Upon first encounter, staring into the face of Jennifer Whitten’s Rosemary, Pansies, Fennel, Columbines, Rue, Daisy and Violets (2015), one can begin to imagine that although you are peering into one likeness of Ophelia you may also be gazing into the face of a thousand Ophelias, throughout time, existing as a singularly interwoven point. The image of Ophelia has been portrayed within art and literature since her inception; a representation of ethereal female beauty floating in her watery grave, ostensibly asleep or floating passively. Never do we encounter traces of the madness brought about by her grievous end, nor the truer image of a water bloated corpse. She is illustrated as a figure of virtue and classic beauty, tragic but lovely; most famously Millais’ depiction of Ophelia in 1852 is a good example of this.
In viewing Whitten’s Ophelia however, a difference may be perceived. There still exists a presence of feminine beauty but the artist’s intention in the use of negative space within the image captures another mood entirely. The figure’s body, partially obscured or perhaps erased by empty space serves to highlight what is visually available but also creates a focus on the transparent nature of the painting’s surface and the encroaching presence of the surrounding empty space. The figure may or may not be entirely with the observer, she exists within the space but not absolutely.
Whitten in this instance has placed herself into the role of Ophelia as a self portrait, channelling the essence of the character through a shared sense of loss and grief brought about by the circumstances she has been dealt. To encounter the work the observer must enter into the space of the work, confrontingly so. This creates more than just a visual encounter, it is an experiential immersion and the observer must immerse themselves within the work in order to be fully present. Ophelia hangs, suspended from the ceiling on clear Perspex sheet and is supported by a steel framework that requires the observer to physically engage with the work by demanding one to look up. Whitten began painting using this method of reverse glass after observing works whilst in Italy. Having previously explored themes dealing with absence and negative space through the usage of bold block colour, by painting directly onto Perspex Whitten found a more succinct and seamless method in which to expand upon and evolve her examination into negative space.
In conversation with Whitten she observed the longer she “lingered with this project, that there are a lot of dichotomies”, surrounding the interpretation of the work. Whitten herself spoke about the dual nature existing within the reverse glass paintings which are fastidiously polished and smooth on one side and on the back more tumultuous in nature; the brush strokes are highly visible in the layers of paint counteracting the hyperrealist quality that is so apparent within the front of the image. This is easier to view in relation to the other work featured in this exhibition, also a reverse glass painting, entitled Event Horizon (2015), which depicts the image of a woman eternally facing away from the observer from whichever angle the work is beheld from.
Within the exhibition space of the Nicholas Projects, all works are lit by low, sombre lighting and accompanied by a cello concerto, Fermata Suite-In Four Movements. Fermata is a four part-movement of music created by a text to music composition generator; a system that assigns letters of the alphabet to notes on a scale. The music generated by this program is a discordant and quietly disturbing experience, performed on a continuous loop by a cellist who was present for the opening event and afterwards by a recording for the duration of the exhibition. It was not until I had spent some time listening and later in conversation with Whitten that I learned of the narrative behind these sombre and fractured tones.
The music is generated from the text of four police reports that document the witnessed suicide of her stepfather, which occurred when Whitten was 18. It is the contemplation of this event and an ongoing interest in the permanence of particular moments in time that eventually led to the conceptual origin of Fermata; the consideration of sound as a physical entity, permeating from a singular event and continuing to exist after the event has occurred.
“I knew that when he committed suicide there would have been a sound, because it was a gunshot. So it would have been a singular instantaneous moment… I think that it goes back to the idea of time, we understand it as something fluid, fragile or instantaneous but if you look at it the other way, as a singular moment it can continue to reverberate (Whitten, 2015)”.
Within the relationship of Fermata and Rosemary, Pansies, Fennel, Columbines, Rue, Daisy and Violets, an undisclosed but established narrative is continuously retold. It is much like the unfolding of a scene within a play, the cellist plays the verbally silent but strangely harmonious character who accompanies the unmoving and unearthly presence of Ophelia. There is no introduction to the story nor is there a resolving conclusion. The observer leaves with the melancholic and unsettled feeling that descends from the first encounter. And perhaps this is part of the artist’s intention, to subject the observer to this experience. This intention stems from the artist’s own experience of the events in which led to the central ideas of the work; a feeling of being subjected to an experience without choice. The observer is then confronted with a layered web of experience that encapsulates both the artist’s narrative and then how the observer chooses to interpret what they encounter. The work becomes more than a two dimensional painting, and begins to explore a more fourth dimensional space through music, performance and shared experience.
Freÿa Black, 2016
- John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851- 1852, oil on canvas.
- Jennifer Whitten, Event Horizon, 2015, oil on perspex, steel.
- Jennifer Whitten, Rosemary, Pansies, Fennel, Columbines, Rue, Daisy and Violets, 2015, oil on perspex, steel.