Ken Whisson Valley | ArtsHub Australia

In 2018 Australian critic John McDonald said of Ken Whisson’s work: ‘(he) takes all the elements of everyday life and rearranges them into oblique compositions in which figures and faces are not more prominent than plants, animals and inanimate objects.

What Whisson brought to Australian visual art over his 60+ year career was thoughtful, individual and has even been described as ‘uncompromising’. He left us an incredible legacy of works, and a creative spirit to guide many artists in their journey.

The shared memory of Whisson is that of an artist who constantly observes and constantly draws. He was prolific.

Artist Toni Warburton wrote on social media this week: “…every time I encountered a drawing or painting by Whisson, the composition danced across the wall to recalibrate my vision with its vitality, originality and peculiarity. Gratitude for Ken Whisson, his work and his legacy.

The Victorian-born artist died over the weekend at his home in Sydney. He was 95 years old.

Fellow painter and friend Joe Frost told ArtsHub: “Ken wasn’t sick. On the contrary, he painted fluently and conversed forcefully to the end. It seems he died suddenly, of old age… The last time I spoke to him was Wednesday, and he had a beautiful voice – painting and making plans to meet. Frost had exhibited alongside Whisson for many years as part of the artist camp with the Watters Gallery.

Art dealer Annette Larkin told ArtsHub: “His passing is the end of an era. He was the last living link to the history of Heide.

Whisson was a young contemporary of artists such as Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker, and immersed himself in the cultural and political effervescence of the 1940s – hence the connection to the Heide Museum of Modern Art.

“I think what we all love about Ken Whisson’s work is his completely original language, which derives neither from an acceptance nor a rejection of what might be said to be the preoccupation that many Australian artists had and have with our landscape,’ Larkin continued.

In a previous interview, former Heide manager Jason Smith said that Whisson viewed his life as an artist as very lonely from the start. “I think he thought of himself as an outsider because looking back to the 1930s or 1940s, there weren’t a lot of artists working, not like there are today, so he felt a little isolated from others.

Despite his love for expressionistic, fragmented abstraction – and an isolation described by Smith – Whisson never completely left reality behind. His images were things we knew and lived – simple subjects delivered in a kind of shorthand.

He used a heavy, bold brushstroke and wasn’t afraid to embrace color. Some even said that he “draws with paint”. Smith said of his work, “Whisson is a painter who continues to inspire a younger generation” and described his paintings as vivid and works that have not aged over time.

“I believe the reason for making art is that it gives the world, not just human beings, a deeper dimension, something closer to reality than we feel it must surely have, but doesn’t seem to have.”

Ken Whisson, 2002 (Source: As if, MCA)

Read: Vale Peter Powditch

Who was Ken Whisson?

Born in Lilydale, Victoria in 1927, Whisson studied at Swinburne Technical College between 1944 and 1945. But it was the tuition he received from Melbourne-born Russian Expressionist Danila Vassilieff that may have had the most profound impact on what was to shape Whisson’s idiosyncratic style.

Best known for his intuitive vocabulary of mark-making and composition—often taking sketchy abstraction and composing multiple views of the scene into one painting—he favored a small to medium scale. Simply, he lived to paint.

Among the many themes he explored throughout his career – which he often painted over and over again, refining his observations of the world – was a subtle message of humanity and landscape. Smith described him as “a political artist in disguise, I think because his politics are subtle”.

Whether painting a yard of abandoned cars, a degraded landscape, or animals, Whisson was always thinking beyond the surface of the image.

At the age of fifty, Whisson moved to Perugia, Italy in 1977, where he lived for three and a half decades. This move had a significant impact on his work. He loved the politics and joie de vivre of Italy, and this was a period that saw him move from paint on board to canvas – often leaving large areas of blank space. These works are preciously kept by collectors/collections.

He also began to introduce finer brushstrokes around this time, and by the 80s he became less reliant on flat color planes.

The cartography of an “artist’s artist”

Ken Whisson: As ifinstallation view, MCA, 2012. Image courtesy and © the artist

Whisson’s career was recognized most significantly in the 2012 Big Show, Ken Whisson: As if, at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne and at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, co-curated by Glenn Barkley and Lesley Harding. Together he purchased over 200 works from the early 1940s to 2011.

Critic John McDonald commented on the occasion of this survey: “Although they may seem clumsy and disarming, Whisson’s images settle somewhere in the back of the mind. With each viewing, they become more complex, more captivating. We finally understand Whisson’s awkwardness as a mask of his sophistication. It’s the complete antithesis of those highly skilled artists who use technique as a way to dazzle an audience and disguise their own superficiality.

There have been a number of smaller Whisson investigations, and his work has also been included in major exhibitions, such as: Paint. more paint exhibition at the Australian Center for Contemporary Art, Melbourne in 2016; Australia, Royal Academy of Arts, London (2013); Outside Australia: Prints and Drawings from Sidney Nolan to Rover Thomas, British Museum, London (2011); Making It New: Focus on Contemporary Australian Art, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney (2009); Aerial View: The Reconfiguration of Painting, Hayward Gallery, London (2005); Home Sweet Home: Works from the Peter Fay Collection, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (2004), among others.

And as the visual arts sector hosts the next editions of the Biennale of Adelaide and the Biennale of Sydney, it is important to remember Whisson’s inclusion in the 1981 Australian Perspective, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

His work is held in major public collections in Australia and overseas, including State Galleries of NSW, South Australia, Washington State, Queensland Art Gallery, NGV, Heide Museum of Modern Art, as well as the Center of Contemporary Art in Christchurch; Auckland Art Gallery; Te Papa Tangarewa, Museum of New Zealand, Wellington and National Gallery of Australia.

The last word is perhaps best spoken by critic John McDonald, who said when reviewing Whisson’s investigation: “Art is not a rule book or manual, but active involvement in life, a mode of inquiry that brings us closer to a more authentic vision”. of the world.’

Val Ken Whisson.

About Margaret L. Portillo

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