some cases the whole business is slathered in monochrome. Whiting’s paintings are similarly built-up facades of either woodblock-printed textures onto newsprint or thickly brushed hatchings and fades of oil paint. Diagramming planes and hardware with a practical, structural logic, he freezes his subjects like portraits in moments between their firmest cohesion and their most vulnerable. Whiting’s wall sculptures further realize the diagrams. The Nevelson-esque “Airport,” a white, wall mounted slab gridded-out in a succession of pocket architectural tableaus in relief, traces an ungrounded trajectory through space. Smaller studies like “Ghost” and “Donkey” sever objects' moorings in any real or simulated space. Echoing Cubist concerns with visual distortion in representation, the wall sculptures synthesize painting and sculpture onto one skewed plane. Extracted from the larger narratives to which his work tends, each of Whiting’s studies is an analytic exercise in decision-making, dimensionality and the evasive resolution of abstract and literal modes of perception.
Whiting engineers a kind of dilapidated-baroque. His irruptive figurations, usually modeled after animals and marginally subverted literary tropes, manage to radiate icon-like significance despite their awkward edifices. In 1957, Flannery O’Connor remarked of the grotesque character-type in Southern fiction, “it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.”
In some of Whiting’s earlier sculptures, occasional latches or drawer pulls invited viewers to search a work’s interior, often revealing bare compartments. Whiting’s assemblages demand a kind of self-assessment by provoking expectations as to their utility. Human identity depends on this kind of use-value. Purportedly hard-won claims to style, manner, vocation and ideology are so many cobbled together skins drawn over a receptacle that awaits self-affirming gifts from without. In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard devotes a chapter to the psychology of furniture interiors, “Wardrobes with their shelves, desks with their drawers, and chests with their false bottoms are veritable organs of the secret psychological life. Indeed, without these ‘objects’…our intimate life would lack a model of intimacy. They are hybrid objects, subject objects.” Whiting scaffolds a gap between the perceptual uniformity of the human shell and the diverse grounds of deep judgments and deeper desires.
Whiting Tennis has little concern for archival materials. Newsprint, cardboard and sometimes spray paint are his essentials. Permanence lies at the whims of an elemental time. His sculptures, in all states of completion – framed as such they never are complete - litter his Greenwood property, soaking in rain that hairs and warps the wood grain; the surfaces build up mottled patinas of grit and rust. “We don’t last, and we discolor,” replies architect John Hejduk to a rebuke for using “one coat of rubber cement” on “the pasted in elements” of his sketchbooks. Whiting’s move to still life painting seems a natural progression for an artist who isn’t particularly rattled by rot and collapse. In his submission to degradation Whiting squeezes out the hyperbole of natura morta (literally, dead nature), breeding mute zombies not just from the tabletop, but from houses, wheelbarrows and tree stumps as well. The painting, “Go Seahawks. New Menus,” unfortunately not on view, frames both a restaurant reader board -lacking a complete set of black letters - and the quiet sadness of phoning in team spirit for more business. One could argue that Whiting only makes still life.
If it seems that in the present treatment thus far Whiting is just a depressive, it is because I have omitted that he finds his attraction to infirmity rather hilarious. The reader of Don Quixote, if their imagination is close to par with that of the protagonist, casts sickness in doubt in order to grasp the sensibility (read: the fun) of invoking the imagination’s ability to reverse the path of vision. A mythic “Triclops,” one of the centerpieces of Whiting’s new show is an absurd and hilariously invasive aesthetic move. A three-sided white ovoid column, looming like a sentinel, observes the entirety of the gallery. A cynic would presuppose its judgment; but perhaps it is just curious. Like the “Bovine” of Whiting's last show, a full-scale replica of a trailer replete with homespun ornament and the indices of habitation, its programs remain inaudible. Observations tend to follow causal trajectories that evade empirical fact; the true face of chaotic reality gets obscured by disbelief in what is magically, ineffably present. It is in the interstices of an irreconcilable stereoscopic flicker that a more “rational” world is spotted: an angelic monster, fractured and patched-together in places, who just wants to be our friend.
Written by D.W. Burnam