The eyes of the “Spell Caster” gaze forth from a countenance at once as ancient as the gnarled forest that surrounds it and as conceptually modern as its nonbinary gender. Bewitching is one word for it, spellbinding another. Much of the portrait’s power comes from its elusive smile: an enigmatic expression, not unlike Mona Lisa’s, that begins in a tragic inner awareness and never quite reaches those shrewd eyes, in which sparkles the blue of the distance that surrounds them like a nimbus. It’s a countenance that, once seen, may be impossible to forget.
Framing this portrait by Sri Whipple are two columns of three-dimensional, asemic writing. — It’s tempting, sometimes irresistibly so, even in the midst of contemplating a compelling portrait, to interrupt it for a brief history lesson: “Asemic” means without semantic content, so, devoid of verbal meaning, and, contrary to expectations, is not a linguistic category, but rather an outgrowth of abstract art that was eventually identified and named near the end of the 20th century. — Abstraction is part of all art, but more openly acknowledged by Whipple. In “Spell Caster,” the shapes of the implied letters suggest an arcane or cabalistic formula as might be glimpsed in an ancient, magical text. By way of comparison, a nearby set of images, titled “Organic Block,” take the asemic principle in two related directions: they are four-sided, elaborately carved pillars, such as characterize Mayan public spaces; but in place of the recombinant human figures of Mayan script that cover those monuments, the script in “Organic Block” appears entirely made up of more visceral shapes colored like so many body parts.
It’s not wrong to say that Whipple’s prolific artworks, 40 of which are included in Subconscious Manifestations, at the Bountiful Davis Art Center, are not always suited to the squeamish. To be fair, though, his control of their emotional affect is as complete as his skill in rendering surfaces, so the overall effect is more often entertaining than unsettling. Some of the influences on his vivid imagery, which include science fiction, fantasy, anime, punk, graffiti, and tattoos, have parallel lives in which they wallow in topics like drugs and violence, but Whipple, a Utah family man with a wife and twin sons, enjoys connecting with a broad, popular audience that shops his digital gallery for prints and original paintings while watching for the album and book covers he designs. Even when he employs symbolic skulls and monstrous creatures, he does so playfully — play that defies the grimness of mortal life and makes living with it a little easier.
Whipple’s community, which to be sure is not the one that dominates Utah institutions, also includes fellow artists who agree with his evident disdain for art that is unambiguously and inseparably yoked to the constant stirring up of contemporary social issues. Ditto art that requires an explanatory text to make its point. Of course there are serious, even grim issues stalking the land, but among art’s traditional purposes has been providing a respite from these issues. Whether art can learn to fix what’s broken is another matter.
Almost a decade ago, in May of 2014, 15 Bytes cited Whipple and some of his colleagues, in an article on the conventionally controversial possibility of collaboration:
This month CUAC opened a show by a collaborative group that operates under the name Oyster Pirates. Artists under that moniker have traveled around the world making art together in pairs, trios, quartets and even what seems like small orchestras. A previous incarnation, consisting of artists from San Francisco, Salt Lake and Berlin, raided the Kayo Gallery in 2009. This year the CUAC exhibit features a band of locals — Sri Whipple, Christian Michael, tikunkit, Michael Page, Martin Stensas, Dan Lloyd, Bradford Overton, Portia Snow, Jason Jones, Steve Larsen, Ben Weimeyer, Carolyn Pryor, and Michael Bernard — thirteen artists wielding a variety of stylistic weaponry. In these heavily-layered paintings you might find abstract textures from one artist, hyper-real figurative elements from another and graffiti or street-inspired techniques from a third.
Almost a decade later, the names of Martin Stensaas, Christian Michael, Tikunkit, and Jason Wheatley can still be found beside Whipple’s at BDAC. Other than that, the description of the art in that final sentence still stands: in it, the visual equivalent of polysemy in language, or polyphony in music, that is individually characteristic of each of these versatile artists, compounds itself to a stunning, if not staggering degree.
The handful of Oyster Pirate paintings in Subconscious Manifestations are numbered rather than titled, perhaps to acknowledge that collaboration is hard enough without trying to agree on what to call it. It’s surprising how many artists, in the privacy of their own workshops, also refer to their works with verbal descriptions. Here at BDAC, “# 2,” which greets visitors entering from Main Street, demonstrates the challenge of even agreeing what’s in it: a horse’s head with a baleful eye? A kissing fish and another covered in fur, with a chicken’s foot for a tail? This kind of attempted analysis isn’t just futile, but demeans the representational magic. Trying to identify and pin down any part of this content ignores its protean power to become something else even before the eye can complete an initial impression. In their static form they achieve dynamic transformations supposedly only animations can pull off: for an example still accessible after more than 50 years, check out the “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” sequence in “Yellow Submarine, ” then compare that to the evocative instability of these paintings wherein not a single brushstroke is definitively assigned to rendering one stable subject. Sri Whipple and his cohort place unlimited imagination at the forefront of their skills, then invite a collaborative audience to join in their game.
Sri Whipple: Subconscious Manifestations, Bountiful Davis Art Center, Bountiful, through Sep. 9