MARK WHALEN

 

Mark Whalen, “Edits”

 

 

September 12 - October 3, 2015 at KP Projects, Miracle Mile

by G. James Daichent

 

Stylized black and white figures meander and live within pink, teal and purple geometric landscapes that are reminiscent of virtual reality due to a limited palette and calculated placement. Whether it’s paint, ink, or ceramic, the aesthetic of Mark Whalen is consistent and refined. Details should not come as a surprise, since the artist carefully constructs these visual experiments like a mathematician. The end result witnesses figures enacting in a variety of painful and/or gleeful actions. Recognizable human acts are given just enough distance from real life so as to keep us at an observer’s remove.

 

 

 

Mark Whalen, “Edits,” 2015, acrylic, ink and gouache on panel with resin, 13 x 17”.

 

 

The grids that make up most of the backdrops are organized but their particular type of order is imprecise. Pieces like “Keeping Balance” and “Rooms, Rooms, Rooms” take place in a flood of pattern that seems familiar because of the shapes and implied gravity. Yet the space is disorientingly unnatural and unpredictable in most of the imagery.

 

Originating from Sydney, Australia and trained in graphic design, Whalen’s compositions appear highly influenced by this training. They lack formal expression but instead are layered with social issues that are rooted in the human condition. Whalen acknowledges that he enjoys the problem solving process because of the spontaneity and surprises that come from such explorations. Much like social experiments, the contemporary sea monkeys featured in his aesthetic laboratory run the gamut of emotional turmoil from romantic discourse to violent deaths.

 

In “Geometric Support,” a lone figure on his hands and knees holds up a small sign that displays simple geometric markings. Behind a barrier, five rows of figures facing the opposite direction hold similar yet distinct signage that also partially obstructs their faces. The diametrically opposed directions and body language cast the lone figure as struggling and vulnerable against a harsh conformist atmosphere. In this cold and ordered world, our emotions are stirred and sympathy abounds for the lone figure.

 

At first glance, many of Whalen’s compositions are overwhelming because of the abundance of contrasting images and colors. Nine white decagons float on a blue landscape that is oddly tilted in “Edits.” Three pink columns descend from the heavens and plant themselves along this landscape, creating an implied depth of space in which his cast of characters interact. This dizzying landscape delivers a visual jolt. The abundance of shapes and electric color camouflage the small details that are unearthed with patient viewing.

 

The human condition is not promising in “Edits,” as it features a group of black figures holding down a few white figures on massive paper cutters that are the equivalent to guillotines. Writhing in the pain, severed limbs of a few characters lay motionless with small drips of red blood that ooze from the open wounds. These devious acts appear deceptively playful at a distance. Issues of race, power, and ethics come rushing to the surface of this piece while the black figures carry out their chores in a nonchalant manner.

 

Reflecting on Whalen, it’s as if the fantastical 15th century painter Hieronymus Bosch was reincarnated for the digital age. Like Bosch, Whalen depicts a controlled yet anarchic setting that delights the eye while repulsing our moral sensibility. Whalen’s bizarre figures drive numerous micro narratives and it’s through their cumulative subtle and not so subtle actions that this world of paradoxes comes together.

 

Whalen’s work also draws similarities to Cleon Peterson and his use of black and white figures that fall into barbaric acts of violence. Each of these artists falls back upon a common aesthetic device (the stylized figure) to drive their respective compositions. This strategy makes their work easily identifiable, but Whalen’s visual grammar offers richer potential because it extends the narrative beyond conflict. His layered and textured imagery adds complexity and nuance to these relationships.

 

Whalen’s formal strength is his ability to use pattern to manipulate space and create ambiguous locations that are neither here nor there. The figures float in these spaces, but not randomly, so the characters interact and play out normal as well as irregular human acts. As this imagery begins to spread to sculptural media, it further complicates Whalen’s world, and formal challenge, to extend it into our shared physical space, closing a gap between us and an alternate universe that was once kept at a safe distance.