The half-finished construction projects and tumbledown sheds of that crazy neighbor might strike you as an eyesore, but for Seattle artist Whiting Tennis, they are an inspiration. In his current show of drawings, paintings, and sculptures at Greg Kucera Gallery.
Tennis continues his ongoing exploration of the inventive spirit of the backyard Northwest, making high art inspired by lowbrow carpentry. Here with his comments is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
Artists find their inspiration in distinctive ways. What Van Gogh discovered in the Japanese print, or Picasso in the African mask, Whiting Tennis sees in the cobbled-together backyard sheds, chicken coops, and homemade furnishings of the rural Northwest. While Van Gogh’s work drew from the Asian print a sense of bold flat color and strong outline, Picasso’s depictions of human faces displayed a “primitive” flattening and stylization that helped fuel his break with the classical past. In the case of Tennis, it is the awkward inventiveness and humble materials of backwoods contrivances that inform his various creations. His paintings, sculptures, and drawings depict a species of construction that grows by accumulation rather than plan, featuring heavily-grained plywood panels and the occasional blue tarp – the DIY shroud of last resort for the accidental, the unfinished, and the expedient.
Tennis shares with the everyday laborers he admires a passion for the simple act of making stuff, and what’s remarkable about his particular project is the sheer quantity and quality of his production, the rich output of a workshop devoted to expressing the odd and the eccentric in thematically-related but widely divergent forms.
In the current show, Tennis includes works using variously: conte, crayon, pen, charcoal, marker, sandpaper, concrete, plaster, cardboard, plywood, and both oil and acrylic paint – not to mention collage. Pieces on view range in size from tiny doodle-like sketches and miniature models to the centerpiece wood sculpture" Triclops," at 10 feet one of the largest of the artist’s works to date, and one of most abstract – a kind of folksy homage to the pioneer modernist sculptor Brancusi, nicked plywood and all.
More typical is "Mastodon," a large landscape painting hung alongside the sculpture, which features a covered wagon on stilts, stranded in a meadow out in the boonies with a snow-capped mountain range beyond. Nothing about this impressive work is quite what it seems. The deadpan, calendar-art western landscape setting – one is reminded of murals on the side of rural restaurants or panel trucks - is in fact a sophisticated and extremely complex collage created from various bits of paper block-printed and then cut-and-pasted by the artist. The Conestoga wagon, a paint-spattered blue tarp serving as its cloth cover, is also a trick of collage, stitched together from various strips of handmade tarp-print paper and then over-painted with spills and spots. The title adds another layer of complexity, linking the structure with an extinct elephant counterpart, with which it shares qualities of both imposing size and lumbering shape. There is something both amusing and melancholy about this oddball structure, solitary and remote, and the clash of civilizations between epic wilderness and shoddy dwelling is a hoot. Are we going the way of the fossils?
The artist suggests similarly intriguing associations with other slab-based constructions in the show, a motley assortment of sculptures and paintings with titles like "Turkey," "Crow," "Cat," "Knight," "Tractor," "Crab," and "Robot." And just as the natural world employs a huge diversity of structure to fill a variety of requirements, Tennis doesn’t repeat himself; each object has its own inner logic, assembly system, surface texture, and scale. Color –definitely not Tennis’s thing - is employed sparingly, if at all, but Yankee ingenuity is everywhere, used not to get a job done, but to call into question the very nature of our cleverness.
In fact, few of the objects on view have any possible function, whether domestic or otherwise. The grey, arching "Blue Robot," seen in both a drawing and a painting, is a colossus with a complex, wire-tensed structure, but it makes no sense as either a movable or a habitable construction. "Turkey" is a bizarre, multi-chimney monstrosity with no doors or windows that looms above a grey urban landscape; the cast cement "Baby Buggy" is a flattened, cubist fantasy with pointy legs instead of wheels. "Tractor" suggests a stylized, wood-plank poodle holding a barbell, incapable of any real-world movement or activity.
Furthermore, Tennis specializes in skating the abstract/representational divide, riffing off the concept expressed in the famous Morandi quote that “Nothing is more abstract than reality”. His patchwork towers, sheds, and hovels are often just a step from total abstraction, and a good third of the works in the current show simply dispense with the wood grain and chimney thing and stand revealed as cubist-inspired planar collages with just a hint of a creatures or a thing. And that hint is important; the visual fizz goes out of a few works that dispense with real-world associations entirely, like a sketchbook page filled with parallel lines, or a wacky wall construction of blocks and notches that looses that Tennis funk to geometry, and ends up as a mere decorative pattern.
Tennis seems to be engaged in the construction of an alternate universe, one somewhat like our own but seen through a distorting mirror, where the usual relations between flatness and space, form and function, animate and inanimate have become un-moored, mixed-up. What’s more, his creations are tremendously fertile, reproducing themselves as spin-offs, and spin-offs of spin-offs, with no end in sight. For our further edification, Tennis has included in the current show a miniature museum of past, present, and future creations, perhaps my favorite work in the exhibition. Entitled "Brown Shelf," it features 43 tiny, bas-relief brown cardboard models arranged on six tiny cardboard shelves. Close inspection reveals several works in the current show, including "Triclops," "Mastodon," "Cat ," and the cast concrete "Birdbath," One also notes structures that suggest but do not mimic rabbits, birds, poodles, barns, pyramids, Noah’s Ark, and revealingly, a Picasso Bather. Oh, and did I mention logs with chimneys, barns, a chest of drawers, and an amphibious landing craft?
The Picasso reference is key. Armed with a copious visual imagination, as well as the skill to express art-historical and aesthetic smarts through deceptively humble subject matter, Whiting Tennis shares with his erstwhile predecessor an insatiable visual curiosity and the ambition to turn anything and everything into art. It was a strategy that worked alarmingly well for Picasso (with lots of misfires along the way), and also it fits Mr. Tennis like the proverbial glove.