Happy Happy Joy: The Sculptures of Trent Whitehead
From murals and statues
we get a glimpse of what
the Old Ones bowed down to,
but cannot conceit
in what situations they blushed
or shrugged their shoulders.
Poets have learned us their myths,
but just how did They take them?
That’s a stumper.
There is a reason why the ancient world still compels and intrigue makers of all kinds from poets to potters.
In particular the objects of these worlds – from the monumental to the ephemeral from humble detritus to the sacred– carry a tactile resonance into the present that artists find endlessly compelling. Like Auden we wish to project ourselves onto this flotsam and jetsam of the past, Were these people just like us? What drove them to make? What problems where they wishing to solve and stories they needed to tell?
You can see something of this in the work of Trent Whitehead. His laminated wooden sculptures are not unlike that ancient archetype Greek pottery.Formally Greek pottery is easily dis-assembled into bodily parts – the foot, the body the shoulder, the lip. Even the handles are stand-ins resembling hands on hips. Whitehead builds upon this through his work. They have the same fragmentary bodily cluster of parts, but are much more portrait like. They deny function and are sculptural in intent.
They come through a visual filter, which is much more horizontal than chronological or hierachical, signifying what it is to live now. Alongisde the ancient world they have an optical quality that seems to take something from animation, think Adventure Time or Winsor McCay, but most notably the eye popping surrealist world of Ren and Stimpy. What makes Ren and Stimpy so good, and so timeless, is its reliance on the tropes of the past – animations own history; to make something completely fresh and new but resolutely handmade (which is also a hall mark of Adventure Time).
Whiteheads sculpture riff off of this. They to have a tactile presence that is heightened by their material associations made from laminated ply, refined but still maintaining its humble connections to the world of function. The perfect medium to make the flattened world of the cartoon exist in three dimensions – sausage-like, extruded, amoebic.
His heads teeter on a precipice, where Auden, Ren and Stimpy and Greek Antiquities fit together logically. They look backwards into the void of history before crawling towards the future.
No wonder they feel a little bug eyed.
I think of Trent Whitehead’s paintings and sculptures in this show as totems. There is definitely image magic in them and they appear more like effigies than art. They have the intensity of outsider art with rhythmic obsessive marks and strange morphing characteristics.
The sculptures particularly — part vase, part mask — feel like votive artefacts of a church, but not a church of organised religion. This is the new spirituality uncoupled from social construction and centred more on a direct relationship between you and your own mystical feelings.
The portraits and sculptures in this show become a friend or fellow traveller. They are like slightly skewwhiff clowns that no doubt whisper truths into your ear or on a bad day perhaps needle your anxieties.
There is great beauty here that seems to add to the fetishistic power of the works. The colours are primarily subdued with bright coloured accents activating the images. The gouache and acrylic too is dry and tactile, eliciting touch. These are works that want to be cuddled or at least cared for. As if in this very cold winter of Sydney we should wrap blankets around them to keep them warm.
You could of course kill all this voodoo-like power and link them to a long line of naïve or art brut painters and sculptors, to outsider art and the way that modernist art mined various forms of strange and outré work (from children to the mad). But under the particular psychic pressure of the contemporary world you will forgive me for seeing more than the aesthetic tradition wants to offer.
These works instead promise more than art. They are your friend and perhaps even protector. At the very least they are the perfect house god for urban tribes.