News & Commentary, Visual Arts

Whisson of Oz, the Great and Powerful

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The painter P.B. looked at my iPhone sketch and murmured, ‘Ken Whisson!’
I’d made the little drawing at the opening of Whisson’s show at Niagara Galleries in Melbourne. I had gone just to see if Whisson was visiting from Italy where he lives, and to check out if he was well and kicking.
Whisson is short, about 5’5″ in the old measure — and was chatting away, dressed in pale and natty, vaguely 70s gear, with a knotted cravat and the strap of his red bag like an official sash, looking as if he had just been bestowed the Legion of Honour. His moustache and grand nose doing aCharles de Gaulle.
Much more cheerful than his self-portrait: Tea Towel Hanging in the Bathroom Becomes Self Portrait. Tea Towel 1. 3/6/98, 4/6/98.

I wrote up Whisson’s 2012 retrospective at Heide, As If. Now at 85, he is painting away without missing a beat, still translating the world into his personal language of shapes and colour and alignments — jolts and reminders not to take our strange world so for granted. (Images at Niagara.)
The reason he is often called a “painter’s painter” is — shamelessly, unapologetically — elitist. It’s like attending to Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue or Beckett’s Not I, and more or less any contemporary poetry. It takes a bit of work to go there and stay there. (And, just sometimes, it’s worth the bother.)
Table and outback faces, 23/8/14 & 24/8/14

Sweet dreams and woolly dog, 17/5/09 & 12/7/09 & 3/4/12

Whisson’s distinctive and wraith-like figures lie horizontal in Sweet dreams and woolly dog, his scratchy ink lines doing that secretly difficult thing of seeming entirely casual and artless — childlike, unschooled — but at the same time being utterly sophisticated and composed. But the sleepers don’t look like to me they are having sweet dreams. What excites me about this drawing is — its sense of freedom: from the constraints of expectations, theories, labels, aesthetics. It is a necessary scribble.
What I love about Table and outback faces: how did he make a picture that tells you about his landscape and the season’s light with mere scrawls of paint? The sheer nerve! His optic nerve! At which point one must recede into pure opinion, and say that Ken Whisson is our greatest living painter.
His only rival might be Gareth Sansom, but that’s a whole other jungle story.
[box] Ken Whisson is at Niagara Galleries, Richmond until October 25.[/box]

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