Opera Gallery is delighted to present the monumental 'The Flesh To The Frame' by David Kim Whittaker. Part one; 'The Primal Vortex Of Us' will be shown at Opera Gallery London closely followed by part two; 'In The Existence' at Opera Gallery Paris.
David Kim Whittaker is one of the most enthralling and intriguing painters of this generation, intuitively perpetuating and reshaping the tradition established by British masters including Francis Bacon, Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland. This exhibition represents the largest body of the artist's work to date made specifically for these major exhibitions.
These complex works often juggle duel states of inner and outer calm and conflict, offering us a glimpse of strength and fragility, peace and discord, the conscious and subconscious, the masculine and the feminine through areas both delicate and intricate, alongside the more physical and often brutal gestural passages of paint. These ubiquitous states of conflict are arguably reinforced by Whittaker’s gender dysphoria and the personal struggle with a condition that Whittaker has learned to live with through his endeavour of expressing something bigger than oneself through painting. The result is a universal human portrait of the 21st Century, one which emphasises the split utopian and dystopian nature of the times that we live in.
How do we experience the world? How do we know what is real? For the French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) the answer was simple: through the mind. He believed that whilst we may be sensory, embodied beings, who can taste, see, smell, touch, hear and feel emotions, the senses can be deceptive. Ultimately, it is only our mind or consciousness that allows us to know that we have a body and is able to ascertain these feelings and judge their veracity. 'I think therefore I am’ became the cornerstone of this Cartesian world in which mind and body are seen as separate, distinct entities inhabiting the same space. But philosophers after Descartes didn’t give up on the body. For phenomenologists such as Maurice MerleauPonty, this dualism is too abrupt. We may think, but our thoughts are shaped by our sensory experience, and to ignore this is to ignore our inescapable embodiment.
David Kim Whittaker’s raw, visceral and yet highly worked paintings take us straight to the heart of these questions of reality, mind, and embodiment. Canvases encrusted with swirling, physical, abstract brush marks are seemingly pierced by moments of clarity: detailed and realistic portraits of people and landscapes, either painted in acrylic used like watercolour, or as photographic collage applied directly onto the panel or canvas. These images are David Kim’s compositional starting point: memories, dreams, moments of natural beauty, or images of human horror. Their sources are newspapers, paintings, and the artist’s own life experiences, stored up, accumulated, overlapping and obscured, like the cuttings, postcards and art prints that cover every surface of the studio.
In the centre of each canvas these portraits of the mind offer a jumbled assortment of thoughts, ideas, daydreams, words and memories, tumbling and falling over each other, merging together to form new realities. Sometimes, contained by a single oval ‘frame’, David Kim recreates a fragment of a landscape painting, a reminder that our image of reality is always constructed and shaped by the mind, which decides what to focus on, what to omit. Sometimes he places a number of these frames together, overlapping so that those at the back only hint at what they hold. In these half-hidden, barely visible spaces we encounter the dimly remembered sensation of a place, clamouring to be recalled but always remaining just out of reach. Within these intricately painted areas, words and forms appear and disappear, some recreated with photographic clarity, others half-obscured as if dragged from the shaded recesses of the subconscious, exposing the illusion that thought is always clear and memory is unsullied, revealing instead their partial, overlapping, interconnected nature.
Surrounding and holding these central areas of detailed watery colour, David Kim applies oil paint with a speed and vitality that can be almost brutal. Thick daubs of mixed colour swirl in shifting clouds to form insubstantial bodies and floating, vaporous landscapes. It is as though the rawness of our senses has been caught with vivid expression; the thick oil providing an abstracted evocation of the body as the site of raw, unfiltered experience: the sensations of touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing evoked in the physicality of the gesture that has drawn the paint loaded brush across the canvas. If David Kim uses watery acrylic to capture the fleeting impressions of the mind as it reaches out to investigate, filter, shape and construct the world, then oil allows him to express the body’s sensory engagement with its surroundings.
Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent masterpiece Metropolis, is also focused on the dualism between mind and body, depicting a two-level city where the intellectual rulers inhabit an idyllic upper realm, whilst the workers toil mindlessly underground. In a final scene, Freder, the son of Fredersen, the intellectual master of the city, holds out his hand to unite his father with Grot, the workers’ foreman. In bringing the two, former opponents, together, Freder’s body forms a cross and a caption appears saying; 'The mediator between head and hands must be the heart.'
The theme of crucifixion also occurs throughout David Kim’s work. Sometimes it is expressed by a crown of thorns, either seen in complete detail, or as just two or three thorns emerging from behind something else, sometimes, the abstracted bodily form itself takes on a cruciform shape. For David Kim, life often feels like a series of daily crucifixions: a balanced struggle between the sometimes harsh realities of physical existence and those more ethereal and metaphysical dimensions that allow us to transcend it. This is reflected in his paintings, where sublime landscapes and bucolic rural idylls merge with exorcisms, soldiers and the victims of warfare and famine. But, like Freder, David Kim unites the worlds of body and mind through the feelings he expresses in his paintings: compassion, care and love caught in luscious colours and heartfelt brushmarks, reminding us that however much we may physically and mentally engage with the world, we must ‘feel’ it emotionally to truly be part of it.
Richard Davey is an internationally published author, curator and member of the International Association of Art Critics. He has written books on Tess Jaray RA and Anthony Whishaw RA. His catalogue essays include Anselm Kiefer (Royal Academy, 2014) and the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 2015, 2016 and 2017. He was a judge of the John Moores Painting Prize 2016.
The head is a portrait in constant flux. I can remember as a child wearing my mother's makeup and glancing into the mirror and seeing a little girl look back. A powerful thing that has stayed with me into adult life; that we don’t have to be what we were born to be. It’s all there in the face. The first thing we make contact with in the street. The head is a flower on a human stem that weathers the world in a field of chaos and chance. To be and to look - to experience. Filling the theatre of the mind, the great picture house of the head. A powerful thing we are. Romanticised and war torn.
My work is deeply affected by ongoing universal events that feed my eye, into my mind, fill up my heart and swill with my blood. Life is complex and its nature elusive. In the studio I am looking for that back yard poem that’s blowing around like a piece of unread waste paper in an empty urban cul-de-sac. I strive to find that moment in a work that hunts out the viewer and freezes them in a pure moment of emotion.
I see things in a primal way, stripping away layers. As a teenager I remember standing with my friends in a grizzly beer-drenched nightclub. My peers were quick to undress the opposite sex with their eyes. For me it was all a muddle, one great herd of movement and of colour, trying to spot the right zebra. What did I know? Some years later I can remember standing at a bus stop. I recall seeing all the people queuing in the early morning frost, and then in my mind's eye, I began to remove the layers covering their forms. I continued to deconstruct. In the mist, their flesh resembled meat hanging in a butcher's freezer. Later that day I made a piece in the studio called Street Meat. It really dawned on me that the flesh, the matter, is a collage of hundreds of rich, beautiful colours and tones. How easily broken that surface can be. The fragility of humanness.
Last summer whilst walking home from the studio I noticed a young woman pedalling her bike through heavy traffic; once again I began to see beneath her outer layer. Internal workings, glistening muscle, lungs pumping, heart beating, blood flowing to the brain; perfect synchronicity. A disturbed but strangely beautiful vision. The realness of living. I watched as she disappeared into the hubbub of pubs, traffic lights and slot arcades. Most recently, at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, I stood by the window in the safety of the terminal watching a large aircraft taxi towards takeoff. As I stared, I began to expose back to the fuselage, I saw the three hundred souls on board, stripped tissue, everything flowing in unison. Life. Of course, these visions are challenging, but it is the way that my mind works at times, and allows me to travel to the core, and capture something of the conflicted fragility and complexity of existence. In some way this is how I find myself in these figure heads that possess my canvases. A construct and deconstruct and reconstruct - an ongoing event.
It takes time to really understand life, but first you must look for it - wherever that journey leads you. I was in my thirties, in the basement of a Brixton fetish club. A young woman hung suspended by hooks attached to her body. Her beautiful flesh pierced and pinned to a fixed point. Violent and inescapable. I remember the palpable reverential silence in that space. Of course we are all metaphorically anchored to a framework of some kind, the preordained that protects and imprisons us. The intimate frame of family, and the wider frame of society. The frame of our window of existence itself. We are transcendental moments of dressed flesh to the altar, for our sins.
Sometimes what passes through the eye, and then sifts and shifts in the mind is scary but just think what else might be going on out there in the great void. Things the human eye will never see and mind could never contemplate. But this is our only home and we should respect that more. You only have to remove a few layers before you find the horrific smiling back at the beautiful.