February 3–March 3
WORDS Noah Saterstrom
Harry Whitver’s second exhibition of abstract paintings at abrasiveMedia, Allusion and Analogue, opens on February 3 amidst the First Saturday crush in Wedgewood-Houston, bringing his particular amalgam of creative and commercial to the monthly art crawl.
For decades, Whitver has been an accomplished trade designer specializing in technical, airbrush, and expository illustrations. All those years of handling a brush and pen are evident in these abstractions, different though their intentions may be from those of technical renderings.
Whitver’s marks are confident and familiar, as if a descriptive line left the Design building to visit the Art building. The paintings appear trustworthy and competent and challenge the eye to find something recognizable from the “real” world that will help the brain decipher what these precise colors and urgently chiseled marks are rendered to say. The artist refers to the “distinct graphic signature” in these pieces, and in some works, there is a clear reference, such as a landscape. Others are non-objective: all color and shape and shimmery movements.
Arguably, Whitver’s show should be seen on its own merits, without the viewers’ foreknowledge of the artist’s lineage. However, I find myself speculating about the presence of his decades as a designer apparent in these images. I think: How are technical illustration and abstract painting alike? Or different? Are they opposites? Or siblings? In the work of a technical illustrator—work that necessitates, say, highly detailed cutaways of machinery—gestural improvisation is not welcome. Things need to be exact; no wandering off script. Variance is not only undesirable but treacherous. Precise visual description is required while painterly self-expression is shown the door. Some of that rigid specificity is visible in these canvases. Commercial design projects involve stakeholders, clients, and investors, who need to see the images in stages of development and to understand the finished paintings. But get a group of abstract painters together and conversations about understandability don’t really come up.
There is an odd sharp, urgent quality to Whitver’s paintings; viewing them is like listening to someone having a conversation in a new language. He is already fluent in the language of precise and illustrative image-making—the visual idiom most like the way words are used for their descriptive power. But switching dialects so dramatically as to begin using paint more for its poetic peculiarities leaves the result almost rendered as though painted with an accent. The descriptive line is still present: There is a repeating arcing motion and parallel lines at a certain angle, which appear practiced, even unconscious. Other aspects are halting or meandering, and the effect is a bit like watching a pianist play the trumpet or a tennis player shoot pool. The fundamentals are understood, some gestures even carry over; but mastery has been (happily and intentionally) traded for the playful unknown.
For the commercial designer, the vast majority of choices are made by the client and the scope of the project. Accomplished illustrators are able to let individuality come through even as they are in service of the client, but opportunities for self-expression are purposefully limited. In abstraction, self-expression is primary. Decisions are made not by a client, but by the artist’s own temperament, influences, impulses—all those murky indescribables. Simply put, it’s easy to tell if an illustration of a machine part is right or wrong; it’s not so straightforward with abstraction.
Whitver shared that when he retired from his illustration career he regrettably lost his critical community. From 1979 to his retirement, he worked in a room of other artists who shared ideas, praise, and analysis. They were on the same team, pointed in the same direction, helping each other make better images. But studio artists are often on their own, with their own motivations, changing direction suddenly. As Willem de Kooning said when the art world turned on Philip Guston when he returned to painting figures in a time of vehement abstraction: “What do they think, that we are all on a baseball team? Art is about freedom.” Amen. But sometimes freedom is disorienting.
“When there’s a linear process, you know where you are,” says Whitver. He describes creating illustrations for such clients as the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and National Geographic in a way that sounds almost relaxing. The trajectory is, and needs to be, predictable. The clients, the concept, the research, the development of an image, the revisions, the delivery of the final product. All the elements are controlled and understandable. After decades, those constraints become, in their own way, liberating.
But the abstract painter decides while the process is underway, not only what is being made, but how to make what is being made. Not only that, both the how and the what are fluid and changeable. Of his current studio practice, Whitver says, “Working this way is not scary, but it is disorienting.”
Is voluntary disorientation the same joyful curiosity that makes you want to travel, pick up a new instrument, try a new restaurant, learn a new language, move to a new town? This show of medium-scale oils on canvas looks like the work of an artist who is following that impulse. Or in the artist’s own words: “A guy having a hell of a good time doing abstract paintings.” Amen.
Allusion and Analogue: Painting as Exploration opens at abrasiveMedia on February 3 during Arts & Music @ Wedgewood/Houston. A closing reception is slated for March 3, and after that the show will be on view for private showings until March 16. For more information, visit www.abrasivemedia.org. See more of Whitver’s work at www.whitver.com.