Whiting Tennis

Traver Sutton Gallery

Whiting Tennis wants to know how culture operates. In this, his second major series of work, he looks to the fickle world of fashion for clues. His surface is wood, his media are oil and woodblock print. The oils transcribe images of models’ faces and bodies from Vogue and Mademoiselle directly onto the wood; counterimages of schematic female forms and other shapes are gouged into the wood. Two pictured ideas are thus combined into one unassimilated whole. Tattooed into the smart dress of a walking woman is a torso outline, filled with gold leaf (Ritual Vessel, 1988); a bunched skeleton gravens the stylish jacket of a turning woman (Untitled, 1988); a red gown asserts itself before an etched body, fading into the wallpaper (Easter Dress, 1988). The eternal female of the fashion world is recognized as an empty center, a fixture, contrived to mean nothing.

The superimposition, for Tennis, is a way of completing the conventional picture, to show what “the pose”—the template of fashion—freezes out. The artist uncovers reification, death, and emblematic instability from within the slick coolness of the fashion photograph. What’s important is that this coolness has a privileged counterpart within the larger culture. American media tends to neutralize powerful and purposive emotions, sublimating them into gleaming objects with a highly polished veneer. Culturally, even the shallow ironies found in Pop mimicry and applied to Simulationism’s commodious figment do little to contradict this; they are themselves part of this coolness.

Tennis finds a dearth of passion underlying the operations of cosmopolitan mass culture. What’s unfortunate is that his gouged-in underlayer, as a formal device, merely indicates—but never realizes—this thwarted or absent passion. His raspy critique is but a problematical substitute for it.

The wall-high woodblock prints have a separate agenda. Superimposition is tussled with until it works formally. Sixteen wood panels are painted and covered with collage, then printed over in black. The central image—the photograph of a face from Elle—is surrounded by a texture of feathers. In one piece (Wall Flower, 1988) the visage, shown behind the outline of a folded body, appears to fade into the white wallpaper. The studied image loosens and begins to seem more wistful and naturalized. This weak figure on a strong ground flattens the whole onto a single plane. In Icon, 1988, a superimposed gold-leaf torso and an outlined grid of panels snares the central face within print-flatness. An agitated colloquy ensues upon this “conceptual surface.” With the figure-ground relationship derailed, the connection between a culture and its imagery is called into question. This kind of inter-iconographic dialogue opens up a distancing from the conventions that media-screens help to create.

Jae Carlsson