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Untitled Bird 1978. Brett Whitely (oil on board with mixed media) 82 x 85.5 cm

The painting consists of a nest containing an egg down in the left hand corner,
A long necked white bird flies up towards the right. Centrally placed at the top of the painting there is a patch of light and to the right a couple of slanting white lines

Compositionally the painting is anchored by the nest and the egg. (Eggs are a recurring theme in Whiteley’s work.) Most of the objects occur in the bottom third of the canvas with the exception of the escaping bird. Long twig like branches, unmistakably eucalypt, form part of the nest and then continue off the edges of the canvas. This creates a flow from near the top left hand side of the canvas to the bottom right.

Around the nest is the effect of water, of the reflection of things outside the painting and the presence of submerged items within.
A clear influence is traditional Asian painting:

I feel like a white Asian … I wish now that my Dad had given me an Asian brush when I was eight, instead of a European sable. (1)

Whiteley’s relaxed mastery of technique allows him to play with spatial concerns in an almost surrealist way without distorting the decorative beauty of the work.
An important part of the effect of the painting consists of the subversion of the spatial relationships on the canvas which occurs as a result of:

• the disproportion in size between the bird and the nest creating a kinesthetic tension.

• the combined effect of the birds eye view of the nest and egg with the reflective qualities and depth of the water leading to similar visual ambiguity and kinesthetic tension.

• the ambiguity between water and sky. The entire surface of the canvas could be water but there is the disturbing presence of the two white lines at the top right hand side. Meteorites? Or two of those little insects that shoot across the surface of ponds? And is the light at the top of the canvas the sun coming through clouds or its reflection on pond scum? The texture of the paint in the centre of the canvas creates a sense of space that adds to the ambiguity.

These ambiguities, subtle but powerful boundary rattlers provoke a surrender to the painting independent of external reference. This immersion in the experience for its own sake, enables a powerful experience of transcendence in the viewer.

My first experience of such art-mediated transcendence was at an exhibition of Whiteley’s paintings, some years ago at an NGV exhibition. It was the first time I ever got up close and personal with a Whiteley.

I started off admiring his skill as a draftsman in the small early works, and, being a bit of a conservative as far as art is concerned, found myself both impressed and relieved to discover that he was a seriously accomplished draftsman.

And then the explosion.

Everything stopped.

No gallery, no crowd, and above all no me.

Only Beach. Sun saturated beachfullness. This.

I can’t identify exactly which of Whitely’s works it was that produced this powerful effect,  It may even have been quite different from the image I retain in my mind’s eye, but I will never forget the flavour of it.

(1) Art History: http://www.unc.edu/depts/wcweb/handouts/arthistory.html
Brett Whitely: Art and Life: The Art Gallery of New South Wales (new Edition) Thames and Hudson 2004