Richard Whitten’s Functional Fantasy
The structured narratives and toy-like replicas of invention made by artist Richard Whitten ply a complex territory of anachronisms. The artist’s work harbors a density of detail emblematic of Victorian parlor games. In richly hued, technically accomplished, labyrinth-like paintings and clever, delicate, mechanical 3D constructions, the artist frames his conceptual interests to tease with wonder and create situations of puzzlement. They are on display in a solo exhibition from March 6 through April 12 at Helen Day Art Center.
Whitten draws ideas from his dreams and sticks to the integrity of his creative process as a laboratory of play with toy-like models, which are meant to be fanciful and fun, but are sometimes ominous with Jules Verne-style inflection. Whitten’s models are actually very well engineered in their purposeful functionality. He also enjoys including trickery like trap doors, mazes and the correct lever for that or the wrong knob for something else. He even uses dead ends of inquiry where applicable.
During a recent studio visit, the artist took a moment to sail a small, light, beautifully designed glider from his studio’s second floor balustrade into the room below. The plane grace- fully looped through the air then landed softly in a chair. Whitten spoke later about the trickster in him being related to an “Alice in Wonderland” sense of the absurd. In his work there is a noticeable switch up and down of scale, such as keyholes as apertures, revealing larger spaces and a Kabukiesque, Hello Kitty-inflected cat-and-mouse game crafted as a shadow game precursor to what we now know as animation.
Overall, there is a lot of preamble in Whitten’s approach to painting. The artist keeps journals galore that are packed with details. He creates drawings as visual dialogue, mechanicals and architectural renderings, and he jots down configurations of symbolism and motif. The working method involves mental and technical agility and is basically a thoughtful process to balance and contour his fantasy-based imagery.
His little 3-D models might have moving parts, and certainly all are effectively stunt doubles before becoming relics that are key to certain paintings. They are used by the artist to understand challenges of perspective, light on forms and serve as a kind of fact-checking of the absurd. The technical reasoning behind the miniature models is to employ them as prototypes to concretize imaginings into physical form. They represent literal refinements, which later become reference points when sourcing information.