Ian Whittlesea - The Austrian Cultural Institute, London

Untitled Magazine - Issue 24, Spring 2001


'1, 2, 3, four, five, six, seven, eight... white characters on a dark background.' The description is of On Kawara's date paintings, but could equally refer to Ian Whittlesea's Studio Painting - James Joyce. The work consists of five identically-sized dark grey canvases. On these are listed, in uniform white text, the known addresses of James Joyce. This set forms part of a series which, in the same impersonal manner, list the studio addresses of other influential cultural figures, including Marcel Duchamp, Donald Judd, Piet Mondrian, and Mark Rothko. Studio Painting - James Joyce took Ian Whittlesea three years to complete, which gives some indication of the exactitude with which each character is painted.

Initially, it seems curious that Whittlesea should apply the term 'painting' to these projects, as his medium is restricted through a concentration on precise and predetermined detail to an austere, almost mechanical, functionality. The suppression of gestural 'expression' is of course nothing new, but while the likes of Donald Judd achieved a transition from the rarefied to the quotidian by delegating the fabrication of their work to industrial professionals, Whittlesea adopts a deliberately inefficient, anachronistic methodology. In any other field than art, to drag out the production of something that could be produced in a day over three years would be considered at best uneconomic, at worst stupid.

In total, the five canvases list thirty-five addresses, which seems a lot until you learn some biographical details about their subject. The accumulation of debts incurred in attempting to pay for his daughters' treatment for schizophrenia joined with a more nebulous wanderlust to keep Joyce continually on the move. These details are interesting but ultimately irrelevant to work whose visual style implies an ambivalence towards the particularities of individual lives. The difference between one address and thirty-five is that thirty-five addresses require five canvases; otherwise the parameters remain exactly the same.

The unsettled nature of Joyce's life is mirrored by this works' installation. Austria's current political situation makes the Cultural Institute a sensitive venue, and the work appears displaced, as if it was blindly parachuted in, indifferent to political context. To emphasise this, the work is hung on a purpose-built, long, straight wall which jars with the Institute's angular interior, allowing the work to retain a measure of physical and metaphorical autonomy from its surroundings. If Studio Painting - James Joyce is related to the Institute at all, then it is more with a general idea of what a cultural institute might represent. Similarly, the addresses, while wholly semantic and thus politically disinterested, act as ambassadors for other locations.

What is consistent in the Studio Paintings, aside from formal execution and their subjects' cultural position, is that all the figures named are dead. Jeff Wall once suggested that Joseph Kosuth's work adopted a 'mausoleum aesthetic' characteristic of Minimalism, arguing that while Kosuth was nostalgic for a politicised art, he also understood that social issues were now deemed approachable only through irony. The sense of inertia, regret, and alienation found in Kosuth's work is also present in the funereal subject and execution of Studio Painting - James Joyce. However, whilst Whittlesea engages with similarly reductive strategies and deliberately affects the aesthetics of industrial production, he is also unwilling to abandon fully the physical, human craft of painting. In this way, Studio Painting - James Joyce remains unburdened by the guilt of its own political passivity.

 

Mark Dickenson