Washington, DC

Ian Whitmore

G Fine Art

Ian Whitmore paints skillful pastiches of decadent, rococo confections, sprinkling them with gestural abstraction and hints of Koonsian kitsch. His cauldron of references contains essences of, among others, Cecily Brown, Karen Kilimnik, Richard Prince, and Sue Williams, but though Whitmore exploits recognizable images and styles, he also claims to embrace a degree of ambiguity not always associated with the practice, and to want viewers to question both what they see and the sincerity of the artist. Until now, his efforts have been both clever and visually frothy, but have seemed headed toward conceptual lethargy.

Whitmore’s recent exhibition, “Honi soit qui mal y pense” (Old French for “Shame upon him who thinks evil of it,” the motto of England’s elite Most Noble Order of the Garter), extended the artist’s grab-bag aesthetic, but evinced an increased intellectual maturity via works that explore a profundity of content equal to the breadth of their maker’s conceit. The thirteen paintings feel more deliberately composed and more purposeful than the artist’s earlier work, and his choice of palette acts as both buttress and foil to his imagery. Whitmore leverages contemporary events and the argot of hunting to create deft, concise investigations of malevolence, threat, and chaos.

The artist strikes a martial tone in Quest, 2006—a snarling hyena (personifying military aggression?) warns trespassers away from its grim territory, a charred, boggy landscape. Improbably, the animal wears a flowing black cape—but it appears more supervillain than superhero, the bright red glow of its lolling tongue effectively evoking terror. Unmaking, 2007, which portrays a trussed lamb lying on the ground awaiting slaughter, is also primal, but decidedly sentimental. Whitmore makes skillful use of encaustic to suggest the helpless animal’s corporeality, building up the painting’s surface like low-relief sculpture. He juxtaposes the lamb’s curvilinear pose with a square, red-checked tablecloth, a symbol of happy picnic gatherings whose color also portends the animal’s pending exsanguination.

Unharboring, 2007, melds banal patterns, pulp-fiction figuration à la Richard Prince’s “Nurse” paintings, 2000–2003, and abstraction in a tableau that recalls Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible. The painting features three women clad in seventeenth-century Salemwitch-trial garb. Each strikes a pose—one horrified, another accusatory, the last swooning. Thick, dark figure eights and curlicues, implying chaos, obscure portions of the composition. The strategic use of a rose-patterned, faux-wallpaper backdrop—suggesting home and security—and a rosy pink palette blunts the tumult the women personify.

Whitmore is similarly oblique in “The Monomania Portraits,” 2006–2007, whose subjects are George Bush, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice. Inspired by Théodore Géricault’s portraits of the mentally ill, Whitmore captures the banality of evil in images that are deceptively disarming. Rather than sporting the steely, threatening demeanor, say, of Luc Tuymans’s The Secretary of State, 2005, Rice here is depicted as benignly professorial; Rumsfeld sports a happy-go-lucky-smile; and Bush, in a Tom Wolfe–white suit, has the jauntiness of a game show host. There is little indication of their malignant hawkishness.

Whitmore has long demonstrated an engaging sense of the absurd. His new work reveals that he has finally begun to progress from the broadly comedic toward something more pungent and nuanced.

Nord Wennerstrom