David Kim Whittaker’s current exhibition THE FLESH TO THE FRAME reveals a powerful vortex of chaos and harmony. Presented in two parts In the Existence is currently on display in London and The Primal Vortex will follow later in the month in Paris. Within these displays more than forty oil and acrylic works, many of which are based around an interpretation of the human head and its metaphysical core, present imposing and nuanced portraits that contain countless elements to explore.
In 2011 Whittaker was the recipient of the prestigious Towry Award (First Prize) at the National Open Art Competition. He has since been described in The Independent as “a mash-up of John Constable and Francis Bacon.” One of the most striking elements of Whittaker’s work is the combination of delicately painted detailed images often of people or landscapes, with the gestural and primal strokes subsequently applied, emphasising the duel states often present within the work.
The dual states present in the work evoke and reference the multiplicity of life; full of both calm and conflict, strength and fragility, as Whittaker comments “You only have to remove a few layers before you find the horrific smiling back at the beautiful.” These portraits could be read as utopian or dystopian, but as in life they appear to present the viewer with both. These universal states of conflict jostling for supremacy are arguably reinforced by Whittaker’s gender dysphoria, a condition that he/she has learned to live with and ultimately embrace rather than suppress, partly through expressing something bigger than oneself through creating art.
Artworks arguably have their own life when completed and Whittaker’s work is no acceptation, bursting with imagery and feeling each piece needs to be returned to again and again to unpack. Full of both historical and contemporary references Whittaker manages to draw attention to current affairs, as well as engage with the universal questions of reality, mind, and embodiment.
I had the chance to speak to David about the work and delve deeper into the process behind them.
Your work in both this exhibition and generally often focuses on the upper part of the human body – what is it about the face, neck and head that compels you?
The head is the centre of the psyche. I guess my paintings follow in the tradition of portraiture. I have always tried to express something powerful that expresses the human experience within the world that we live in, and have always lived in.
In your triptych, The Lament (2016), the stare of Mary Magdalene is particularly powerful – eye contact tends to provide the immediate point of contact with another person, how important is this connective element within your work?
It’s incidental. It was not my intention for the portrait to be seen as Mary Magdalene, but then these things go out there, and it is a journey – if not the journeys beginning, it is where it gathers steam.
Within your work there appears to be a jostling between two states – how do you perceive the relationship that takes place between these opposites?
I guess the answers lie there on the canvas. We have a foot in the past, one in the future, and our body sits in the present. At the centre of the micro and macro, somewhere between life and death. It’s all a muddle, perhaps with a plan underpinning it all somewhere.
You have mentioned feeling fused in the state of male and female between the two genders when working – to what extent does gender identity inform your work?
They are my paintings, so I guess it is in there. I don’t leave anything out, but I also don’t give it too much thought. Even in conception the paintings balance the mind, the body and the soul. I’m just in the middle.
Among the various themes that feature in your work, allusions to the crucifixion often take place – what in particular draws you to this symbol?
I’ve been fascinated by the imagery since childhood. I find it extraordinary and powerful. The Flesh to The Frame. I guess my own life has bought with it an element of sacrifice and suffering. It is a strong and noble image.
Your use of both water-based and oil paint in your work is very interesting, particularly the different roles which they play – can you say more about how you use each medium?
The acrylic is the laying down of structure, and thought. It underpins everything. It’s a delicate stage, romantic and patient. I guess people might see this as the feminine side, it appears that way, in actual fact; I see this as the quiet man I was. Then the oil comes in, this process is more visceral and expressive, often erotic and violent. Again, people may see this as a traditionally male voice, however for me, this is the woman, bursting on to the scene. The reality of this is intuitive I guess, but it is interesting to examine. I suppose my circumstances are quite particular. I don’t really know any different.
The combination of detailed portraits of people and landscapes accompanied by the surrounding swirling, abstract, gestural brush marks is captivating – how do you conceive of this relationship?
It is what it is. I’m not a conceptual artist, I just try to show how I feel about the world. All things relate. All things are interconnected.
In this exhibition, there is often the inclusion of an oval gold-rimmed frame, at times numerous frames either whole or fragmented – can you elaborate on the significance of this?
I think the cameo relates to home. A deep-rooted place of comfort. The brooch on Nans jumper, the picture on the tea room wall.
The initial starting point for each work appears to be these varied detailed images whether in a painted frame or not – where does your inspiration come from and how do you process all these universal events?
I guess these are often romantic, utopian places. I haven’t necessarily been to these places. More often not. Often, they contain a man-made element. Mankind working to their full positive potential. Perhaps this has become a nostalgic notion. Also, these areas can be inspired by or fired up by current events in papers or magazines, or inspired by a new album that I’m playing whilst I work.
For all the talk about mind and body as disparate or united, throughout your work there always seems to be an emotional core that captivates the viewer – how important is it for you to have that emotional connection take place?
I’m not sure. I don’t necessarily strive for that particular aspect, but I am connected to the works that I make. Deeply. I birth them. The internal landscapes are not necessarily places I have visited. But I have travelled to them internally, and through making the works I also travel to them I guess. It’s not about my connection to a particular place. These are universal places. Places of positivity and hope. Where mankind was connected to the landscape and making a positive impact on our surroundings. A utopian idea maybe, when we live in a time where so much of our impact is destructive.
I hope that my works offer the truth. Show that chaos of the universe. The chaos within ourselves, but also our potential. A little burning light of positive potential flickering within the storm.
By Harry Dougall
THE FLESH TO THE FRAME is on view at Opera Gallery London 134 New Bond Street from 2nd October and at Opera Gallery Paris Rue du faubourg Saint-Honoré from 26th October 2017