Mark Whalen’s Sympathetic Magic
Disbelief – geared as it is toward underwriting circumstantially survivable outcomes, or hedging success – is humankind’s homeostatic default. Conversely, the suspension of disbelief is art’s ur-function – and thus an arguably dangerous proposition.
However, imagined danger may be imaginatively leveraged. Or good fortune summoned, via painted, or dimensionally fashioned, likenesses, employed in the service of so-called sympathetic magic: as in like-cures-like, like-attracts-like, or like-causes-like, respectively. Think, variously: Voodoo doll, Hermetic medicine, or the prosecutorial pictograms of Altamira. Think also: analogue, doppelganger, counterpart, complement, and simulacra.
Creation of private, governable, worlds (let’s think of such images as hermetic simulacra) is a child’s A4-and-crayon pastime – a divinely administrable amusement, carried forward into adolescence – and on, into the extended adolescence of a visual arts vocation. Such activities – participated in or admired from afar – vaccinate our imaginations against the shifting dangers of what is an essentially ungovernable world.
The architectonic, ‘insides’ of Mark Whalen’s private, adolescently flavored worlds owe as much (formally) to the proto-abstract ‘shadow-boxes’ of Giotto, or the shallow, tessellated, interiors of Persian miniatures, as they do to the monstrously incremental, ‘outsider’ architecture of Jess Johnson. Whalen’s airless, sunless social arenas, populated with bloodless, attenuated homunculi – generic, everyman, stand-ins – have as much in common with the flattened and tilted pictorial spaces of Bruegel as with the monstrously activated psychological zones of the Hairy Who.
Whalen’s worlds exist in a sort of alternate art-historical universe; a kind of parallel world where the muscularly thrusting theatrics of Baroque painting has yet to breach painting’s viewer-excluding, pictorial, fourth wall. Where all ruction is safely ensconced in a depictive bell jar.
Inside Whalen’s bell-jar microcosms, Lilliputian-scaled performers (figures with art-historical bloodlines flowing, uninterruptedly, from the animated extras of William N. Copley, Jim Nutt, Keith Haring and Laylah Ali) variously: fuck, contest sportively, cryptically game, assemble into enigmatically synchronised theatrical aggregates, and, at times, signal (unintelligibly) re success, failure and (perhaps) rank order, by means of wholly indecipherable semaphoric sign-boards.These obsessively ordered, and synthetically hued, ‘pleasure domes’ often feature geometrically fanciful arenas and vertiginous viewing stands – with floor-participants and arrayed galleries of observers, collectively engaged in activities that, more often than not, resist interpretation.
Although fascinated by artfully strategised confoundment, the viewer, finds themselves spatially and intellectually barred from any real, sensible, participation in Whalen’s tableaux vivants … discovering they are reduced to the role of puzzled eye; fascinated voyeur. The circular format, or oculus, of Whalen’s paintings further abet the eye’s subordinate status, by suggesting peep-holes, snow-globes, and folk-assemblages-in-a-bottle.
The best one can hope for, in terms of the pictures’ potential reading – as defeated analytical eyes flick from image to image – is a provisional equation of some sort. Or, perhaps, wistful entertainment of flickering hope – hope of acquiring, in time, a Whalen-specific sophistication about the images’ collective goings on. Incrementally, one might puzzle together a sort of map-key – a key that might unlock the collective works’ queerly impenetrable narrative. The key does not materialize. Or, as Robert Frost would have it – “We dance round in a ring and suppose but the Secret sits in the middle and knows.”
I would go so far as to submit that Whalen’s madcap (crazy like a fox) images calculatedly leave false spoor – the artist’s multiplicity of scent-trails leading, finally, to a covert burial – to the irreverent burial of literal understanding beneath an ever-mounting midden of allegorical promise. What remains, after all our supposing: an object-attending heap of discarded, mis-directional possibility, hinting at unknown (or unknowable) civilisations that never were nor ever will be.
After all is said and done we are returned to our inescapably existential baseline – which is disbelief. And, if we are canny, and cease our chronic insistence on literal, comforting, meaning we just may find some joy, some release, in employing disbelief as a trusted and familiar point of departure. And from the familiar we may then confidently head off into our own imaginary unknown. Left to our own fanciful devices we may then underwrite (and re-write at will) scripts and stage direction for Whalen’s figurative melees and choreographed absurdities … employing our own associative meaning. This course of action being one of the few circumstantially (and ideationally) survivable outcomes worth entertaining, in the first place.
Essay by Roger Boyce
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