Richard Whitten’s paintings are provoking. They refuse to act entirely like paintings but are exceedingly not sculpture. They baffle you with titles in French, German, and Italian, optical illusions, and spatial inconsistencies rendered with mathematical precision. Most of all, they insist that you look and look again: at their craft (meticulous) and their art (sophisticated).
Ranging from the petite – chocolate-box size – to the magisterial – private-altarpiece size – they are painted in oil on wood panel. The wood panels never submit to mere rectangularity, however, sprouting exuberantly into the peaks of a jester’s cap (“Jongleur (Juggler),” 2005) or unfolding, like reverse origami, into a complex star (“Double Carré,” 2013). The shapes often add an extra layer to the conceit of each painting, such as in the trefoil shape evoking lilypads in “Les Nymphéas (Lilypads)” (2005) or overlapping discs that seem about to revolve around each other like gears in “Orologio (Clock)” (2005). Sometimes the mood of the support is different, more triste than tricksy, suggesting an early Renaissance carved altarpiece-as-butterfly that has forgotten how to grow its wings (“Campanile,” 1996; “Wunderkammer,” 2013).
No matter the shape, the paint is in on the game. The panels themselves are entirely flat; despite the powerful illusion to the contrary, the frames within and surrounding them are all fictive. The prominent fold in “Double Carré” that seems to tease you into pressing it flat is already flat. White balls with red or blue stripes erupt prominently from the picture plane, resting on the intricately painted decorative flat surfaces (in “Les Nymphéas,” you’ll find frogs), sometimes overlapping the internal frames. These balls are perhaps the chief provocation. Why do they not roll off? Velcro? Not likely when everything is so smooth. Is the painting somehow lying flat even though it is hanging vertically on the wall? No, dummy. You’re looking at an illusionistic game, and the balls – the ur toy – are the reminder.
As much as the paint builds volume into our space, it also opens the surface into surprising depths, effected through perspectival recession and interplays of extreme shifts in value (“Wunderkammer”) among saturated colors. The pseudo-frames are frequently rendered in an agitated mottled red-black; the depths are where you find a glassy smoothness and an array of jewel-like blues. Yet the depths only tease. They encourage the sense of release gotten by the eye gazing into infinity, the sensation gained by looking at, for instance, the architectural fancies of the sixteenth-century Netherlandish painter Hans Vredeman de Vries, but then we are brought up short by darkened doorways and culs-de-sac. The effect is like the confusion of a dream: the sense of certainty just out of grasp. (The artist’s statement reveals that these spaces often come to him in dreams.)
Whitten’s recent work continues his ludic theme more overtly, introducing toy imagery into the paintings, such as in “Cacchia (Chase)” (2012). Here the view into a darkened architectural space is partially blocked by a toy sitting on the sill of the inner frame. It consists of an elegant four-legged pedestal surmounted by a raised square pad. On the pad, a large disc-shaped cat icon tips to the left, apparently at the outer edge of a rocking trajectory counterbalanced by a smaller mouse icon that swings on a curved wire out below the pedestal. The movement evoked by the stilled tipping literalizes the cat-and-mouse game, with the toy serving the same role as the red-striped balls in the earlier works. The further trick is that the toys in the paintings (not only in “Cacchia” but also several others) actually exist (e.g.,“Mechanism for Measuring Wind Velocity in Paintings I,” 2013), constructed by Whitten and, given their virtuosity, a workshop of magical elves. The objects appear in the gallery like progeny from the panels or perhaps escapees from a Victorian nursery. These raise questions of causality: were they made for the paintings or vice versa?
If we suppose the latter, these objects feel like a bit of clever merchandising from a film franchise. Indeed, they play on the same human desire: to hold in your hand something solid that you previously only appreciated as virtual. They create a sense of childlike triumph that what you had to accept as a fiction can really come to be. Yet as you reach for them, your hand falters. They are like your older sibling’s toys: mustn’t touch or you might break them. Better just to gaze in wonder.
Richard Whitten’s paintings and sculptures are on view at Dedee Shattuck Gallery (1 Partner’s Lane, Westport, MA) through September 28.